Stymied by disagreements, legislators delay vote on property tax reform until June

Article Courtesy of The Sun Sentinel

By Mark Hollis and Anthony Man
Published May 3, 2007


Tallahassee After nearly nine weeks of debate on property taxes, House and Senate leaders threw in the towel Wednesday but agreed to try again in June to craft a plan for cutting taxes on Floridians' homes and businesses.

The decision to call a 10-day special session on property taxes, to start June 12, meant Floridians who have been repeatedly assured by Gov. Charlie Crist that home-ownership costs will "drop like a rock" now have less of a chance of seeing relief this year.

Democratic and Republican legislators, as well as Crist, expressed hope a compromise can still be found. But some legislators expected constituents to be angry that the Legislature failed in the priority task it set itself at its regular yearly session, which ends Friday.

"People are going to be very upset," said Sen. Alex Villalobos, R-Miami. "Expectations were raised really high, and the people back home expected us to come up here and get the job done. And it looks like we're not."

It will be the second time this year that Florida's legislators have met in emergency session to tackle the rising costs of home ownership, which have caused some families to leave Florida. In January, the Legislature convened to address skyrocketing property insurance costs, which still haven't been tamed.

House Speaker Marco Rubio, the West Miami Republican who may have the most on the line politically in the tax debate, portrayed the stalemate in optimistic tones, saying he thinks that the last few days of behind-the-scenes negotiations brought warring sides "closer than ever."

But just how a final tax-cut agreement will shape up, which groups will benefit the most and how severely local-government spending plans will be affected remains about as muddy as it did before the session started.

For local government officials in South Florida, the decision to postpone tax-cut action with a six-week cooling-off period complicates summer budget-writing dilemmas.

City and county governments use property tax revenues to pay for their services. Those governments' annual spending plans are reset every October. But property tax notices to the public are published in August, and there's little wiggle room in the schedule to figure out how much money will be available for local governments.

In Palm Beach County, Administrator Bob Weisman said his staff will proceed with two budgets -- one that assumes current-level revenues and another that assumes cuts.

Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jim Naugle said it will be crucial to have answers from Tallahassee by July. The legislative stalemate, he said, "compresses" the schedule of setting local tax rates and making spending decisions.

Despite such worries, Senate President Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, and his key negotiators gave no indications of giving ground on their fierce insistence on tax cuts that would have only a modest and gradual impact on local governments.

Pruitt said that when lawmakers reconvene in special session, legislative leaders and Crist will likely have reached a tentative accord that will provide a "great launching point" for a final deal. He said he was unwilling to see the Legislature foul up the tax system by rushing out a plan prematurely.

"You just have that moment where you just know that you just can't get there," Pruitt said of his decision to call Rubio on Wednesday morning, asking him to agree to postpone talks until a special session.

Senators' counterparts in the House, however, were more optimistic.

Rubio, who championed the radical revamping of Florida's tax structure, including a controversial plan to swap property tax cuts for a sales tax increase, told reporters the general concepts of a new potential House-Senate agreement would be presented publicly in the next few days.

What's already clear, though, is that some of the political luster Crist has enjoyed since taking office is marred.

Despite a huge public appetite for lower taxes, the popular Republican governor was unable or unwilling to coax warring sides in the Republican-led Legislature to find consensus. Though he campaigned last fall on reducing property taxes and lowering home insurance costs, Crist was sluggish to get involved in the nitty-gritty of property taxes -- a debate that pits some Floridians, such as renters and snowbirds, against others, like longtime homeowners.

It wasn't until last week, when it had become apparent to even political neophytes in Tallahassee that the tax talks had faltered and the House and Senate were at loggerheads, that Crist announced a plan of his own. And even that plan provided only a rough sketch of what tax-cut concepts he liked and how he imagined lawmakers could bridge their divide.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Crist, a former state senator, declined to accept any blame for negotiations breaking down in the Capitol, saying that the complexities of the issue are at fault.

"This is not simple stuff," said Crist. "This is complicated stuff."