House, Senate remain far apart on tax relief

One lawmaker calls failed talks embarrassing.

Published April 25, 2007

TALLAHASSEE -- The terse, icy end of Tuesday's bargaining session drove home the reality that the House and Senate are miles apart on tax relief, and they are running out of time.

A breakdown could be to House Speaker Marco Rubio's advantage if he is seen as the leader demanding the deepest cuts in local spending compared with the Senate's more surgical approach.

The second day of negotiations between the chambers ended abruptly. After the Senate said it deepened its cuts by $3-billion over five years, Rep. Dean Cannon simply restated the House's own bottom-line expectations.

And then he adjourned the meeting.

The result after two days: not much.

"This is embarrassing," said Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach. "And that's not directed at either chamber." He said lawmakers look like rookies "holding their first elective office."

Cannon deemed the Senate's counteroffer bumping the overall five-year savings to $15.3-billion as "statistically insignificant."

The House wants at least $41.8-billion over five years and has refused to budge from bottom-line annual average savings of $1,200 for primary homeowners, $750 for owners of second homes and $3,300 for businesses.

"At this rate, it may take a couple years to get to our numbers," Cannon said. "But that's okay, we'll wait until we get there."

Sen. Mike Haridopolos, Cannon's counterpart in the Senate, stood next to him, facing a wall of reporters.

"It's a two-way street, negotiations," said Haridopolos, R-Melbourne. "We have made a positive step forward."

The Senate added $3-billion by including hospital districts, water management districts and fire districts to its property tax rollback, and by requiring a 5 percent cut for local government tax bases instead of a freeze.

The inclusion of special taxing districts sent a new wave of fear among the many interest groups watching the debate.

"It translates into equipment, manpower and that translates further into much higher fire insurance rates," said Terry Lewis, who represents fire districts across the state, including Pinellas County.

Earlier in the day, it was the Senate's time to swing. Leaders loudly shut the door on the House plan to trade property taxes on primary homes for increased sales taxes.

The Senate said it was wiser to focus on a rollback rather than broader plans, such as the tax swap, which require voter approval.

Sen. Dan Webster, one of the Legislature's most experienced and conservative members, said the tax swap would fail in a statewide referendum because it pits one group of property owners against others and because it is regressive.

"The poor are going to get poorer and the rich are going to get richer," Webster said.

The Senate said its more modest approach makes significant cuts while not neutering local government services so that "when you dial 911, you want somebody to answer the phone and then show up."

Amid the negotiations, several hundred home builders rallied outside the Capitol. They urged lawmakers to restrict local government from increasing impact fees to offset lost property tax revenue. Haridopolos and Gov. Charlie Crist spoke, as did Rubio.

"This is not about the House vs. the Senate, although some will want to write about that," Rubio said. "This is not about whose plan gets passed, who gets the credit. This is about solving the most important issue that our state has faced in a very, very long time. ... This is about results."

But the House and Senate definitions of results remain at sharp odds.

Rubio made it clear which he preferred. He repeated the savings -- $1,200 for homeowners, $750 for the owners of second homes and $3,300 for businesses -- he said the House can accept at a bare minimum.