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Florida lawmakers' ardor for property tax relief cools

TALLAHASSEE — The property tax debate kicked off Tuesday in the Legislature with all the vigor of years' past.

But even ardent supporters are lowering expectations.

"I don't think you're going to see that huge rush," said Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, whose committee took up — and passed on a party line vote — a tax cap that critics savaged as dangerous during a recession.

The debate was only a snapshot but may foretell the fate of an array of property tax bills during the 60-day session dominated by the more than $5 billion state budget shortfall.

"We all know our cities are in trouble, our counties are in trouble, the state of Florida is certainly in trouble," Bennett said. "So I don't see anything that is going to be a major, major burden."

Legislators may not feel rushed to get cuts through this session because any major changes would have to wait for voter approval in 2010.

Bennett predicted the tax cap and a similarly sweeping proposal to restrict taxes to 1.35 percent of the taxable value of any parcel would not get approved during the 60-day session. Rather, Bennett said, plans would get overhauled during the summer for next year and then put on the 2010 ballot.

The Florida economy, however, is showing signs of an extended slump into next year, which could further diminish the call for more property tax relief.

There have been other signs of pessimism.

Gov. Charlie Crist, who in late February was shopping several property tax ideas — including one to limit growth in the assessed value of businesses, vacation homes and other nonhomesteaded properties to 5 percent annually — barely mentioned property taxes during his State of the State speech last week.

On Tuesday, Crist endorsed the plan before Bennett's Community Affairs Committee. It would cap revenue at 2010-2011 levels and base growth on inflation plus population or school enrollment changes. It requires a referendum for any new tax, fee or assessment.

"We're going to give voters the ultimate veto power, but also predictability," said sponsor Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, who is branding the proposal as a "smart cap."

His plan has four more stops in the Senate, a tough road to be sure. It also has to get through the House. A fiscal analysis has not yet been done.

House leaders are also less bullish about big ideas this session. Rep. Dean Cannon, the Winter Park Republican in line to become speaker in 2010, pointed to previous cuts over the past two years and said the cool housing market has reduced property values.

Last week, lawmakers learned from state economists that Florida property values have dropped by 12 percent, or $219 billion, resulting in nearly $1 billion less revenue for schools alone next year.

"The issue isn't as pressing in 2009 as it was in 2007," Cannon said. Instead, he said, the focus would be on tweaking parts of the current system.

One plan calls for changing the "recapture" provision of the Save Our Homes amendment that allows tax assessments to increase even when market values decline. Lawmakers have been besieged by angry constituents wondering why their bills have gone up despite lower values.

But many argue that the recapture rule presents a measure of fairness to Save Our Homes, the 3 percent cap on annual assessments that is far more generous than anything nonhomestead or commercial property owners enjoy.

"It's more complicated than people realize," said Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, chairwoman of the Finance and Tax Council.

"It's a heavy lift. We've got a lot going, on and the question is, where are we going to put our time. This is not the year to make a statement."

Times/Herald staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.

Florida lawmakers' ardor for property tax relief cools 03/10/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 10, 2009 11:20pm]
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