Florida House, Senate property tax talks disintegrate into rancor

Article Courtesy of The Sun Sentinel

By Mark Hollis
Published  April 25, 2007


Tallahassee -- How fast and how much taxes on Floridians' homes and businesses will diminish has become a murky point in the Legislature.

Property tax negotiations between the House and Senate have turned rancorous even as Gov. Charlie Crist jetted around the state Tuesday to test the public's interest in seeing a tax-cut deal reached within the next 10 days.

In Tallahassee, as 127 major South Florida homebuilders held a rally near the Capitol in a push for urgent relief, legislators failed to reach quick consensus.

On their second day of serious negotiations, the two warring sides dug in their heels and bitterly and openly griped about one another's tax-cut ideas.

It wasn't the kind of political action that homebuilders had hoped to see.

"We're here for property tax reform," said Silvio Cardoso, president-elect of the Builders Association of South Florida and president of United Homes International, one of the largest homebuilders in Broward County. "The majority of the people in Broward County ... can't afford to buy homes."

The homebuilders' rally occurred just as senators called on House members to back off their controversial plan to eliminate all property taxes in exchange for a sales tax increase -- a point that House Republicans gave no indications of conceding.

Causing much of the legislative rancor, the House proposal involves a constitutional amendment to eliminate property taxes on all homesteads in exchange for increasing the 6-cents-on-the-dollar state sales tax by 2.5 cents. The amendment would require the approval of voters.

Senate Majority Leader Dan Webster, R-Winter Garden, declared the House plan a waste of time because it will never be approved. "I am 100-percent sure it [the House plan] would be very difficult to pass ... impossible to pass," Webster told negotiators.

Webster and Sen. Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, the Senate's lead negotiator, said senators are willing to compromise on how far to roll back taxes, even to levels collected in the 1980s. They also said they are willing to consider other ideas so long as the relief affects a wide array of Floridians and is implemented by November, before the next elections.

At present, the House plan would reduce tax rates to 2000-01 levels, with a provision to allow tax increases tied to future growth. The Senate had sought to roll back those tax rates to 2005 levels.

When Tuesday's negotiations finished, senators had adjusted their rollback and cap. They also said they would include in the rollbacks all special taxing districts, such as water management districts and hospital districts. Previously, only cities and counties were to be affected by the Senate's rollbacks.

Those and other revisions, senators said, would yield an overall $15.3 billion tax cut over the next five years, up from $12.3 billion. By comparison, the House plan slices at least $41 billion over five years.

House Republicans ended conference talks in a huff, saying they are sticking to their commitments of delivering a set amount of relief to key groups, including at least $1,200 for the average homesteaded property owner.

Crist this week has been briefed on various proposals to help the Legislature reach a compromise. New briefing papers for the governor that were provided to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel on Tuesday show that tax-cut ideas being considered by the governor's advisers essentially merge House and Senate proposals already on the negotiating table with concepts Crist touted during his campaign.

Legislators, however, were wary of Crist's intervention.

"If I was the governor, I would stay away from this squabble," said Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach. "The truth is, these guys [House and Senate Republican leaders] are so far apart that they're going to have to first agree that they are intent on solving [property tax woes] rather than just alienating each other. Right now, the governor couldn't help us one scintilla."