Monday, February 19, 2018
Editorials

Vote no on special property tax breaks

Four of the 11 proposed Florida constitutional amendments on the Nov. 6 ballot read like an ode to mom and apple pie. The Legislature wants voters to approve property tax breaks for disabled veterans, the spouses of military service members or first responders killed in service, small business owners and low-income seniors. But the ballot language should have come with a warning: Vote here to make property taxes even less fair. • For every tax break one person gets, other taxpayers shoulder a bigger burden for the cost of schools and local government services such as police, fire protection, libraries and parks. These measures may sound good, but in reality they will just compound the unfairness in Florida's property tax system. • Just vote no on the Legislature's efforts to amend the Florida Constitution. On Amendments 2, 9, 10 and 11, the Tampa Bay Times recommends voting no.

Amendment 2

Veterans disabled due to combat injury; homestead property tax discount

Less than a decade ago, voters approved a homeowner's property tax break for veterans, 65 years and older, who were partially or fully disabled in combat and who were Florida residents at the time they entered the military. Those who qualify get their property taxes discounted by the same percentage as their service-related disability, as determined by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (In a separate tax break, homeowners who suffered a service-related disability that is total and permanent are exempt from paying any property taxes on their home.)

Now the Legislature wants voters to allow every veteran, age 65 or older, who has a combat-related disability and is a permanent Florida resident, to get the percentage tax break, regardless of where he or she resided at the time of enlistment. Legislative staff estimate that could mean up to 74,000 more homeowners would qualify for a tax break at a cost to local governments and public schools of up to $7.6 million annually by 2015-16. Supporters contend it could help the real estate market, making Florida a more attractive retirement haven.

But wooing more retirees here who will pay less property taxes than other Floridians is not wise economic policy. Veterans' service is appreciated, but this tax break is too generous.

On Amendment 2, the Tampa Bay Times recommends voting no.

Amendment 9

Homestead property tax exemption for surviving spouse of military veteran or first responder

State law already provides that when a Florida member of the military dies in the line of duty, the surviving spouse will no longer be required to pay property taxes on his or her home as long as the spouse does not remarry. The benefit can be transferred to a new home should the surviving spouse move. Now the Legislature wants voters to extend the same benefit to spouses of first responders — police, fire, emergency medical and corrections officers — who die in the line of duty.

Should voters pass the measure, the Legislature has already voted to limit the benefit to those whose spouse died while working for a Florida public safety agency. Among all the ballot measures, this is perhaps the hardest to oppose. First responders are vital to keeping communities safe, and their families' sacrifices are real. The fiscal impact, $600,000 annually in lost tax revenue for local governments and schools, is relatively small. But Florida should be figuring out how to make its tax system fairer for all, not adding additional exemptions.

On Amendment 9, the Tampa Bay Times recommends voting no.

Amendment 10

Tangible personal property tax exemption

Florida is already a business-friendly state, with low taxes and more than a decade of state leadership that has put a premium on reducing regulations. But that hasn't stopped the Legislature from looking for one more way to favor business — which will ultimately shift the burden for government to everyone else.

Amendment 10 would double the tax exemption for businesses' tangible personal property, such as computers and office furniture. Now business owners pay no tax on the first $25,000 worth of equipment owned. This measure would double the exemption to $50,000. But even more significantly, it would give local governments discretion to create their own tangible personal property exemptions beyond the $50,000. That's just a recipe for more inequity in Florida tax code, not less.

On Amendment 10, the Tampa Bay Times recommends voting no.

Amendment 11

Additional homestead exemption; low-income seniors who maintain long-term residency on property; equal to assessed value

It used to be the Republican-led Legislature railed against jamming poorly written special interest provisions into the state Constitution. Now its offering one of its own: a tax forgiveness scheme for low-income seniors that will just increase unfairness and help fewer and fewer people over time.

Lawmakers want to expand the property tax break voters approved for low-income seniors in 1998. Under that provision, homeowners 65 and older who have incomes of less than $27,030 (which is adjusted for inflation annually) can qualify for up to $50,000 more in tax exemptions if their local government agrees. Fifty-eight counties and more than 200 municipalities have done so.

Now lawmakers want to broaden that exemption to total tax forgiveness for low-income seniors who have lived at least 25 years in a home worth no more than $250,000. The problem, aside from the continued expansion of special interest tax breaks? The $250,000 is not indexed to inflation — meaning fewer seniors will qualify in coming years as home values grow. But it will also exacerbate Florida's unfair system where tax bills are dictated by length of home ownership. Is it fair for one low-income senior who has lived here 25 years to get a tax break not given to another low-income senior — who might actually have fewer resources — and has lived here just 20 years?

On Amendment 11, the Tampa Bay Times recommends voting no.

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