Senate leaders are working to keep affordable housing and land conservation trust funds at current spending levels.
By JONI JAMES
Published March 9, 2004
TALLAHASSEE - Florida's top Senate leaders are quietly proposing to reduce the state's future commitment to affordable housing and land conservation programs, a year after staving off House efforts to do away with guaranteed funding for the programs.
The plan by Sen. Tom Lee, the Brandon Republican in line to be Senate president in the fall, comes on the heels of Gov. Jeb Bush's threat last month to veto legislation that would reauthorize the guaranteed funding for affordable housing programs.
Lee's bill (SB 2514) would rewrite state law to cap the affordable housing and land conservation programs at current spending levels. Lee said Monday it's the first step in what he hopes will be a grander plan "to deal with, in a small way, the budget dilemmas this and future Legislatures will face."
State law mandates that 37 percent of all real estate transaction taxes, called documentary stamps, be set aside into trust funds for the programs. That commitment has skyrocketed in the past decade as documentary stamp collections, fueled by the refinancing boom and rising property values, have increased more than 200 percent. By comparison, proceeds from the state sale tax has grown about 60 percent in the same period.
"Hopefully the housing folks will look at this as the glass is half full," said Senate Budget Chairman Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, who is backing Lee's plans. "The (affordable housing) trust fund doesn't go away, and they are guaranteed a steady, consistent source of income," he said.
But the plan, which has yet to be aired publicly, surprised environmentalists and housing advocates, who have long counted on the Senate to protect the money.
Raiding trust funds for millions of dollars for general state operations has become common in the past two years. But Lee's plan would mark a fundamental rewrite of how money flows to state programs.
Lee's plans would affect nearly a dozen environmental trust funds that finance land management and buying as well as aquatic plant control and water testing.
"It's just bad fiscal policy to just cap all funds at the same level without examining one by one whether that's appropriate," said Eric Draper, lobbyist for Audubon of Florida. "It would be a very, very sad thing for the state's public lands."
Douglas Buck, lobbyist for the Florida Homebuilders Association, said his group hasn't had time to digest Lee's plan, in part because it's part of a coalition trying to ensure that the trust fund for affordable housing is reauthorized this year.
"I don't want to distract attention from saving the trust fund," Buck said Monday. "If we don't save the trust fund, Sen. Lee's bill has no relevance at all."
Lee also filed two other bills that would raise funds for general state operations from trust fund dollars, including one that would require all interest income the trust funds collect from investments to flow directly into the general state operations fund.
He also is proposing a service charge on trust funds.
"This is an effort to do more than just complain about the state of Florida budget mechanics," Lee said. "It's still a work in progress."