Florida Senate, House head for tax showdown ... maybe

Deadline nearing to get a final plan on January ballot

Article Courtesy of The Sun Sentinel

By Josh Hafenbrack

Published October 23, 2007


Tallahassee - Facing deadline pressure, the Florida House passed a reworked property tax-cut plan with overwhelming bipartisan support on Monday, setting up a showdown of dueling multibillion dollar tax-cut packages from the Legislature's two chambers.

The House's $11 billion package spreads some of the benefits to non-homestead property owners, who got clobbered by the run-up in real estate values, and ties a new homestead exemption to home values in each county, a move in part designed to provide bigger breaks to affluent areas such as South Florida.

"Of all the bills we've considered, this is the one that has something for everybody," said House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-West Miami. "It targets the relief to people who need it the most." The House's 108-2 vote moves the negotiations into a new phase: Behind-the-scenes talks between a few top lawmakers in the House and Senate, with a looming Monday deadline to agree on a tax-cut solution. The issue's fate is far from clear. As the House approved its plan, state senators were conspicuously absent from the Capitol.

Having passed a very different plan last week, senators are due back in Tallahassee on Thursday at the earliest, if at all, with the Senate showing little appetite to consider major changes made by the House to a compromise worked out weeks ago.

"We do not know at this time whether you will need to return to Tallahassee," Senate President Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, said in a letter to state senators. It's an indication that if the House and Senate can't reach a quick compromise, they might give up all together on drawing up a new property tax plan.

The House won't reconvene until Thursday, leaving little time to turn the competing proposals into a consensus package that could gain support from the three-fourths majority in the Legislature needed to make it on the Jan. 29 ballot.

Legislators are meeting in emergency session their fourth special session of the year after a Tallahassee-area judge threw out a previous property tax amendment on the grounds that it was misleading and confusing.

The House's version of tax cuts makes all permanent homeowners eligible for a new homestead exemption equal to 40 percent of the median home value in the county. This would be a $100,000-plus exemption in Broward and Palm Beach counties, on top of the long-standing $25,000 homestead exemption.

Homeowners also would be able to transfer their tax savings when they move, a measure called portability.

For businesses, landlords and snowbirds, the House bill places a first-ever 5 percent a year assessment cap on their property values, in what supporters described as an historic attempt to iron out inequities caused by the 1992 Save Our Homes amendment.

A key to winning Democratic votes: Most of the plan's provisions exempt public education from cuts. As a result, schools are projected to lose $1 billion over four years under the House plan less than the Senate's $1.5 billion hit.

"This is the proudest day that I've had in the Florida Legislature since I've been elected," said Rep. Marty Kair, D-Davie. "We've crafted a plan together that gives the people of Florida real, meaningful and deep property tax relief. And we've done it in a way that provides minimal hits to our public education system."

House members quickly moved to promote their tax-cut bill (SJR2D) as a superior alternative to the Senate's version, pointing to the broad bipartisan appeal as proof.

"We put it through a pretty rigorous test here in the House," Rubio said. "This is as tough a test as you'll find in politics. This is a chamber where every imaginable constituency in Florida is represented. And it passed, and it passed overwhelmingly."

Now, the question becomes: Will the Senate budge from its position?

Last week, the Senate stayed true to a deal hatched between Gov. Charlie Crist and legislative leaders before the tax-cut session started Oct. 12. The Senate's $9.7 billion plan doubles the $25,000 homestead exemption on everything but school taxes, gives homeowners portability and provides a 25 percent discount for first-time home buyers.

Unbowed by the differences between the two chambers, Crist held a news conference Monday to express his optimism that a deal would be struck.

"I think we're at a pretty good place," he said. "I think there are some very, very good discussions going on, which is good for the people."