Property tax cut rolls on

Published March 17, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - Rejecting opposition from local governments, House Republicans on Friday voted to slash billions in property tax revenue from city and county budgets.

The proposal, which is only the first step toward making the cuts a reality, calls for rolling back property taxes to 2001 levels, with adjustments for inflation plus population growth, and a cap on future revenue collection.

Doing so would shave an estimated 18 percent off the average property tax bill. But it would also strip $5.5-billion from local coffers and limit future spending.

Friday's vote by the House Policy and Budget Committee comes as the Legislature and governor try to find a solution to the property tax problem. The Senate has yet to fully develop its proposals.

"It didn't have to be this way," said Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale. "Local government could have recognized the windfall revenues generated by the real estate boom and it could have been returned to taxpayers long ago. However, they have chosen not to act and so we must."

Reacting to complaints, Republicans voted to leave three groups out of the property tax rollback: 30 rural counties with narrow tax bases, tax-supported public hospitals, and child services councils, including one in Pinellas County. But those exemptions represent only a fraction, about $300-million, of the overall cuts facing local government.

The rollback is one of two plans House Republicans want to accomplish. Their top goal is a constitutional amendment to replace property taxes on homesteads with a 2.5-cents-on-the-dollar increase in the sales tax.

That plan also would incorporate the rollback but it would begin at 2003 levels, saving local governments millions. And the sales tax revenue also would go back to cities and counties.

"If I were a city or county, that constitutional thing may be looking real tasty," said Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami.

Not much looked good Friday to local government officials and their lobbyists.

"It's going to be ugly," said Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard, who was not at the meeting but testified before the House last week.

Clearwater officials estimate up to a $20-million loss. "We're going to have to look at closures of libraries, rec centers. We'll even have to review our community policing program," Hibbard said.

Unlike last week, when there was a virtual train of opposition, Republicans got some testimony on their behalf.

"Rather than take a good, hard look at their spending, counties and cities across Florida are spending my hard-earned tax dollars on lobbyists and lawyers and redundant studies," said Jill Dorson Chi, a business owner in Nassau County. "They are using scare tactics and threatening cuts in police and libraries and vital services rather than cutting fat."

The 24-7 vote sent the bill to the full House. Three Democrats joined Republicans in support of the legislation (HB 7001).

Democrats tried to add amendments that would have carved out exemptions for police and fire budgets and programs mandated by the state. Their intent was to paint Republicans as insensitive to homeland security and other basic needs.

"We need to send a message here from Tallahassee that we care about law enforcement," said Rep. Jack Seiler, D-Wilton Manors.

Republicans killed each of the amendments.