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Proposal to pay for schools irks Bush

A Senate committee suggests school boards and counties increase taxes without voters' approval.

By JULIE HAUSERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 19, 2001


A Senate committee suggests school boards and counties increase taxes without voters' approval.

TALLAHASSEE -- Ever since Gov. Jeb Bush announced that he wants Florida communities to stop approving new development in places with crowded classrooms, one question has persisted around the Capitol: Where's the money going to come from to build new schools?

On Wednesday, a state Senate committee took the first step toward answering that question. But it turns out Gov. Jeb Bush doesn't like the answer.

The Senate committee passed a measure that would allow school boards and county commissions to approve tax increases without having to go to the voters first.

School boards could levy a half-cent sales tax for school construction by a "supermajority" vote -- which is the majority plus one. County commissions would also be able to levy a 1-cent "infrastructure" tax -- which can pay for everything from roads to sewer systems to schools -- without going to voters. Under the Senate's measure, that, too, could be approved by a supermajority of a local commission.

Bush opposes the idea, saying local tax decisions ought to be made by voters.

And the proposal is likely to face political opposition. The Republican-led Legislature is squeamish about counties raising taxes without going to voters first. In Florida, referendums for school construction have fared poorly because many people are retirees whose children and grandchildren go to school elsewhere.

The Senate measure has to go through another committee, where more changes are likely. And the new local tax plan is not part of the House's growth management bill. The House growth management bill was inexplicably pulled from its committee stops this week, and may go straight to the House floor. It's unclear when that might happen.

If all the school boards in the state approved the half-cent tax, it could raise as much as $800-million a year to relieve school overcrowding, said Wayne Blanton, a lobbyist for the Florida School Boards Association.

The local tax plan was applauded by the Florida Home Builders Association, which is concerned that developers might get stuck paying for new schools. Under the changes that Bush and the Legislature want to make to Florida's growth management laws, local governments would have to deny new development in areas where schools are overcrowded. Developers who get turned down would be able to build only if they pay money or donate land to make more classroom space.

The Home Builders lobbyist, Doug Buck, has complained that local governments should find ways to raise money for schools before asking developers to pay for them.

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