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Property tax reform deal's fortunes are fading

Senators appear to have little appetite for House leaders' plans for deeper cuts.

By ALEX LEARY and STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer
Published October 19, 2007


TALLAHASSEE -- A powerful Republican senator said Thursday that divisions between the House and Senate on property tax cuts are so great that compromise may be impossible.

A pessimistic Sen. Daniel Webster blamed House leaders for breaking an agreement on the basics of a plan by adding costly and complicated new provisions that would have trouble winning voter approval.

"When two business people have an agreement, if there is one of the parties that wants to change the agreement, you can't change the agreement at the end. You start anew," Webster said. "I think we have to start all over."

The Senate and House are testing each others' limits. But the conflict underscores the reality that the House has a much bigger appetite for tax cuts than Senate leaders. Senators have adopted a more nuanced approach to tax relief that tries to help homeowners without hurting public education and local government.

The Legislature is under pressure to act quickly. The deadline to put a plan on the Jan. 29 ballot is the end of this month. With the Senate not returning until Tuesday, Webster voiced doubt that the deadline could be met.

He bit his lip and paused. "I don't know. Anything can happen. I guess. ... That would be difficult."

Webster, 58, is an iconic figure among Republican lawmakers. Now in his 27th year in the Legislature, he was the first Republican House speaker in more than 100 years when the GOP took control of the House in 1996. He has spent the past year leading negotiations on property tax cuts.

Gov. Charlie Crist essentially sided with Webster and Senate President Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, saying that the Senate plan represents all that can realistically be done right now.

It would provide up to $11-billion in tax cuts over four years.

Crist sent a clear message to House Speaker Marco Rubio, who is trying to turn property taxes into his signature cause and springboard for higher political aspirations.

"I have made this commitment that if there are additional things he wants to do, I do, too," Crist told the St. Petersburg Times. "But we have to live within the world of the doable here. None of us are king, me included. This is democracy, and we have to have agreement. We should not try to pursue perfection and lose the chance for progress."

Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, the House's lead tax negotiator, played down the criticism.

"It's way too early in the game for anyone to reach any conclusions about what is or is not doable," said Cannon, who met Thursday with key Democrats on details of an enlarged House tax plan.

* * *

For all the grim faces, the Legislature was at a seeming impasse at the end of the regular session in May.

Then, as now, the House wanted to take more dramatic action than the Senate. In the end, the House backed down and a "super homestead exemption" amendment was passed. It was a victory for Webster and Cannon, who spent long hours at Webster's air-conditioning business working out a compromise.

But last month, a circuit judge ruled the amendment was confusing and threw it off the ballot, forcing a second special session.

The session began on a note of consensus: The homestead exemption would be doubled, first-time home buyers and low-income seniors would get tax breaks and the Save Our Homes benefit would be made portable.

Webster said then that internal polls showed overwhelming support for the plan.

But on Tuesday the House again demanded greater cuts. The biggest: extending the 3 percent Save Our Homes cap to second homes and businesses. To reduce property taxes for schools, the House would raise the statewide sales tax 1 cent.

That was too much for the Senate, which passed its plan Wednesday after nine hours of debate that exposed disappointment among both Republicans and Democrats.

Exemplifying their pledge not to veer from the confines of the special session, Senate leaders squashed about 40 amendments aimed at altering the plan.

Instead of passing its own version Thursday morning, House Speaker Rubio sent rank-and-file members home for the weekend while a few negotiators stayed around to rework a deal that includes the cap on nonhomestead property and 1 cent sales tax "swap" and an even newer provision inserted by Democrats.

Called "Save Our Homes Advance," the proposal would grant new homestead exemptions worth 40 percent of the median home value in a county. (That works out to about $70,000 in Hillsborough and Pinellas.)

"We have a chance to do something meaningful. We have a chance to do something meaningful together," Rubio said.

At day's end, Cannon met with House Democratic leaders, seeking common ground on details of the expanded Save Our Homes tax cap, praising them for working to give taxpayers the maximum benefit.

The one-hour session underscored Rubio's strategy to craft a tax package with broad bipartisan support in hopes that the Senate could not possibly reject it.

TAX PLAN COMPARISON

The Florida House and Senate agree on some provisions of a property tax cut plan and disagree on others. Here's a synopsis:*

Areas of agreement

  1. Homestead exemption doubled to $50,000.
  2. Save Our Homes made portable (owners can take benefit with them when they buy a new home).
  3. First-time buyers get extra exemption worth 25 percent of assessed value.
  4. Tax breaks for affordable housing property and working waterfronts.
  5. $25,000 tangible personal property exemption.
  6. Remove county appraisers' "presumption of correctness on appeals."

Total savings: About $8.5-billion

Partial agreement

The House would totally exempt low-income seniors from property taxes. The Senate would limit the exemption to $100,000.

Total savings: $1.3-billion to $2.6-billion.

Total disagreement

The Senate will not go along with the House on its desire to:

  1. Give owners of nonhomestead properties a 3% cap on assessment increases. This would save $14-billion.
  2. Offset the impact that cap would have on education by raising the sales tax 1 cent, raising about $12-billion.

*Preliminary estimates

Source: Florida House, Florida Senate