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Activist calls for cap on state, local taxes

One county leader says Grover Norquist is "painting with a very broad brush."

Published February 9, 2007


TALLAHASSEE - Conservative activist Grover Norquist urged Florida lawmakers Thursday to put a cap on all state and local taxes, an idea that quickly drew opposition from cities and counties.

Florida already has a 3 percent annual cap on property tax paid by homeowners under the Save Our Homes Amendment. Gov. Charlie Crist has proposed putting a similar cap on property taxes paid on business and rental property.

Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, told the Senate Finance and Tax Committee that caps tied to population growth and inflation should be applied to all state and local taxes because every level of government is a monopoly.

"They don't have competition to keep them disciplined," Norquist said. "Even if you don't think any of them are bloated now, a cap would be wise."

Norquist has been a political ally of President Bush and a longtime associate of Karl Rove, the president's chief political adviser.

"We need to be careful," Bradford County Commissioner John Cooper told the committee after Norquist's presentation. "You are painting with a very broad brush."

Cooper, who also chairs the Florida Association of Counties' Property Tax Working Group, said his rural North Florida county has a low tax base and is financially strapped just trying to provide basic services.

Linking a tax cap to an inflation measure such as the Consumer Price Index, based on goods purchased by a typical family, would be unrealistic, Cooper said.

Florida League of Cities lobbyist John Wayne Smith said a cap would affect public services, but how much depends on whether it covered only taxes or applied to other revenue such as income from utilities and user fees.

"What we think is the better way to go is to build in a system where you stabilize the (property) tax base," Smith said.

The League supports a ceiling on average assessments over a five-year period to protect all property owners from unanticipated spikes in their tax bills.

The Association of Counties has proposed a 10 percent cap on non-homestead property also intended to offer some protection to business and rental property owners but still provide revenue stability to local governments.

Crist and legislative leaders have focused on crafting a response to skyrocketing property tax increases driven by recent increases in real estate values.

They also are taking aim at inequities caused by the Save Our Homes tax cap, which has shifted more of the tax burden to non-homestead properties.

Norquist's testimony broadened the discussion to the full range of state and local taxes, but Sen. Steve Geller, D-Cooper City, pointed out that Florida, which lacks an income tax, is one of the nation's lowest tax states.

"Citizens are the best judge of whether they are paying too much in taxes," Norquist responded. "Doing better than New York is not progress."

Norquist said his vision includes a provision that would let voters, through referendums, lift the caps if they see fit.

He cited Colorado, where voters in 2005 suspended for five years a cap that based annual spending on the previous year's level, plus inflation and population growth.

Tax cap critics said the suspension proved the caps don't work, but Norquist called it a success.

[Last modified February 9, 2007, 01:37:24]

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