Criticism grows; tax plan teeters

Concern over education funding may keep changes to homestead exemptions off ballots.

Published June 13, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - Floridians aren't likely to get to vote on new homestead exemptions until November 2008 - if they get to vote at all.

With Democrats solidly opposed to the Republican property tax plan and even some in the GOP openly concerned, there were not enough supporters at the special session of the Legislature on Tuesday to pass the plan and send it before voters on Jan. 29, the day of the Florida presidential primary.

Unless some lawmakers warm to the plan quickly, the measure probably would end up on the November 2008 general election ballot.

House and Senate leaders were undeterred by skepticism in their ranks and are pushing for a final vote on the two-part tax package as early as Friday.

There are two plans in play, a rollback of tax revenues along with a cap on local property tax bases, and then a new homestead exemption program designed to phase out Save Our Homes.

Only the homestead exemption faces an uncertain future because it requires amending the state Constitution, and that requires a vote by Floridians.

Putting the matter before voters on Jan. 29, a special election, would need to be approved by a three-fourths majority in both chambers. The problem is in the Senate, where Democrats have criticized the way the plan would cut property taxes to education by $7.1-billion over five years.

Three-fourths of the Senate is 30 votes, but the GOP only has 25. Getting it on the November ballot is easier, but not by much. That only takes 24.

Senate Minority Leader Steve Geller said Republican leaders shouldn't count on getting any votes from his party. Geller said he had spoken with 11 of 12 fellow Democrats and they uniformly oppose the plan due to the cuts in education.

At least four GOP senators expressed deep reservations.

"If you vote for it, then they're going to nail you because you voted against education, " said Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Naples. "If you don't vote for it, you didn't care about property tax relief."

Gov. Charlie Crist said he was not troubled by reports that moderate Republicans have strong misgivings. Lawmakers are keenly aware that support for public education usually far outpolls most other government services.

"I'm not twisting arms, " Crist said. "If they want to support it, they should. ... And I think when they go home, if they haven't let tax cuts happen, there'll be a price to pay."

The hard math came on a whirlwind day. Colorful back and forth exchanges between party leaders in the House gave way to a late afternoon hearing in which police officers, firefighters and county commissioners railed against the plan as too damaging to government services.

Tom Siegfried, a deputy fire marshal in Estero, turned around to a sea of people in uniform. "They are concerned about the people they serve and being able to do it properly, " he said.

With a possible breakdown brewing, House Speaker Marco Rubio went on the offensive, calling a news conference that accused Democrats of hypocrisy. An earlier House Democratic plan also included cuts to schools.

Flanked by top Republicans to signal unity, Rubio laid down a challenge: "If you think that there's no property tax problem in Florida, then vote no. If you think we have a property tax problem, you need to vote for this plan."

Rubio characterized the $1.5-billion first-year impact to schools as a property tax reduction, not a cut to education funding. He also sought to counter arguments that voters will not support the plan because they lose their 3 percent Save Our Homes cap.

The new plan, he stressed, would provide a large homestead exemption that wouldn't be tied to how long you own your home, plus a cap on local tax collection.

Rubio's strong words for Democrats spawned a hastily called news conference of the Democratic Caucus.

"Unfortunately the Florida Legislature is rapidly devolving into a high school cafeteria, " Minority Leader Dan Gelber said.

He defended his party's earlier plan that cut school budgets, saying it included proposals to replace the money. Republicans, he added, have not given the same assurance.

House Democrats have not taken a formal position against the tax plan but most of them stood behind Gelber as he chided the Republicans. Gelber said he doubts the plan would get approval at the polls because homeowners will be reluctant to give up their Save Our Homes protection.

It was not difficult to find Republicans who shared the concern. Rep. Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City, said he doubted his constituents would want to give up Save Our Homes. "I'm not sure I would want to give that up, either. It's scary."

Rep. Kevin Ambler, R-Tampa, said he wants to see better details about education funding.

"I have kids in the public school system, and we have to remain committed to providing a top quality education, " he said. "It's giving everybody some pause."

Fast Facts:

What's next:

House and Senate committees will take up the property tax legislation today, allowing for public testimony and debate. At 6 p.m., the full House will convene for debate. The Senate plans debate Thursday. Final voting could happen by Friday.