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Don't think quick fix

It's "a lot to ask" to get proposals before voters.

Published June 11, 2007


TALLAHASSEE - The Legislature kicks off its two-week special session on property taxes Tuesday, but the road to relief promises to be long and difficult.

Lawmakers are almost certain to pass a rollback on the tax rates of local governments, which would provide some immediate savings, an average 6 to 7 percent, for anyone who pays property taxes.

But Tallahassee veterans say don't be surprised if lawmakers cannot muster the votes to approve the "super" homestead exemption that has been touted as the concept everyone likes.

To put the proposal before voters on the Jan. 29 ballot with the presidential primary, three-quarters of the Legislature needs to be on board, a tall order given that Republican leadership released no details behind the plan until late Friday evening. Voters need to weigh in because the homestead exemption is in the state Constitution.

Democrats, while cautiously optimistic that Friday's proposal could work, complained all along that they were excluded from top-level negotiations. They are worried that the proposal cuts too much into the ability of school districts to collect taxes. Republicans are promising that schools will not lose money in the deal, and Democrats say that will be critical.

Republicans will need some Democratic votes to get the three-fourths majority vote.

"I cut my teeth in the (Bob) Graham administration, " said longtime South Florida lobbyist Ron Book, whose clients include cities. "If I learned nothing else, it's that you don't call and then have a special session unless you have a basic consensus agreement and you know where the votes are.

"They don't have a consensus and they don't have the votes."

That doesn't mean it can't all come together.

After all, House Speaker Marco Rubio and Senate President Ken Pruitt have said for weeks that they agree on the basics; they just lacked a consensus on the details, in other words the amount of the rollback and the homestead exemption.

Now, those details have been released, just in time for the session to begin.

Veteran lobbyist Richard Gentry points out that almost every year the two chambers are billions of dollars apart on the state budget, and it nearly always seems to work out.

Still, most predict lawmakers will have a rougher go of it than they did during the special session on insurance that was held in January. By the time lawmakers convened that session, they already had spent a full week dissecting particular bills.

In addition, Republicans worked alongside Democrats throughout the insurance session, giving the minority party a voice that kept them from criticizing the final deal.

By comparison, lawmakers will go into the property tax special session with only a handful of lawmakers - those directly involved in negotiations - fully versed in the complicated formula behind property tax cuts being proposed.

"Given that traditional special session model, of you having a solution before going to the Legislature, the chances for success are 50-50 at best, " said Barney Bishop, chief executive of the business group Associated Industries of Florida, which hopes to see at least a rollback approved.

The business community, usually a champion of tax cuts, is home to most of the skeptics of reaching a deal on the super homestead concept. Businesses have been among the worst hit by escalating property taxes, shouldering a rising share of the tax burden because of the breaks homeowners already enjoy.

In fact, if lawmakers lower tax bills too much for homeowners, business owners could end up penalized further as local governments look for new ways, like fees, to recover lost money, a concern of AIF and the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

Under the proposals released Friday evening, the bulk of the tax breaks go to homesteaded homeowners, which could rankle the already frustrated business community.

Voters would decide whether to replace the existing homestead exemption and their annual Save Our Home cap with the new homestead exemption which would give a 75 percent break on the first $200, 000 of value.

Homesteaded properties worth more would get an additional 15 percent off the next $300, 000 in value. So a home valued at $300, 000 would only be taxed on $130, 000. Those who saved more under the old system could stick with the old system.

"You're asking, with less than five days to go, for 30 senators and 90 House members to vote on some kind of tiered plan that we don't know anything about, " said Adam Babington, the Florida Chamber of Commerce's property tax director. "It's a lot to ask."

Even Rubio expects a struggle to get 90 votes in his own chamber to put a new homestead exemption on the ballot in January. The high vote count is necessary to amend the state Constitution, which also must be approved by voters.

"I'm optimistic, but I think there will be resistance, " he said. "You can expect a full-court press and onslaught from those who never wanted property tax reform to happen. I think there are a lot of different ways to try to stop this from happening."

He also predicts political consequences for those who stand in the way.

"We're going to have a vote on property tax in Florida. It's either going to be on Jan. 29, and everyone cooperates, or it's going to be in November 2008 if they do not, " Rubio said. "Those who stand in the way of the largest tax cut in Florida's history happening sooner rather than later, I believe, will pay a heavy political price."

[Last modified June 10, 2007, 23:46:21]

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