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Senate reveals final tax proposal
The state Legislature must quickly agree on property taxes in order to meet Tuesday's deadline.
By ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writer
Published October 29, 2007
TALLAHASSEE - With just one day left to pass a property tax plan, lawmakers returning this morning must consider a stripped down, take-it-or-leave-it proposal from the Senate.
Released Sunday afternoon, the Senate plan calls for a 10 percent cap on annual assessments for businesses and second homes, not the 5 percent the House demanded. And the cap would not apply to property taxes that fund public schools.
The reworked proposal would also allow people to carry accrued Save Our Homes benefits when they move, and it would double the $25,000 homestead exemption - popular items that Senate leaders and Gov. Charlie Crist consider critical in gaining voter approval in January.
"I firmly believe that we have a proposed constitutional amendment that provides tax relief and reform; that minimizes the negative impact on education funding; and that will be understandable and acceptable to voters this January," Senate President Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, wrote in a memo.
But whether any plan goes to voters on Jan. 29 depends on what happens today, the final day of a special session that began with agreement between both chambers but rapidly morphed into a standoff over how best to cut taxes.
"We have one day to bring this in to a landing," said state Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach. "I just hope we don't crash."
First, the Senate must pass its new plan. Then the House would have to choose the plan over its own proposal, which it adopted a week ago.
Crist told the St. Petersburg Times on Sunday that he is confident in a resolution: "I think it's looking good." He has suggested that lawmakers could extend the session into Tuesday, the deadline for getting ballot language to the Secretary of State's Office.
But the Senate has no desire to stretch things out. "Monday is it," said Sen. Dan Webster, the Winter Garden Republican who fashioned the new deal.
House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-Miami, who made no public comment on the Senate plan Sunday, is now forced into a difficult position of accepting the proposal or refusing it and sharing blame with lawmakers in both chambers over having failed to cut taxes yet again.
A previous plan, passed in June, was thrown off the ballot after a judge ruled it confusing and misleading. (The Legislature has already passed a plan, which did not need voter approval, that caps property tax revenue collections of local governments.)
"The Senate played this very smart," said Rep. Jack Seiler, D-Wilton Manors. "I think there will be some grumbling, but at the end of day, I think the House will take it. If we leave Tallahassee without passing some tax reform and relief, we have failed Floridians. You can't spin it any differently."
Senate leaders spent the past several days analyzing the House plan and trying to work up a new version. Mostly, they stuck to their own plan while discarding some elements both chambers wanted.
Gone are provisions for low-income seniors, first-time home buyers and waterfront commercial property. Also left out: A proposal that would have made it easier for businesses to challenge property assessments. The cuts reflected political calculations - a poll last week showed the new home buyer break was not popular - and a desire to streamline the ballot question.
"What the governor kept saying was very helpful: 'Keep it simple.' We have put together a moderate, responsible plan," said Sen. Steve Geller, the top Democrat who was involved in crafting the new deal over the weekend.
Geller predicted "overwhelming" support from both parties in the Senate. Putting a constitutional amendment on the January ballot requires three-fourths approval in both chambers, so Democratic support is vital.
Then the plan must please 60 percent of voters in a statewide referendum, a high bar for even the best of proposals.
While both sides agree on Save Our Homes "portability," the House offered a homestead exemption equal to 40 percent of the median home value in a given county. But the Senate considered the plan too confusing and said it could create inequities among homeowners who live near each other but in different counties, among other problems.
Polls show doubling the $25,000 homestead exemption is overwhelmingly popular, and the Senate wants to use that as a vehicle for passing the overall plan. In practice, the new break will be closer to $15,000, however, because it does not apply to school taxes, which account for about 40 percent of an overall tax bill.
Public schools have played a central role in the tax dispute. The House's 5 percent cap would apply to school taxes and would have taken up to $6.2-billion from schools over a decade. The Senate had initially rejected a cap over myriad concerns, but Webster said including the measure was necessary to attract House support.
"There's a House, a Senate and the public," he said. "In the end, you have to please them all."
The 10 percent Senate cap would not apply to schools and would sunset after 10 years. "This doesn't provide the protection businesses need," said Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale.
The cap would save businesses and snowbirds an estimated $1.1-billion over four years, according to a Senate analysis released Sunday. And business interests have argued for a level of predictability a cap provides, as much as they have called for lower taxes.
"We'd love to see the cap as low as possible," said David Daniel, a lobbyist for the Florida Chamber of Commerce. "But I'm excited that the Senate is coming to the table on this issue."
Times staff writer Jennifer Liberto contributed to this report.
What does it do?
The Florida Senate's new property tax cut proposal would:
1. Make Save Our Homes portable. Owners can use the benefit, up to $500,000, when they buy a new home. People who moved in 2007 could get the benefit retroactively.
2. Double the $25,000 homestead exemption.
3. Cap annual nonhomestead property assessments at 10 percent. It does not apply to school taxes.