Gov. Rick Scott faces concern from fellow Republicans over 'tax increase' to fund schools

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TALLAHASSEE — In touting his plan for record school spending, Gov. Rick Scott is ignoring a fact that concerns some of his fellow Republicans: He wants property taxpayers to pay more.

Scott's $77 billion budget, awaiting review by the Legislature, includes $842 million more for public schools, raising per pupil spending to its highest level.

More than half of the increase would come from higher property taxes paid by homeowners and business owners as a result of growth in property values.

That's definitely a tax increase, a leading Republican legislator says.

"It is a tax increase if you're a property taxpayer who gets a tax bill that will go up next year compared to this year. Property taxpayers will look at that and say 'That's a tax increase,'" says Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, an architect of the next education budget as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Education.

Gaetz said that as local property taxes account for a growing share of school district budgets, school boards deserve more autonomy.

"He who has the gold sets the rules," Gaetz said. "In this case , the state is contributing less and less of the taxpayers' gold, and local school districts are contributing more and more."

Gaetz, a Scott ally, is expected to support a budget that requires higher property tax collections. A former superintendent and school board member in Okaloosa County, he said the tax-hike question is not complicated for taxpayers: "If the check he has to write goes up, then he thinks his taxes go up," he said.

Scott's education budget, a starting point for two months of negotiations with lawmakers, includes $392 million more in property taxes collected statewide as the counties' share of school spending, known as required local effort, for a total of $7.6 billion.

The state-mandated property tax rate for schools would remain the same under Scott's proposal — about $5 for every $1,000 of taxable value — but the growth in property values would require taxpayers to pay more.

"Because property values are starting to increase, the required local effort actually generates considerably more dollars," said Pasco County Superintendent Kurt Browning, a Republican. "Are people paying more taxes? Yes."

Scott took exception to calling his proposed increase in property tax collections a tax hike.

"Sen. Gaetz is right that we always need to find ways to lower taxes and the governor has said he wants to see legislation to prevent local governments from raising property taxes when home values are not rising," Scott spokeswoman Jackie Schutz said. "The Florida economy is booming –home values are up and state revenues are up. The last five budgets adopted by the legislature followed the exact same … funding policy used in this budget. This means we can cut taxes and invest more in education."

Scott wants to reduce taxes on Floridians by $673 million, mostly through a small reduction of taxes on cell phones. That means there isn't enough money, even with a projected budget surplus of $1 billion, to cut taxes and increase school spending without leaning on the backs of property taxpayers.

Under Scott's proposal, the state would require an additional $14 million in property taxes in Pinellas County; $31 million in Hillsborough; and $7 million in Pasco.

In Miami and other booming urban areas, some of the new money is the result of new construction, as new office buildings, condos and homes are added to the tax rolls for the first time. But in a built-out county such as Pinellas, virtually all of the increase would fall on homeowners and businesses.

Historically, the cost of public education in Florida is a mix of state sales tax collections and local property taxes.

The state share is critical because property values vary widely among the 67 counties and all students are entitled to equal educational opportunity whether they live in a county with high or low property values.

In 1998, the year before Gov. Jeb Bush took office, the state share of public school funding was 59 percent and the local share was 41 percent. The year of the smallest state share was in 2008 in Charlie Crist's tenure, and the state-to-local share of school funding in the current year's budget is 51 to 49 percent. That proportion would remain the same under Scott's plan.

Whether a spike in property values is a tax increase has been the subject of much debate. It became an issue in the 2014 governor's race when Scott's Democratic challenger, Charlie Crist, ran a TV ad that said: "Rick Scott raised your property taxes," a reference to the current budget that also increased property tax collections for schools but without raising the tax rate.

Politifact.com rated Crist's claim mostly false and noted that property tax collections are increasing "because property values are going up after a historic recession and loss of real estate values."

But it's a politically touchy issue because the governor and Legislature set the tax rate for schools, and elected school board members have to ratify it.

"I don't want to burden the local taxpayer if I don't have to," said Peggy O'Shea, a member of the Pinellas County school board. "The required local effort isn't set by us, and that's a big issue that I think the public doesn't realize."

O'Shea said she wants to determine whether Scott's overall budget is good for Pinellas students.

Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet on Twitter.

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