Budget plan doesn't ease tax rate for schools
By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published March 29, 2007
TALLAHASSEE - Legislators talk tough about the urgent need to cut property taxes, but their budget proposal for the coming year does nothing to reduce the state's heavy reliance on property taxes to run public schools.
Lawmakers could have reduced the property tax rate they set each year to help pay for schools, reducing the burden on taxpayers, and used state money to make up the difference.
But they didn't. They froze the property tax rate at its current level, which will produce $545-million more next year thanks to growth in the tax base, meaning higher tax bills for homeowners.
Local property taxes account for nearly half of the $1.2-billion proposed increase in public school spending that lawmakers can be expected to boast about when the session ends in May.
The state-mandated property tax rate for schools is known as required local effort.
A number of lawmakers, chiefly House Republicans, have criticized county and city officials for using the same hold-the-line strategy in recent years, and for not cutting the tax rate when they had the chance.
Critics see a double standard.
"There's an irony here that should not be lost on anyone," said Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, the House Democratic leader. "They're doing exactly the same thing they're blasting local governments for. We've been shifting an unfair burden of the education budget onto the backs of homeowners."
Added Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala: "There is no consistency." But she declined to criticize legislators, saying, "Education is underfunded as it is."
House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-Miami, who wants to replace property taxes on primary residences with a higher sales tax, said his plan would end the debate over the level of local taxation to run schools.
"We have a plan that does away with the required local effort, and that won't be an issue," Rubio said.
In a year when state tax collections are down, one leading senator said it makes more sense that local property owners share the cost of public education.
"The financing of public education is a partnership between the state and the locals, and it always has been," said Sen. Lisa Carlton, R-Osprey, who chairs the Senate Fiscal Policy Committee.
In recent years, the local taxpayers' share of the total public school budget paid for with property taxes has grown steadily, reaching 45 percent last year. During that same period, the state approved billions of dollars in cuts in state taxes.
As lawmakers slog through a wide range of tax cut plans, including rollbacks and caps on future revenue, they have exempted school districts from the effects of cuts that cities and counties are loudly protesting.
Lawmakers are sensitive to the perception that slashing school revenue would undercut their oft-stated support for public education.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 224-7263.