TALLAHASSEE — State Senate leaders are crafting a plan to combine a proposed class-size amendment with a penny sales tax increase for education and to put the issue before voters as soon as this fall.
The deal is designed to bridge the divide between Republicans and Democrats on the two major education issues of this year's legislative session. Republicans would get the class-size modification they seek, and Democrats would get the penny sales tax they have been hoping for as money dedicated to public education.
Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville, is leading the compromise discussions along with Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville. They are co-sponsors of the Senate version of the proposal to halt class-size reductions at the schoolwide average and allow for flexibility in classroom maximums.
Wise said the Florida Education Association is conducting polls to determine support.
"I haven't counted the votes, and it's a political issue that the House and the Senate are talking about,'' Wise said.
Getting something passed on the ballot this year would pre-empt the current class-size mandate, which requires individual class-size maximums by the beginning of the 2010 school year. Plus, starting in January, the state could collect that extra sales tax to a tune of $2.8 billion a year.
As a proposed constitutional amendment, the measure requires three-fifths support in both chambers to be put on the next general election ballot, which is 2010.
But to get it to a vote this fall, in a special election, it would need 75 percent support in both chambers, or 30 votes in the Senate and 90 in the House. And Wise said a special election could cost $20 million.
"We're going to have to do something to figure how to get the dollars," Wise said. "That's a little above my pay grade right now."
The Legislature can pass a penny sales tax increase without putting it to voters, but making it part of a constitutional amendment on class size opens up the channels for support, specifically among Republicans, Wise said.
"The House has said they're not taking taxes, well they're not passing a tax; they're passing a bill that puts it on the Constitution for the people to vote on it," Wise said. "That's different than passing a tax. And that satisfies in my mind the argument that they have in the House over passing taxes."
But it's not at all clear that Republican House leaders would support such a package deal, the same leaders who have been against raising any taxes this year.
And unlike the three-year penny sales tax that Democrats have been proposing, this plan would be for a permanent one-cent increase in the state sales tax.
"I don't envision us including a sales tax increase in our plan," said Rep. Adam Hasner, R-Delray Beach, the House majority leader. "Raising sales taxes and property taxes is not in our plan to get Florida's economy going again."
Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, sponsors the House resolution on amending the class-size amendment and said Gaetz told him this compromise was a possibility.
"I haven't really had a chance to think about it," said Weatherford, whose class-size proposal passed the House Education Council on Wednesday. "I just think it's a separate issue. I'd like to get through the budget process to see where we are."
The idea of putting the proposals together in one constitutional amendment is only possible because the Legislature can combine issues, while citizen ballot initiatives are limited to one. But voters would not have the option of saying yes to one and not the other. The ballot measure would be combined, allowing only one vote for the two issues. And to pass, 60 percent approval is required.
"I think one does not have much of a chance without the other," said Gaetz, who stresses the need for support from the teachers union, school boards, superintendents and parents groups. "I haven't seen that broad-based support for such a package."
So why would anti-tax Republicans make this deal?
"I think there are Republicans like Steve Wise who lay awake at night worrying about the adequacy of education funding," Gaetz said. "We care about public schools in the state, so any option that is reasonable is an option that needs to be considered. But I don't know that there's a groundswell."
Rep. Marty Kiar, D-Davie, is an outspoken opponent of the class-size proposal and just Wednesday offered an amendment to Weatherford's version that was shot down on a party vote. But he is open to the idea of a combined proposal.
"It's something I'm definitely open to and something that I'd like to explore," Kiar said.
Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.