Less opposition for new property tax amendment


Published: Thursday, November 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, November 1, 2007 at 6:55 a.m.

TALLAHASSEE - As groups began to line up for and against a new property tax amendment that will be on the Jan. 29 ballot, one thing is clear: this proposal has fewer enemies.

Facts

School funding cuts

  • The property tax amendment would cut school funding statewide by $2.76 billion over five years. The following figures represent how much each county would lose:


  • Alachua County: $28.3 million


  • Bradford County: $1.5 million


  • Putnam County: $5.7 million


  • Levy County: $3.5 million


  • Gilchrist County: $1.2 million


  • Suwannee County: $2.9 million


  • Dixie County: $900,000


  • Union County: $500,000


  • Marion County: $26.5 million

It is definitely more popular than the "super'' homestead exemption that was originally slated for the presidential primary ballot.

But that complicated tax break was rejected by the courts and was replaced earlier this week when the Legislature voted for a new constitutional amendment that would double homestead exemptions and allow residents to transfer their Save Our Homes benefits when they move. It also provides businesses and second-home owners with a 10 percent cap on annual property assessment increases.

Gov. Charlie Crist is wildly enthusiastic about the new amendment, which could cut property taxes by more than $12 billion over the next five years. And he has already begun to campaign vigorously for its passage.

But it has its critics, too. The politically powerful Florida Education Association made it clear Wednesday that teachers don't like the idea of the amendment potentially cutting more than $2.7 billion in public school spending over the next five years.

"This will cut and harm public education and therefore we can't support it,'' said Andy Ford, president of the FEA.

Another public employees union questioned how the state could make promises to schools and rural counties that they would be "held harmless'' under the new amendment at the same time the state was facing a budget crisis that has already caused lawmakers to reduce spending by $1 billion this year.

"If the state has a two-year budget deficit of $2.5 billion, where's the money to make education whole?'' said Doug Martin, a lobbyist for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

"The only thing in the state's pocket is lint.''

However, Martin said the new amendment was an improvement over its predecessor in terms of lessening the impact on schools and local governments. "The best that can be said about this one is that it is not as catastrophic as the last one,'' he said.

Florida's local governments have raised questions about the new amendment's financial impact, particularly on smaller counties and cities. They also cited the cumulative impact of the $12 billion in lower revenues on top of the $15 billion that cities and counties had to cut back earlier this year. But there were some positives, including the decision by lawmakers to drop a measure that would have further restricted the ability of local governments to set tax rates.

"That's a good deal,'' said John Thomas, a lobbyist for the Florida League of Cities.

House Democratic leader Dan Gelber of Miami Beach said while he opposes the amendment because of its impact on schools it may be difficult to explain the negatives of a measure that also bolsters the politically popular Save Our Homes program, which limits assessment increases on residential property to 3 percent a year.

"This may be one of those horrible policies that's popular,'' he said. "People are hurting so much, any amendment that provides relief is going to be popular.''

But Gelber said opposition does seem muted compared to the focused anger against the failed "super'' exemption amendment that would have phased out Save Our Homes.

"My fear is I'm going to become the leader of the 'I told you so' party,'' Gelber said.

Most of Florida's major business organizations are expected to rally behind the new amendment, although the businesses didn't get as much from the amendment as they had advocated. Nonetheless, most business lobbyists said that they see the 10 percent cap on assessment increases for non-homestead property as an advancement, while adding they expect further protections in the future.

"We're supportive of the cap,'' said David Daniel, a lobbyist for the Florida Chamber of Commerce. "This is better than what we've got under the current system.''

Daniel said the chamber was prepared "to spend resources to make sure it gets across the finish line.''

"I think this is an important step along the way toward the completed package,'' he said.

But Florida TaxWatch, a business-oriented government watchdog group, said the new amendment does little for commercial and other non-homestead property.

"The plan falls short and doesn't deal with the real problem - that people are being slammed by high property values and high taxes under a system that doesn't treat all taxpayers fairly,'' said Dominic Calabro, the TaxWatch president, in a statement.

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