Tax plan needs time

Legislators said they needed more time to review their ever-complicated property tax cut plan, but they pushed ahead with an earlier primary date.

Article Courtesy of The Miami Herald

Published June 5, 2007


They chose Jan. 29, the same day as the Florida presidential primary.

And in a sign that a special legislative committee has made little progress, lawmakers also decided they must meet one last time -- on Monday -- before they begin the June 12-22 special session on property taxes.

At the newly called meeting, they will finally have the one thing sought by many legislators, citizens and the dozens of city and county officials who trekked to Tallahassee: numbers on the cost of rolling back taxes and super-sizing homestead tax exemptions.

''If we can't get agreement on numbers, it will be difficult to have a session,'' said Sen. Dan Webster, the Republican leader from Winter Garden and the Senate's top negotiator.

But producing numbers as early as next week could prove counterproductive because of a new snag encountered by legislators -- an emerging concern that replacing the existing homestead exemption with a super-sized one could run afoul of the U.S. Constitution.

''We don't want to put something up that a federal judge will strike down'' as unconstitutional, House Speaker Marco Rubio said. ``We don't want to put things out there that we would either have to retreat from or admit we were wrong about it, because it just confuses people even worse than they are right now.''


Webster's call for property tax numbers puts added pressure on Rubio and Senate President Ken Pruitt of Port St. Lucie to finalize a deal by the end of the week.

The push for another meeting was also welcomed by a number of legislators, particularly Democrats. They had groused that, for the second time in as many meetings, legislators flocked to Tallahassee for a humdrum meeting centered around an hourlong staff PowerPoint presentation on data they already knew and that rehashed details of agreements already reached.

Rubio and Pruitt announced last week that they had agreed to reduced homeowner taxes by instituting super-exemptions that keep a large portion of a home's value off the tax rolls. They have promised to decide later this week on amounts for this plan, which would need 60 percent voter approval to phase out the state's Save Our Homes tax cap -- the root of Florida's dysfunctional tax system.

The two also agreed to roll back property taxes for one year, basing the calculations on an average of five years of tax collections and population growth for each of Florida's 67 counties and 412 cities.

The rollback, which doesn't need voter approval, basically would force the biggest tax cuts on the areas that have seen the biggest tax increases over the past few years. The plan essentially resets tax rates and collections to what legislators believe should have been levied during the real estate boom years that caused tax assessments to spike. It also caps future tax assessments for everybody.

Rep. Dean Cannon, a Winter Garden Republican and chairman of the Joint Select Committee on Property Tax Relief and Reform, said the solution will provide ''targeted relief'' to homeowners, commercial property owners and owners of second homes that are not homesteaded.


Sending the super-exemption plan to voters on Jan. 29 gives legislators two benefits:

It could lead to a higher turnout of both voters and candidates in Florida's new early primary, designed to give the state more say in the early presidential process, and it buys them time to get the proper policy in play for a plan that seems to become more complicated by the day.

Legislative leaders said they want homeowners to have the option of choosing the new super-exemption system or keeping their tax benefits under the Save Our Homes tax cap, which limits property assessment increases to a maximum of 3 percent yearly. But, in a break with what they have said in the past, they now say they fear that two tax-cap systems could violate the U.S. Constitution because it would create two types of homeowners: new ones who have less of a benefit than old ones.

House Democratic Leader Dan Gelber of Miami Beach fretted that homeowners might reject the plan if it doesn't give them as rich a tax benefit as they are used to getting under the Save Our Homes provisions of the state Constitution.

Lawmakers need a three-fourths vote in each chamber to set the special election. Failing the three-fourths vote, they would likely put the measure on the Nov. 8, 2008, general election ballot when voters go to the polls to choose a new president.

Gelber's counterpart in the Senate, Steve Geller of Cooper City, was concerned that the House and Senate seem ''miles apart,'' because Rubio appears to want a steep tax cut that would cripple local governments.

''I don't see how we bring this in for a landing,'' Geller said. ``Right now, I still don't see how we end up where we want to be.''

But there is agreement on a broad array of issues. Among them: exempting all businesses from paying taxes on the first $25,000 assessed on computers, desks and other ''tangible personal property,'' for a savings of $223 million statewide.

Other proposals include tailoring tax cuts to affordable-housing owners, poor seniors and marinas to keep Florida's ''working waterfronts'' from becoming condos.

Gov. Charlie Crist briefly appeared at the meeting. He said that on a recent Middle East trip, he met an Ormond Beach couple in Petra, Jordan, who wanted to talk about property taxes.

''The message is clear. They want their taxes to go down,'' he said.