Senate okays 'super' homestead exemption

The Florida Senate voted 25-12 to ask voters to create a new super-sized homestead exemption in the Florida Constitution.


By STEVE BOUSQUET and ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writers
Published June 14, 2007

TALLAHASSEE – On a party-line vote, the Florida Senate voted 25-12 Thursday to ask voters to create a new super-sized homestead exemption in the Florida Constitution. The House planned to debate and pass the bill Thursday afternoon.

The bill was changed significantly to placate concerns from some Republican senators who said their constituents want to continue enjoying the protection of the 3-percent annual property assessment cap known as Save Our Homes. The change was also intended to soften the financial impact on public education by lowering the overall value of the tax plan, which had been pegged at $31 billion over five years.

Under the amended version, homeowners would have one choice to remain part of Save Our Homes or take the new homestead exemption. If they made no choice, they would continue to have Save Our Homes. Homeowners who move would lose the Save Our Homes protection.

Still undecided was the date of the statewide referendum. Republicans want to put the question to voters on Jan. 29, 2008, the date of the presidential primary in Florida. But if Senate Democrats refuse to go along, the vote would be delayed until the November 2008 general election.

The new wrinkle in the bill allows any homeowner to keep the Save Our Homes tax cap, even if they would save more money under the new homestead exemption. Until Thursday, homeowners did not have that option. Legislative tax experts estimated that 72 percent of homeowners would fare better under the new plan, but the financial savings would diminish over time.

If about 50 percent of that 72 percent elected to keep the Save Our Homes cap, the total statewide drop in tax revenue would be about $7-billion, from $32-billion to $25-billion, over the next five years.

"There are practical considerations. There are regional considerations. There are the needs of the House, Senate, governor and so forth," said Senate Majority Leader Daniel Webster, R-Winter Garden. "We moved through steps, and steps, and steps, and finally got to this point today."

Webster said he first floated the proposal to Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, the House's lead property-tax negotiator, in a telephone conversation at 1:30 a.m. Thursday.

Democrats continued to rail against the proposal, in large part because the loss of tax revenue to public schools ($7-billion over a four-year period) and the threat of cutbacks in public safety, parks, libraries and other popular government services.

All 25 Republicans voted for the bill (SJR 4B) and all 12 Democrats voted no, with two Democrats absent and one vacancy in the 40-member chamber.

House Democratic Leader Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, said that while the property tax option is an improvement, the bill is still badly flawed. "This forces a homeowner to play deal or no deal," Gelber said. "Save Our Homes is a contract with Floridians. You shouldn't break that promise."

Sen. Dave Aronberg of Greenacres was emblematic of Democrats' objection.

"I support tax cuts," he said, "but I will not vote for a tax cut on the backs of our students. They said 'We'll we promise to make it up somewhere.' But you can't fund schools on hollow promises, no matter how well intentioned."