TALLAHASSEE — Cash-strapped school districts may soon have an alternative to the property tax revenue that currently funds construction and maintenance.
A House panel on Tuesday approved a measure that would allow Florida school boards to levy a half-penny sales tax in exchange for a reduction in school property taxes. The revenue could be used only for capital projects.
If the law were to pass, school boards would have to put the tax swap on a countywide ballot, and a majority of voters would have to approve it.
Rep. Erik Fresen, a Miami Republican sponsoring the bill in the House, said the sales tax would provide "a steadier, more predictable revenue stream for the school districts, while providing some tax relief for the voters."
Florida school districts have taken a financial hit as property values have dropped — and as state lawmakers have reduced the amount of property taxes school boards can levy in the first place.
The result: Districts across the state have had a difficult time funding maintenance and repairs.
In Miami-Dade County alone, tumbling tax rolls and reduced tax collections have cost the school district more than $1 billion over the past five years. School district officials have said they can complete only emergency repairs, and that fences, air conditioning and drainage issues might need to be overlooked.
School districts also have received progressively less money from the Public Education Capital Outlay Fund program. Last year, all of the PECO funds went to charter schools, which are independently run, but funded by tax dollars.
The Miami-Dade and Broward school districts are supporting Fresen's effort to give school boards extra flexibility.
Fresen said a tax swap would be cost neutral or generate a savings to the average taxpayer. (In Miami-Dade, district officials believe it would result in a net tax decrease to the tune of $69.)
But because some of the sales taxes would be paid by tourists, it could mean millions of dollars more to school districts.
The bill passed through the subcommittee by a 12-2 vote.
"We are not raising taxes or lowering taxes," said Rep. Ana Rivas Logan, a former Miami-Dade County School Board member, who voted in favor of the measure. "We are simply asking the voters how they would like to handle the issue."
Rep. Michael Bileca, R-Miami, had a different opinion.
He said an additional sales tax in Miami-Dade might discourage businesses and consumers on the Broward county line from doing business in Miami-Dade.
"My main concern is the difference between the Broward County and the Dade County sales tax," he said. "If our sales tax goes up, it could have a real impact on purchases within Dade County."
Rep. Bill Hager, R-Boca Raton, also cast a dissenting vote.
The Senate version of the bill, which is being sponsored by Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Miami, is not yet scheduled to be heard.