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We must find ways to fix Florida's unjust tax code

Facing a $3.5-billion shortfall next fiscal year, state lawmakers say they may finally do what they should have done years ago: Fix Florida's grossly unjust tax code.

There's plenty to work with: Amazon.com isn't required to add a penny to the cost of the books it ships to Florida, while the poor soul selling used paperbacks at the local strip mall must tack on the full 6 percent state sales tax.

Ostrich feed, infamously, is tax exempt, as are the sales of other products favored by special interests. Close all these loopholes, I say, and go ahead and increase cigarette taxes to raise money and save lives.

Okay, now that the state is taken care of (no, not really), what about cities, counties and school districts?

They face the same daunting task of trying to pay for vital services without undermining the economy or delivering a financial beating to ordinary residents. What can they do?

So far, the most sensible idea I've seen came from Sindra Ridge, who you may remember for her well-informed opposition to the Hickory Hill development in Spring Lake:

Let's tax proposed subdivisions and strip malls for what they really are — developments waiting to happen — rather than farms.

Owners of these properties "have their cake and eat it,'' she wrote in a Jan. 6 letter to Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland. They win approvals for dense developments, but pay only a fraction of their property's worth as long as it is used for pasture or growing timber.

"Why is this practice still allowed in such tough economic times?'' Ridge asked.

That's exactly why I'm writing about this for the second time in six months. Times are bad and getting worse.

A few weeks ago, I talked to the school district's since-departed chief financial officer, Deborah Bruggink, about the sports, band and art programs that may have to be cut to meet next year's expected $16-million budget shortfall.

Even small, temporary sales- or property-tax levies could represent an extreme hardship in a county with sky-high unemployment and foreclosure rates.

So doesn't it make sense to get a little more from those who can pay?

Hernando gives up about $12-million per year because of so-called greenbelt exemptions for agricultural land. Many of these breaks go to precisely the types of enterprises — dairies, citrus groves and blueberry farms — the 50-year-old law was designed to help.

But many of the largest properties receiving agricultural exemptions have been approved for mining or residential projects, including Hickory Hill and Sunrise, near State Road 50 and Interstate 75.

This land is worth more because it has been approved for development, so the owners should pay more. I think so; Ridge thinks so; and, though she isn't ready to introduce legislation to make it happen, Dockery thinks so.

How much more they should pay, I don't know. It will take some work to figure out how to generate revenue from this land without penalizing farmers who lease it.

But why not try? After wracking my brain, I could come up with only one other way to preserve public institutions without hurting those on the bottom of the economic ladder: Roll back the ban on state and local income taxes.

No, I didn't think you'd go for that.

We must find ways to fix Florida's unjust tax code 01/22/09 [Last modified: Thursday, January 22, 2009 5:43pm]

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