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State school leaders mention the 'T' word — taxes

If it would prevent more budget cuts to Florida schools, would you pay a dime more for a frosty brew down at Four Green Fields?

How about a quarter more for that pack of smokes? How about 1 percent more for just about everything else you buy?

As Florida's revenue continues to shrink by the billions, jittery school leaders are talking taxes.

The Florida Education Association, for instance, has called for a three-year, 1 percent sales tax that it says would raise $3.5-billion per year. And the Florida School Boards Association has recommended reinstating the state's liquor tax, adding to the cigarette tax, allowing for the expansion of gambling and closing loopholes in the services tax.

" 'Tax' is not a four-letter word," said Jim Warford, executive director of the Florida Association of School Administrators. "We must identify new sources of revenue for our schools."

Lawmakers have signaled a willingness to listen. But so far, the Republican-led Legislature does not appear inclined to move on many of these ideas.

"I don't think the Senate is prepared to take up any legislation that would increase taxes or create new taxes," said Senate president pro tem Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey.

But, Fasano added, additional revenue may still be found. He cited two possibilities: collection of sales taxes on items sold over the Internet and expansion of gaming in areas where the state currently allows it.

Sensing little help is coming from Tallahassee, a couple of school districts have turned to their local taxpayers for added support. Others are talking about it.

Alachua County voters approved a four-year, 1 mill property tax increase this month that will raise $13-million a year for schools. Collier County voters agreed to transfer a portion of their capital fund tax rate to the district's general fund, providing an extra $16-million to $19-million annually for operating expenses.

Pinellas already has a local-option property tax for operations. Voters in Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando have supported sales tax increases to pay for school construction, as well.

Asking voters to raise taxes is not a prospect Hillsborough School Board member Candy Olson relishes.

"I would hate to do it in a tough economic time, because nobody is feeling better. But we may have to," Olson said. "We really have been focusing on how we can be as efficient and effective as possible. I think this next round of cuts is going to make people look for where they can go for more money."

Pinellas School Board member Janet Clark said local districts shouldn't have to bear the burden.

The state has "played the shell game (with funding) and they're putting it on our backs," Clark said. "They absolutely have a duty, a paramount duty (to fund schools), and they're not doing it. We're not supposed to be scrounging around and raising taxes at our level."

Bottom line, though, is the professed need for more money.

Districts now contribute more to education than the state, and this spring they saw their first true decrease in state funding in years. Since then, the state has announced it will cut funding by 1.93 percent — a total of $53-million combined for Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando — and the expectation is that more reductions are coming both this year and next.

"They either need to find additional revenue or we're going to be cutting a lot of things," school boards association executive director Wayne Blanton said. "It's going to be an interesting year."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

State school leaders mention the 'T' word — taxes 11/18/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 19, 2008 6:33pm]
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