You use, you pay


Published: Sunday, February 1, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 31, 2009 at 12:11 a.m.

Since passage of the property tax-limiting Amendment 1, cities and counties are having to get much more creative about financing.

And Florida lawmakers have already served notice they intend to ratchet down even more on property taxes this coming session. So local officials will have to get more creative still about how they raise revenues to pay for public services.

Can you say “User Fees R Us”?

Gainesville Mayor Pegeen Hanrahan has been taking a beating on our letters pages this week for her proposal to levy a per-drink tax to help pay the considerable cost of policing the city’s bars and entertainment districts.

That’s assuming, of course, she can get a tax-adverse state legislature to allow it.

“Personally, I’m geared up for that fight,” she said this week.

Well, she better bring her lunch.

The Legislature is extraordinarily solicitous of the alcohol lobby. In fact, just a few years ago, then-Gov. Jeb Bush signed a law repealing a state-level per-drink tax.

This was done at the behest of Florida’s “hospitality” industry, which deemed the tax regressive, anti-business and just plain mean.

Still, even if Hanrahan loses that fight, it’s pretty clear that user fees are the wave of the future in the post-Amendment 1 era.

This week, the Marion County Commission followed Alachua County’s example in giving preliminary approval to the ultimate user fee for motorists — a 5-cent-a-gallon gasoline tax hike to help pay for local road improvements.

And this in a Republican county.

Meanwhile, in Tallahassee this week, city commissioners decided that when the fire department responds to the scene of an auto accident, the motorists involved will henceforth be assessed service fee of $400 to $700.

“It’s shifting responsibility of those dollars from taxpayers to those few that are involved in motor-vehicle accidents,” Tallahassee Fire Department Chief Cindy Dick told the Tallahassee Democrat.

Not surprisingly, that pay-for-assistance approach is getting push-back from auto insurance companies that worry about getting stuck with the bill.

“Public safety is a primary duty of local government. You shouldn’t have to swipe your credit card to get out of a burning vehicle,” William Stander, of the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, told the Democrat.

Anybody want to bet that the insurance lobby will be asking the Legislature this session to prohibit such user fees?

Unification revisited

Gainesville and Alachua County officials have been flirting with the idea of a unified fire service for decades. But periodic merger talks have always resulted in one government or the other walking away from the deal.

Still, local governments have never really faced this kind of financial crisis before, so it’s not surprising that the idea may be getting yet another look.

“People say that consolidation only occurs when there is a crisis,” County Commissioner Lee Pinkoson said in suggesting yet another look at a city-county fire services merger. “This may be the catalyst.”

But, really, why stop there?

This week, lawmakers representing Escambia County agreed to sponsor legislation to create a 25-member appointed commission charged with drafting a proposal to merge the governments of Escambia and the cities of Pensacola and Century. Supporters expect to take the proposed merger to a countywide vote next year.

“We think consolidated government would bring a number of benefits to the community, including a reduction in duplication of services, lower taxes and job creation,” Jason Crawford, co-chairman of All for One, a group pushing unification, told reporters recently.

Historically, most local government unification movements fail. But as Pinkoson suggests, there’s nothing like a cash crunch to focus the mind on changing the status quo.

At some point, property tax-hating voters are likely to conclude that they’re paying for more local government than they really need.

What millions?

Barack Obama carried Florida last November. But he had no coattails; Democrats managed to pick up only one seat in a Legislature still solidly controlled by Republicans.

How is that possible? One word: Apportionment.

Through the artful drawing of legislative and congressional district lines, Republicans have their political dominance in this state sewn up tighter than a drum.

But maybe not for much longer.

This week the Florida Supreme Court cleared two proposed constitutional amendments that, if approved by the voters, should take a lot the partisan gamesmanship out of the reapportionment process.

The court also ordered the elimination of a financial statement which would have informed voters that implementing the amendments would cost “millions of dollars.”

“Scare tactics and vague, unsupportable predictions of financial disaster have no place in the constitutional-amendment process,” admonished Justice R. Fred Lewis, adding that “predictions of financial impact must be grounded in fact, not partisan ideology.”

He’s got a point. But to be fair, drafters of the financial impact statement pretty much had to be vague.

I mean, they couldn’t come right out and say that a nonpartisan redistricting process would cost incumbents who no longer had guaranteed safe seats “millions of dollars” in campaign contributions from powerful special interest groups.

Wouldn’t be prudent.

Ron Cunningham is editorial page editor for The Sun. He can be reached at voice@gvillesun.com or at 352-374-5075. Read his blog, Under The Sun, at www.gainesville.com/opinion.

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