tampabay.com

Tax reform with big dose of duplicity

By A TIMES EDITORIAL
Published April 15, 2007


A little-noticed vote in the Florida House on Thursday put lawmakers on record this year about the largest portion of each property owner's tax bill. At a time when they are demanding that cities and counties slash their own budgets for property tax relief, lawmakers sent a different message with this vote. Hey, suckers, they might as well have said, we're raising your property taxes again.

The vote was prompted by Rep. Ron Saunders, D-Key West, primarily to make a political point. He succeeded. By 65-44, mostly along party lines, House members refused to roll back or even hold the line on the property taxes the state requires for schools.

"If you want to see one reason we have high property taxes," Saunders said in early debate, "look in the mirror."

This is not political sophistry. Do the math. Under both the House and Senate spending bills, the "required local effort" property taxes for schools next year would jump by 7.4 percent, or $545-million. By comparison, the Senate's new "Savings Now" tax reform would force cities and counties to reduce property taxes by $1-billion. In other words, for every $2 local governments cut property taxes, the state would raise them by $1. Some deal.

Many Republicans refuse to acknowledge this king-sized hypocrisy. Rep. Frank Attkisson, R-Kissimmee, even argued that voters are to blame because they demanded smaller class sizes. "This is what the citizens asked for," he told colleagues, "and this is how it has to be paid for."

Wrong. Voters also adopted explicit class-size instructions: "Payment of the costs associated with reducing class size to meet these requirements is the responsibility of the state and not of local school districts." Instead, lawmakers have handed out tax breaks to wealthy investors and connected businesses while shifting more of the cost of schools to local property taxpayers.

With the release of the Senate's property tax plan, both chambers now have offered reforms. The lack of time, the incomplete details, and the stark differences between the two approaches may force lawmakers to complete the job in special session or next year. But, given the visibility of this debate, they cannot expect their duplicity to go unnoticed. If the House followed its own original plan for city and county tax rollbacks, for example, it would cut required school taxes by $3.3-billion. Instead, it is planning to increase them by $545-million.

Check the House vote board. Sixty-five representatives - including Republicans Tom Anderson, Faye Culp, Jim Frishe, Rich Glorioso, Ed Homan, Ed Hooper, John Legg, Peter Nehr, Rob Schenck, Trey Traviesa and Will Weatherford from the Tampa Bay region - wanted to have it both ways. They want to shift the cost of schools to property taxpayers while lawmakers blame mayors and county commissioners for high property tax bills.

If lawmakers can't reconcile this contradiction, how can they be trusted to bring about genuine tax reform?