Plan would give voters a budget veto

A tax reform panel debates putting the proposal on ballot.

By Alex Leary, Times Staff Writer
Published February 12, 2008

TALLAHASSEE - Florida voters would have extraordinary veto power over local government budgets under a measure that could be headed to November's ballot.

The Taxation and Budget Reform Commission, a state panel studying ways to reform Florida's tax system, recommended a dramatic plan Monday that calls for a total cap on how much cities, counties, schools and special taxing districts could spend, but also how much taxes they could collect.

It would also put limits on state government spending and revenue.

The idea is the latest - and perhaps most far-reaching - attempt by antitax forces to galvanize public rancor over taxes. It comes just weeks after voters approved a $9.3-billion tax cut package known as Amendment 1 and a half year after local governments were forced to meet property tax caps expected to shave an additional $15-billion over five years.

But while some local government officials expressed new alarm Monday, advocates said widespread support for Amendment 1 provided a mandate for more changes.

"Taxpayers want to have a say in how government grows and how government taxes," said Mike Hogan, the Duval County tax collector and a member of the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission. It was a committee of the commission that approved the plan Monday.

The measure still must be approved by another committee and then 17 of the commission's 25 members to reach the statewide November ballot. The commission, established in the state Constitution, meets every 20 years to look at Florida's tax and budget structure. It's members - who are appointed by the governor, Senate president and House speaker - are overwhelmingly Republican. They have the power to bypass the Legislature and put items on the ballot.

It was unclear Monday if the measure would succeed. Several commission members indicated they were voting yes only so the idea could move to the next committee.

For example, John McKay, a former state Senate president, said it tramples on the bedrock notion of representative government. He equated the measure with Hometown Democracy, a ballot initiative Republicans have almost uniformly denounced because it would grant voters power over local development decisions.

The proposed constitutional amendment would be far harder to reverse than if lawmakers approved a bill.

Under the plan, only voters could give permission to break either the spending or revenue caps set by the proposal. The measure would also require the public to approve any new tax or fee. New revenues would have to be reapproved by voters every four years.

The plan also calls for limiting state government spending and revenue, indexed to inflation and population growth. However, it allows the Legislature to exceed those caps with a supermajority vote of lawmakers.

Excess revenue would have to be put into an emergency fund or refunded to taxpayers.

"It's frightening," said Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala. "Why even have elected officials? It's a dangerous, dangerous way to address the problem with property taxes."

Although the proposal would certainly curb taxes, it does not address inequities in the tax structure. For instance, neighbors in nearly identical homes can pay greatly different property taxes because one has been protected longer under Save Our Homes, the 3 percent annual cap on homesteaded property assessments.

"One plan can't do everything," said Adam Guillette, Florida director of Americans for Prosperity, a group pushing the change. "But with this proposal in place, a tax cut will really be a tax cut. Without it, local government will always find a way to get your money through fees and other ways."

The restrictions are modeled after Colorado's 1992 voter-approved Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, or TABOR, which said annual tax revenue hikes cannot exceed the rate of inflation and population growth combined.

The Florida plan, however, hopes to avoid the problems created by TABOR that led Colorado voters in 2005 to ease off on its restrictions for five years.

TABOR said a new budget can only be a little more than the previous year's. That exacerbated the crisis by continually ratcheting down the ceiling on the next year's budget.

The Florida proposal does not reset each year, but indexes the cap to revenue collected in fiscal year 2005-2006, which was the height of the hot real estate market and, thus, property tax collections.

If it does make the ballot, 60 percent of voters would have to vote yes for it to gain approval.