Battle over tax cuts begins

Early Edition: County and city leaders warned that a property tax rate roll back could cut into their budgets for police protection and other local services.

By Steve Bousquet
Published March 7, 2007

TALLAHASSEE -- A simmering fight between the state and local governments over how to cut property taxes in Florida began in earnest Wednesday as counties and cities warned that a rate roll back could mean less police protection and closings of parks and libraries.

A House council rushed through a bill that would force counties, cities and special taxing districts to roll back their property tax rates to what they were on Jan. 1, 2001.

The House proposal would allow increases to reflect population growth and inflation since then. In addition, the bill would allow the tax rate to be increased by a super-majority vote of the governing body.

"Enough is enough," said Rep. Frank Attkisson, R-Kissimmee, one of many lawmakers who have traveled the state in recent weeks listening to irate Floridians complain about skyrocketing property taxes.

The bill is a key element of House Speaker Marco Rubio's tax-cut proposal and is likely to pass the House, where Republicans are eager to lay claim to the mantle of tax-cutters. But the bill's fate in the Senate is unknown, and Gov. Charlie Crist has only called Rubio's ideas "intriguing."

But counties and cities are strongly opposed. They said big expenditures in their budgets are mandated by the state for retirement benefits, nursing home care and homeland security, or are affected by rising health care premiums and union contracts.

A legislative analysis estimates the bill would cut county property taxes by $3.3-billion statewide, city taxes by $1.5-billion and special district taxes by $1-billion.

Pinellas County would be required to cut taxes by an estimated 29 percent, or $153-million. Hillsborough would have to cut taxes by 22 percent, or $176-million.

Sarah Bleakley, special counsel to the Florida Association of Counties, predicted cuts in "law enforcement, EMS, libraries, court facilities, growth management programs and environmental programs."

Broward County Commissioner Ilene Lieberman, the only elected official who spoke, said mandatory property tax cuts would have to be offset by steep increases in user fees.

Skeptical Republicans dismissed the warnings.

"We're talking about peoples' homes," said Rep. Julio Robaina, R-South Miami. "The last thing they're worried about is a park."

Democrats in the House pleaded with Republicans to delay a vote on the bill on the second day of the 60-day legislative session, saying the impact of the property tax rollback is not fully known.

Rep. Jack Seiler, D-Wilton Manors, sent Rubio a letter Tuesday, urging him to be "patient, prudent and responsible" in crafting a tax cut plan.

"Why are we railroading this through without careful consideration?" asked Rep. Franklin Sands, D-Weston, one of five Democrats who opposed the bill.

But the Republican majority forged ahead and the bill easily cleared the committee hurdle on a 10-5 party line vote. It heads to another committee, perhaps as soon as Friday.

Some Republicans voiced support even before they heard any public testimony on its impact on local government budgets.

"If I could vote for it twice, I would," said Rep. Rob Schenck, R-Spring Hill, whose county, Hernando, would be forced to lower county-wide property taxes by $25.5-million under the bill.

Rep. Ed Homan, R-Tampa, also voted yes. Rep. Michael Scionti, D-Tampa, voted no.

The House hearing room was less than half full, suggesting that many lobbyists for cities and counties may not have seen the bill's listing on an agenda calendar published late Tuesday.