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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Deeper school cuts could threaten tax plan



School officials were relieved last week as the Legislature’s property tax proposal took shape: Cuts to education were largely avoided. But the first specific details were released Monday and the numbers are far less comforting than many expected.

Schools would take a $442-million hit next year and more than $2-billion over four years.

“It’s created a tremendous amount of heartburn among Democrats,” said Rep. Jack Seiler of Wilton Manors.

“When we left Friday we thought we had an understanding what the impact would be,” Seiler added. “Now we see it will be much bigger, and it’s hard to support anything that cuts into eduction.”

The unexpected turn came on a day of confusion and criticism over the tax proposal. Lawmakers in both parties struggled to understand the fine details even as the schedule is still on pace for passage this week.

A House committee Monday voted unanimously in favor of the five-year plan that would cut property taxes by $11-billion. A Senate panel took a more deliberative approach, setting up a crucial committee vote today.

Amid it all, the higher than anticipated impact on schools could prove one of the more contentious points. If Democrats’ concerns are not allayed, the entire package could be in jeopardy.  Their votes are needed to put the proposal before voters on Jan. 29.

School officials took a measured approach.

“It’s substantially higher than we thought it would be,” conceded Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association. But Blanton is not yet alarmed.

For one, the cut is lower than the $7-billion that would have been cut under the Legislature’s now-abandoned “super” homestead exemption proposal.

And Blanton and others are counting — at least publicly — on a pledge from top Republicans to replace revenues that schools would lose under the property tax plan.

“We’re making that commitment again here,” said Sen. Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, who led the tax discussion in the Senate Monday.

Gov. Charlie Crist echoed that sentiment. “Through the budget process, I believe we will make good on education,” he said.

Both Crist and Haridopolos said the tax relief could stimulate the housing market and create more tax revenue for schools.

“Even though our part of the property tax revenue has been reduced, we know they’ll look other places to fill that whole,” said Connie Milito, a lobbyist for Hillsborough County schools.
Not everyone agreed.

“They are lying when they say we’re going to add another $500-million for schools,” said Sen. Steve Geller, D-Cooper City, who has growing increasingly uncomfortable with the tax proposal.
While the major components of the tax plan — doubling the homestead exemption and making Save Our
Homes portable and a break for first time home buyers — do not affect school budgets, other breaks for low-income seniors and businesses do.

The low income senior break would eliminate all property taxes for people over 65 and have a household income of less than $23,604. The estimated four-year cut: $2.6-billion from school, city, county and special taxing districts.

The effect on schools is larger in counties with more elderly residents. Pinellas County would see a $22-million decrease next year, or 3.4 percent. Hillsborough would lose $17-million; Pasco $10-million and Hernando, $5.6-million.

“Aren’t we essentially pitting or creating a battle between one group of low income seniors in our state ... and those advocates of public education who are concerned about a billion dollar cut to our schools?” asked Sen. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton.

[Last modified: Wednesday, September 15, 2010 11:20am]


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