In school tax fight, loss may be a win

Published April 12, 2007

TALLAHASSEE -With property taxes as the state's most explosive political issue, Democratic lawmakers tried to lower them Wednesday, but Republicans, typically the champions of cutting taxes, refused.

In an act of political theater, the outnumbered House Democrats failed and knew they would. But they scored political points - their goal all along.

At issue are property taxes the state orders school boards to impose to help pay for public school operations. It's the one part of the budget where the Legislature has a powerful voice on the level of local property taxes.

Since 2000, state-imposed property taxes for education have accounted for nearly all of the $4-billion increase in public school spending, and the trend is likely to continue.

In state budgets awaiting floor votes today, lawmakers plan to collect $545-million more from taxpayers next year by leaving the tax rate unchanged and taking advantage of growth and increases in property values.

House Democrats proposed rolling back the level of required local effort to what it was in 2005, cutting property taxes statewide by $1.6-billion, and using state sales tax money to make up the difference.

Democrats called it hypocritical for Tallahassee politicians to rail against high property taxes while collecting more each year.

"We have balanced the education budget on the backs of local property taxpayers," said Rep. Jack Seiler, D-Fort Lauderdale. "We need to lead by example."

What Democrats didn't say is that most of them voted for past years' budgets that included the property tax hikes for education they now rail against.

Republicans responded by dismissing the move.

"It's a good stunt," said Rep. Trey Traviesa, R-Brandon. "If they want to cut education, make the case for that. Don't hide it in a property tax debate."

The fiscal reality is the state doesn't have the money to pay for a rollback in school property taxes. The Senate has its own spending priorities, and wants to put an additional $600-million into construction-ready transportation projects.

"We're partners with local government in funding education in our state," said Senate budget chief Lisa Carlton, R-Osprey. "It's a partnership."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or 850 224-7263.