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Panel may get say on tax plan
The group plans to be ready if the constitutional amendment fails.
By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published June 27, 2007
TALLAHASSEE - An obscure but powerful government panel is already planning for possible failure at the polls of the constitutional amendment that would slash property taxes.
You may not have heard of the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission, but over the next few months, you will.
The panel of appointed political heavyweights convenes every 20 years for a thorough review of Florida's taxing and spending systems.
The 25-member body, which has equal power with lawmakers to place proposed constitutional amendments directly before voters in November 2008, is just getting started.
But members quickly agreed Tuesday that they need to develop their own property tax cut proposals in case voters reject the Legislature's proposed constitutional amendment next Jan. 29.
"If we didn't look at property taxes, I don't think we would be doing our job, " said chairman Allan Bense, a Panama City businessman and former speaker of the Florida House.
Bense said the commission must walk a fine line by planning for the possibility that voters will reject the super-sized homestead exemption without trying to second-guess lawmakers.
"I just don't want to wake up on Jan. 30 if it's not successful, and we've done nothing, " he said.
The proposed amendment would offer homesteaded property owners a choice: They could keep their current Save Our Homes protection that caps annual assessment increases at 3 percent. Or they could accept a big increase in the $25, 000 homestead exemption. Under the amendment, it would rise to 75 percent of the first $200, 000 of property value and 15 percent of the next $300, 000 in value, with a minimum of $50, 000 $100, 000 for low-income seniors.
The commission's presence offers hope to groups frustrated by the Legislature's tax package.
Chris Holley of the Florida Association of Counties said he hoped to persuade the commission that what the Legislature is proposing tramples on the home rule power of counties.
"Our hope is that we can have a dialogue with them over home rule, " said Holley, whose group had favored the idea of letting the commission take the lead on tax reform, not the Legislature.
Cities, counties and public employee unions are mobilizing to oppose the referendum.
The opposition has triggered speculation that the homestead exemption amendment can't get the 60 percent approval it needs to become law.
The commission's high-powered membership, drawn from the ranks of business, government and politics, will soon embark on public hearings around the state.
What emerged Tuesday is that the commission's 11-member subcommittee on finance and taxation will be the focal point for the taxation debate in coming months.
The panel is headed by Susan Story of Pensacola, chief executive officer of Gulf Power and the incoming chairwoman of the Florida Chamber of Commerce.
Story said the subcommittee will develop two proposals - one in response to the tax referendum's passage and one in response to its failure.
"I think we need to prepare for both ways, " agreed commission member Nancy Riley of Clearwater, president of the Florida Association of Realtors.