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Crist finesses property tax cut

An increase in the homestead exemption wouldn’t apply to school districts.

By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published February 7, 2007


TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Charlie Crist will shield Florida school districts from the full impact of his proposed property tax cuts, but he denied Wednesday that he was backpedaling on tax relief.

“I don’t think so,” Crist said. “My commitment is to want to make sure we reduce property taxes significantly.”
Crist initially backed a doubling of the Florida homestead exemption to $50,000, subject to approval by each county’s voters. He said his plan had the potential to lower property taxes by $1-billion the first year.

Under his original proposal, the bigger exemption would have applied equally to the taxes collected for all local governments, including school districts. The exemption has been at $25,000 for the past 25 years.

But on Wednesday, Crist acknowledged that he wants to exempt school district taxes from the higher homestead exemption. The result would be that homeowners would have one taxable value for their city and county property tax calculations, and another taxable home value, a higher one, for their school district taxes.

The larger exemption would give homeowners a property tax cut on county and city taxes but not school taxes, which can make up at least 30 percent of the total property tax bill.

School districts and local government officials have argued against the Crist tax cut proposals, saying they cannot afford to lose so much in property tax money. School districts say they are more dependent on property taxes than counties and cities, which can levy a variety of fees and assessments to pay for basic services.

Crist’s support for deep tax cuts appeared to have put him at odds with his proclaimed support for public education.
“I’m an education advocate. I’d rather not see their funding be reduced,” Crist said Wednesday. “So I think that would be probably the right thing to do.”

Crist’s first budget calls for a $1.3-billion boost in education spending with more money for class size reduction, reading coaches and 10 percent raises for outstanding teachers.

In pushing for property tax cuts as a candidate, Crist often cited two anecdotal examples of what he called government waste. Both involved schools.

They were Hillsborough County’s high costs for land acquisition for new schools, and Broward County’s high-rise school administration headquarters dubbed the “Crystal Palace” by critics.

How it works

In practical terms the Crist proposal would work like this. The owner of a homesteaded house valued at $200,000 currently pays taxes on $175,000 because $25,000 is exempt. If the homestead exemption is doubled as Crist now proposes, that homeowner would pay city and county taxes on $150,000 in home value, but would still pay school taxes on $175,000 in home value.

The Florida School Boards Association said it has not calculated the effect of an expanded homestead exemption on all 67 school districts.

But the Florida Association of Counties has said the effect of the larger homestead exemption on county government budgets would be $608-million based on the most recent tax roll.

School officials, who last year threatened to file a lawsuit to block the doubling of the homestead exemption, voiced relief at Crist’s decision.

“If it were to go through, there wouldn’t be any teacher salary increases,” said Wayne Blanton of the Florida School Boards Association.

Educators still worry

But educators remain alarmed by the much greater financial impact of Crist’s other two property tax proposals: allowing people to transfer the annual 3 percent Save Our Homes tax cap to a new home and extending the cap to businesses, vacation homes and nonhomesteaded properties.

Still, Crist’s decision on the homestead exemption may mean that the cohesive public school lobby may be less ardent in its opposition to property tax cuts.

Crist dismissed warnings by local governments that less property tax revenue would force layoffs of police and firefighters.

“Reduce government waste,” Crist said. “The people are smart. They understand what’s going on.”

Times staff writers Alex Leary and Jennifer Liberto contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or at (850) 224-7263.