Tax reform still a distant goal

Published April 14, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - Florida senators began to wade through their property tax plan Friday, acknowledging a lot of work remains.

"Sorry to say this, but it leaves a lot to be desired," said David McKalip, a St. Petersburg doctor who began the citizen group Cut Taxes Now. "The rollbacks are not enough."

The Senate plan calls for scaling back city and county property tax bases to 2005 levels, with a one-year freeze on increases, followed by a cap on growth based on population and per-capita income.

Specific figures on the impact on local government are not expected to be released until early next week.

The plan falls well short of a rollback to 2001 levels that the House would impose next year. The difference between the two plans is about $5-billion.

"We wanted to think forward, we didn't want to think back," said Sen. Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, who is heading the tax debate. "This wasn't a problem that happened overnight, and it's not going to be solved overnight."

House Speaker Marco Rubio, who has aggressively pursued changes to the state's tax system, gave a polite response to the Senate plan and said he was confident a compromise could be worked out. But he has signaled a desire to push ahead with the House plan.

Republican House members will hold a dozen town hall workshops around the state today to hear from the public on property taxes. Several are in the Tampa Bay area (see box).

Despite some criticism of the Senate plan Friday, far more gave the legislators credit for a comprehensive plan that affects more classes of property owners than the House.

"This chamber is a wiser chamber," said Paul Harvill, a government activist from Tallahassee.

The Senate workshop came a day after the broad outlines of the plan were revealed. It aims to cut taxes by $11-billion over the next five years through the rollback and other provisions, including allowing people to carry their Save Our Homes benefit to new property and giving first-time home buyers a $50,000 exemption from property taxes.

The Save Our Homes portability and homestead exemption are the two most complicated aspects of the plan and drew the most questions. Under portability, a homeowner would face annual assessment increases of no more than 10 percent for several years until going back to 3 percent.

That is viewed as a way to avoid constitutional issues. But even its chief proponent, Sen. Steve Geller, called it hideously complicated, which may make for problems as the negotiations with the House begin.

The exemption for first-time home buyers also encountered a snag. People would have to sign an affidavit that it was their first home.

"An honor system, oh, that'll work," Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, said with a heavy dose of sarcasm. "For a while I was concerned."

Aside from making room for fraud, it also could be difficult to track people coming from out of state.

"The last thing we want to do is having to start to do records checks from other states," said Haridopolos. "We could open up a big can of worms here if we're not careful."

The Senate and House are expected to vote on respective plans early next week then go into negotiations, called "conference."

Fast Facts:

Tax meetings

Today Republican members of the House are holding Town Hall meetings around the state to hear from the public about rising property taxes. Meetings in the Tampa Bay area will be:

- In Palm Harbor with Rep. Peter Nehr at 1 p.m. in the Highland Lakes Auditorium, 3300 MacGregor Drive.

- In Clearwater with Rep. Ed Hooper at 6 p.m. at the homeowners association block party in the 1900 Block of Clearview Lake Drive.

- In Largo with Rep. Jim Frishe at 10 a.m. in the Largo public library, 201 Highland Avenue.

- In Bradenton with Rep. Ron Reagan at 10 a.m. at the Lakewood Ranch Town Hall, 8175 Lakewood Ranch Blvd.