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Deep school cuts in offing
In the Legislature's property tax plan, schools would take a $2-billion cut over four years.
By ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writer
Published October 16, 2007
TALLAHASSEE - School officials were relieved last week as the Legislature's property tax proposal took shape: Cuts to education were largely avoided.
But the first specific details were released Monday, and the numbers are far less comforting than many expected.
Schools would take a $442-million hit next year and more than $2-billion over four years.
"It's created a tremendous amount of heartburn among Democrats," said Rep. Jack Seiler of Wilton Manors.
"When we left Friday we thought we had an understanding what the impact would be," Seiler added. "Now we see it will be much bigger, and it's hard to support anything that cuts into eduction."
The unexpected turn came on a day of confusion and criticism over the tax proposal. Lawmakers in both parties struggled to understand the details even as the schedule is still on pace for passage this week.
A House committee Monday voted unanimously in favor of the five-year plan that would cut property taxes by $11-billion. A Senate panel took a more deliberative approach, setting up a crucial committee vote today.
The impact on schools could prove one of the more contentious points. If Democrats' concerns are not allayed, the entire package could be in jeopardy.
Their votes are needed to put the plan before voters on Jan. 29.
School officials took a measured approach.
"It's substantially higher than we thought it would be," conceded Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association. But Blanton is not yet alarmed.
For one thing, the cut is lower than the $7-billion that would have been cut under the Legislature's now-abandoned super homestead exemption proposal.
And Blanton and others are counting - at least publicly - on a pledge from top Republicans to replace revenue that schools would lose under the plan.
"We're making that commitment again here," said Sen. Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne.
Gov. Charlie Crist echoed that sentiment. "Through the budget process, I believe we will make good on education," he said.
Both Crist and Haridopolos said the tax relief could stimulate the housing market and create more tax revenue for schools.
"Even though our part of the property tax revenue has been reduced, we know they'll look other places to fill that whole," said Connie Milito, a lobbyist for Hillsborough County schools.
Not everyone agreed.
"They are lying when they say we're going to add another $500-million for schools," said Sen. Steve Geller, D-Cooper City.
While the major components of the tax plan - doubling the homestead exemption and making Save Our Homes portable and a break for first-time home buyers - do not affect school budgets, other breaks for low-income seniors and businesses do.
The low-income senior break would eliminate all property taxes for people over 65 who have a household income that does not exceed $23,604. The estimated four-year cut: $2.6-billion from school, city, county and special taxing districts.
The effect on schools is larger in counties with more elderly residents. Pinellas would see a $22-million decrease next year, or 3.4 percent. Hillsborough would lose $17-million; Pasco $10-million and Hernando $5.6-million.
Staff writers Jennifer Liberto, Steve Bousquet and Letitia Stein contributed to this report