tampabay.com

Special session enters picture

With three days to go, the House and Senate remain far apart on a property tax deal.

By STEVE BOUSQUET AND ALEX LEARY
Published May 2, 2007


TALLAHASSEE - Unable to resolve major differences in assorted property tax proposals and with only three days left in the session, legislators could be forced to return for a special session this month.

As early as today, lawmakers could decide they cannot reach agreement on restructuring Florida's property tax system to lower taxes for homeowners and businesses.

There is still time to work out a deal, but it will be difficult. And it has been days since lawmakers even met to negotiate, because Senate leaders refuse to consider raising sales taxes as a method of lowering property taxes and House members refuse to drop the idea.

Each side blames the other for intransigence.

"There's such common sense in what we're trying to do," said Sen. Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, a Senate negotiator. "It's just so frustrating that we don't have a dancing partner."

Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff, a Fort Lauderdale Republican who is part of the House negotiating team, said, "We're not here to dance. We came to cut taxes."

Political differences aside, there are significant mechanical obstacles to completing such a complex deal at this stage.

Legislation would have to be written out, printed, debated and voted on in both the House and Senate. None of that can happen until the financial impacts of any deal are calculated for city and county budgets - not to mention the savings to taxpayers.

"Miracles can happen, but right now, I think this issue is too complicated and has way too many variables," said John Wayne Smith, a lobbyist for the Florida League of Cities who has observed some of the talks.

Adding to the mix is the possibility of new ideas, including one by Rep. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, which would provide homeowners with an exemption based on a percentage of just value, instead of a fixed amount.

Publicly, Gov. Charlie Crist and top legislators continue talking optimistically about reaching a deal by the time the session concludes around 6 p.m. Friday.

"I'm hopeful," Crist said. "We may hear by Thursday or so that something's been arrived at."

Despite Crist's ebullience, the clock is ticking. The Senate and House have not met to discuss tax relief since last Wednesday, when talks broke down.

Senate President Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, reminded senators of the need to be "deliberate" in the final days, avoiding the lure of pushing through bills and amendments that haven't been debated or seen by the public.

Pruitt said he is optimistic as long as legislators are seeing different plans to consider. But when asked if he was seeing different plans, he said: "No."

"We're going to be deliberate, we're going to methodical and we're going to make sure we do it right," Pruitt added.

The House and Senate have plans that would cut billions in property taxes, as does the governor, but they all differ in how the cuts would be carried out.

The Senate has refused to consider the House plan to raise the sales tax by up to 2.5 percent, while the House says the Senate's cuts are weak.

If the session ends with no tax package, it may raise questions about the wisdom of Crist's laid-back style in dealing with lawmakers on what he had said was his top priority. Crist offered a handful of ideas early on but then stayed out of the legislative debate.

The short calendar that remains has given legislators a simple choice. Either quickly reach an agreement on whatever they can stomach, or come back to work later in May - with only property taxes on the agenda.

House Speaker Marco Rubio, who drove the tax debate for the first half of the session, spent most of the day Tuesday in the House chamber, overseeing debate of bills. The session adjourned at 3 p.m., and he did not take questions from reporters.

"We are not able to give this our full and undivided attention," said Senate Democratic leader Steve Geller, D-Cooper City. "It may be necessary to have a special session where we concentrate exclusively on it."

 

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