Don't buy local officials' scary stories

By MARTY BOWEN Special to the Times
Published May 2, 2007

As lawmakers in Tallahassee work toward providing meaningful property tax relief and historic property tax reform, high-powered lobbyists for local government continue their campaign of scare tactics.

The latest salvo in this scare war came in the form of an op-ed by Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala, who is also president of the Florida Association of Counties, one the most powerful and well-funded special interest groups in Tallahassee.

Last year alone, the Florida Association of Counties and other local government special interests spent more than $24-million taxpayer dollars to hire lobbyists to oppose, among other things, property tax relief. The lobbying bill to taxpayers this year promises to be even higher.

The Florida Association of Counties believes the Florida Legislature is "falsely claiming" that local governments have been spending wildly, and any property tax relief enacted by the Legislature will result in "fewer police and firefighters in your community, fewer open hours at your parks and libraries, and fewer local transportation options."

Despite the claims to the contrary, one need not look any further than the pages of the newspaper to see example after example of local government waste. Whether it is the tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars spent on lavish trips by St. Petersburg Housing Authority members, or $477, 000 in taxpayer money spent on a campaign to hike the sales tax in Pinellas County by a penny, or a $2.2-million "road to nowhere" in Hillsborough County - Tampa Bay area residents have seen more than enough wasteful spending.

Yet rather than admit they have overspent taxpayer cash, and eliminate the rampant waste we all know exists at the local government level, local government officials are instead threatening Floridians with cuts to vital services such as police, fire and sewer.

As a small businesswoman, I know that I can't spend more than I make, and when we have a tough year on the farm, we cut back on wants, not needs.

Yet local government officials would have the taxpayers believe that when it comes time to cut government budgets - never mind the six-figure salaries, the fancy courthouse statues, the museums or expensive park sculptures - by golly they are going to start trimming costs by cutting police and fire budgets first.

Such statements are base demagoguery, and Florida's taxpayers aren't buying it.

While local governments seem only concerned with defending their budgets, our primary concern in the Florida House remains providing meaningful tax relief to the homeowners, second-home owners, and business owners who have seen local property tax revenues increase almost 100 percent since 2000.

Under the leadership of Speaker Marco Rubio, the Florida House has put forth the only plan in Tallahassee that will empower Floridians to vote for historic property tax relief and reform. Our plan would save the average Florida homeowner $2, 300 and would save property taxpayers $6.9-billion - which would be the largest tax cut in state history. Florida voters should be the ones to decide on the way they will be taxed on homes and properties.

The Florida Association of Counties does have one thing right: This should not be a debate about local government versus state government.

House Republicans believe both state and local government must take greater steps to reduce Floridians' tax burdens. The Florida House has led the way in the past eight years to cut taxes statewide by more than $20-billion.

It is now time for local governments to follow our lead and work with us to provide more value from government to the taxpayers of Florida.

State Rep. Marty Bowen, R-Haines City, is a small businesswoman and serves as majority leader of the Florida House of Representatives.