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GOP pushes tax vote as debate rages on
Democrats and other critics say the reform plan is being rushed.
By ALEX LEARY and STEVE BOUSQUET
Published June 14, 2007
TALLAHASSEE - Two days after the special session on property taxes began and with partisan bickering at a fever pitch, the House and Senate pushed toward final votes today.
Determined Republicans plowed ahead Wednesday with a two-part plan to roll back property taxes and give voters a chance to replace the Save Our Homes assessment cap with a much larger homestead exemption.
Democrats continued to denounce the plan as unfair to public schools and pressed for a provision allowing everyone to keep Save Our Homes.
The House debated until 10 p.m., setting the stage for final votes today.
"We are offering more help to the people who complain the least, " said Rep. Luis Garcia, D-Miami Beach, referring to heavy emphasis on primary homeowners instead of businesses or owners of second homes.
The Senate begins debate this morning and may also vote.
"We didn't come up here to continue talking about property tax relief. We came up here to do it, " House Speaker Marco Rubio said, standing defiant against Democrats and other opponents who say the $31.6-billion tax cut proposal is being slammed through.
Critics were everywhere Wednesday, cramming meeting rooms, cornering lawmakers in the halls and watching from the visitor gallery as the House debated.
The courtyard outside the Capitol resembled a firefighters' convention as 300 blue and white uniformed officers staged a protest against cuts.
"We're concerned about the level of services we're going to be able to provide the people of Pinellas County. This will lead to slower response time and less men on the ground when they arrive, " said Mike Kelzer, 35, a firefighter for the city of Oldsmar who got off work at 6 a.m. Wednesday and drove to Tallahassee.
Save Our Homes comes under attack
Throughout the day, Democrats kept up a drumbeat of criticism of the Republican-crafted proposal for being rushed, for cutting too deeply into city and county budgets, and for shrinking public school funding by $7.2-billion over the next four years.
The Democrats also said Republicans are misguided in their attempt to abolish the Save Our Homes 3 percent assessment increase cap that's popular with homeowners.
"They took two public policy issues and screwed them up: education funding and Save Our Homes, " said Rep. Jack Seiler, D-Wilton Manors.
Senate Majority Leader Dan Webster, R-Winter Garden, said that Save Our Homes is the major reason Florida's tax system is so badly flawed and that it is only a matter of time before it is challenged in federal court on constitutional grounds that it doesn't afford equal protection to all homeowners.
Save Our Homes heavily favors longtime homeowners over newcomers because the longer the cap is applied to a house the greater the tax benefit. Similar homes can have hugely different tax bills simply because one has changed hands.
Republican leaders scheduled 11 days for debate, from Tuesday to June 22, and had said they would enter the session with consensus on a deal. Instead, details of the proposal to be voted on, hatched in secret after regular session negotiations ended in impasse, were not disclosed until Friday evening.
"This plan has elements of things that have been discussed dating back to January and February of this year, " Rubio said. He said complaints that the plan is confusing amount to "code speak for 'let's do nothing.' "
Yet even as he defended the plan, Rubio acknowledged in an e-mail to supporters that "this compromise is not what the leadership of the House wanted. ... I continue to believe we should not tax homeownership at all. I believe that there is more work to do."
The legislation includes a rollback of city and county tax bases to the current year, with an allowance for population growth, and up to a 9 percent additional cut. Cities and counties could override the cap by supermajority or unanimous votes.
The second part, which requires a statewide referendum because it would be an amendment to the state Constitution, would create new homestead exemptions worth up to $195, 000 on the first $500, 000 of value.
Committees in the House and Senate passed the legislation on party line votes, a preview of how things may go today. The constitutional amendment drew universal opposition from Democrats.
Republicans, who noted a previous Democratic plan also hit schools, said the money would be replaced annually during the budget process.
Republicans confident plan will be passed
Webster said he is confident at least 24 of the 25 Senate Republicans would vote yes on the larger homestead exemption, ensuring it will get on the statewide ballot where voters will be the final arbiters of whether it becomes law.
"I assume we've got the votes, " Webster said. "No one in our caucus has told me they're voting no."
The committee votes set off partisan fighting that had been largely absent from the spring's regular session.
Rubio dismissed all arguments of the largely Democratic opposition.
"We're probably about 24 hours or so away from passing the single largest tax cut in Florida's history, " he said Wednesday afternoon. "But over the next 24 hours, the opponents of property tax relief are going to make their last stand."
The Capitol courtyard swarmed Wednesday with 300 firefighters from across the state. Dressed in uniforms, they held protest signs and cheered as leaders railed against the cuts.
"People will die as a result, " said Bob Carver, president of the Florida Professional Firefighters. "The fires will burn longer."
Afterward, the men and women took to the halls, stopping legislators and taking front row seats at the House and Senate committee meetings.
"Make sure you are seen, " said Capt. Shayne Stewart of the Okaloosa Island Fire Department. "If we lose, " he said, "then we really have to attack that constitutional amendment. That is the killer."
Firefighters filled meeting rooms, vying for space with scores of lobbyists for cities and counties, along with local elected officials who oppose both components of the plan.
Gov. Charlie Crist briefly walked through the Capitol cafeteria at lunchtime and met several blue-clad members of Orange County Fire Rescue, and reassured them that they wouldn't lose their jobs.
"Don't worry, " Crist told the group, "I've got your back."
Crist has repeatedly said the proposed tax cuts would not require the layoff of a single firefighter or police officer, but that claim has been contradicted by city and county officials and fire officials across the state.
The Senate was expected to begin debate today at 9 a.m., while the House will resume talks at noon.