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Increase in school money has a catch
School boards must raise local taxes to get more state financing. But that isn't a new tax, some GOP lawmakers say.
By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published May 4, 2005
TALLAHASSEE - Florida lawmakers are proudly touting a no-new-taxes budget, but they are mandating a local property tax hike as a condition of school districts receiving more state money.
School boards would increase property taxes by $104-million next year if all 67 levy an expanded school tax.
The tax would add $12 to the property tax bill of a typical Pinellas homeowner and $11 to a similar Hillsborough homeowner. That's based on a house assessed at $150,000 if the owner takes the $25,000 homestead exemption.
The tax has sparked debate over whether the Legislature says one thing and does another on the subject of higher taxes.
House Republicans say they are not increasing taxes because the final decision rests with school boards.
"I think that's a real stretch, to show it's a tax increase," said House Speaker Allan Bense, R-Panama City. "I think it's more money for schools."
Some Democrats say it is a tax increase on those who can least afford it: single-family homeowners already facing rapidly rising hurricane insurance premiums.
"I'm so weary of this state celebrating its no tax policy and then in the same breath increasing the tax burden on property owners," said Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach. "How do you say that with a straight face?"
The property taxes collected to run Florida public schools next year will be a record $818-million. Steady growth in the value of homes has allowed lawmakers to increase school spending by $1.3-billion without raising state taxes.
But as the school-tax debate heated up, House Republicans on Tuesday circulated a set of talking points to lawmakers to counter criticism for pushing a property tax hike back home.
The talking points note that the tax rate is not being increased - it is still .25 mills, or 25-cents per $1,000 of property value - and that the tax is "discretionary" for school districts.
The tax in question is found deep in the state's complex school funding formula. It's a discretionary property tax that school boards can levy by a vote and use for day-to-day operations.
With the support of school boards, the Legislature doubled the maximum amount of money districts can collect from the tax, from $50 per student to $100. But some counties' taxes are stretched so thin that they cannot raise $100 per student from the tax without a subsidy from the state.
The new state budget includes $31-million in subsidies for 40 districts to get so-called equalization money - but only if they levy the highest tax rate allowed.
The budget, released Tuesday in preparation for a vote on Friday, says districts "must levy" the tax to be eligible for state funds. That, some critics say, is a mandatory tax increase.
But because property tax rolls fluctuate widely from county to county, every county would be affected differently.
Pinellas, for instance, is a coastal, "property-rich" county, with little growth in new students. Pinellas would have to double its tax rate to collect $100 for every student next year, but the new rate of 19-cents-per-$1,000 would be short of the 25-cent ceiling.
At the same time, Pinellas expects to reduce its overall school tax rate slightly because property values are steadily rising.
"It's about a wash on taxes," Pinellas schools lobbyist Steve Swartzel said.
Hillsborough is in the opposite situation. The state budget says the county would have to raise its rate from .16 mills to .25 mills - a boost of 9-cents for each $1,000 of taxable property - to receive a state subsidy of $4.4-million, the highest of any county.
Hernando and Pasco counties also would have to increase their rates to get state money, while Citrus would not.
The discretionary tax was created more than a decade ago to help school districts cover increasing costs. As the years passed, districts were able to reduce the .25 rate as local property tax values soared.
"It's really minor and it's a good way to equalize the budget," said Wayne Blanton, a lobbyist for Florida school boards. "The districts are satisfied with it and it will help produce a substantial amount of dollars."
School board lobbyists said the $50-per-student cap is antiquated, and should have been raised years ago.
"It is a tax but it's almost like a restoration of what the initial intent was," said Hillsborough schools lobbyist Connie Milito. "The school districts asked for this."