Legislature won't brag about making this history

The Florida Legislature made history this year. But it's not the kind of stuff lawmakers will brag about on the campaign trail this summer.

Next year's state budget sets a precedent that could trigger a constitutional clash involving the Legislature and Gov. Charlie Crist over how Florida pays for public education.

This is the first time that a greater share of the public school budget will come from local property taxes than from state taxes.

Of that $18.4-billion headed to public schools, $9.4-billion will come from local taxes and $9-billion from state taxes. That's an increase of $363-million in local taxes and a decrease of $696-million in state taxes. (Overall, public schools will see $332-million less next year.)

Why does this matter? After all, taxes all come out of the same pocket.

Consider these three reasons.

One, this increasing reliance on local property taxes has been building for years. As recently as five years ago, the state share of education spending was 59 percent. Since then, under then-Gov. Jeb Bush, the state has spent proportionately less on schools and relied on the real estate boom and expansion of the property tax base to make up the difference. Next year, the state's share will be roughly 49 percent.

Three years ago, a majority of Pinellas County's school budget came from local taxes for the first time. Next year the rest of the state will catch up.

Second, a proposal on the November ballot would eliminate the $9.4-billion local share and require future legislatures to raise the sales tax and take other possibly drastic measures to make up the difference. If voters approve, the task will be monumentally more difficult because of the growing reliance on local property taxes.

Third, and perhaps most important, is a clause in the state Constitution, approved by voters in 1998, which states in part: "The education of children is a fundamental value of the people of the state of Florida. It is, therefore a paramount duty of the state to make adequate provision for the education of all children residing within its borders. Adequate provision shall be made by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools."

Citing this provision, a teachers union, the Florida Education Association, is considering suing the state for failing to keep up its end of the bargain. Union attorney Ron Meyer said the group will be exploring its options with state associations representing school boards, superintendents, administrators and PTAs.

"I think we will pursue it," Meyer said. "All of these education stakeholders have been concerned with the direction we have been going, because of the diminution in funding of public education."

It will hardly come as a surprise that Republican legislators, who have assembled school budgets for the past 12 years, see no big deal here. The latest budget is partly the work of Rep. Joe Pickens of Palatka, a knowledgeable and respected lawmaker who has been term-limited out of the Legislature.

Pickens said the shift toward local taxes is "a natural trend," given the accelerated growth in the property tax base. (Wait — isn't the speed-up in property taxes the same thing the Legislature criticizes counties and cities for?)

"I've always been very interested in y'all's (news media) fascination with that the state-local mix, given that the state money doesn't just come from a state tree. State money comes from taxpayers," Pickens said. "In the end, it's all taxpayer money."

True enough, but local taxes come from real estate — from the backs of homeowners and business owners. State taxes come from taxes on consumption, from cars to restaurant meals, and a big chunk of that is paid by nonresidents.

It would be ironic if the education funding system triggered a legal challenge, since this year the Legislature did manage to hold the line on the tax rate used to raise those property taxes for schools.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com.

Legislature won't brag about making this history 05/23/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 28, 2008 10:55am]

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