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DeSantis’ school tax proposal raises concerns among House Democrats

Republican leaders says they’re open to conversation, but unlikely to change course.

In his education budget proposal, Gov. Ron DeSantis proposes following the same taxing practice as the past three years — lowering the local property tax rate to keep collections stable, with the exception of the rate charged on newly added construction.

For 2019-20, DeSantis has called for a 3.85 percent cut in the required local effort. New construction still would boost the overall projected revenue by $142.3 million.

His stance has House Democrats wondering whether the Legislature is serious about providing for public schools.

“I am all for being able to save taxpayer dollars,” Rep. Susan Valdes, D-Tampa, said Thursday during a brief meeting of the House PreK-12 Appropriations subcommittee. “But by the same token, do we really mean that education in the state of Florida is a ‘paramount duty’? I don’t know. I question that. I really do.”

Valdes and Rep. Patricia Williams, the panel’s ranking Democrat, raised pointed questions about the required local effort during a presentation about the governor’s budget proposal. Their key points centered on districts’ inability to keep up with rising expenses or to provide adequate pay for teachers, without the ability to bring in added revenue by taking advantage of rising property values.

Chairman Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, observed that the state has increased funding for public education in each of the past several years. Valdes countered that any new money coming to districts had strings attached, leaving a small amount — 47 cents per student in 2018-19 — available for general use.

She suggested that any representation that people are saving money is misleading, as dozens of districts have simply raised other forms of taxes to boost the bottom line.

Valdes urged the committee to consider at the very least leaving the RLE alone. Continued decreases are "the reason why teaches are not getting raises. We are not able to maintain buildings in our districts. This is very, very concerning."

Latvala said his door will remain open to such conversations leading to the panel’s unveil of its own budget proposal, in the third week of session. He did not, however, expect major change.

“Over the past couple of years, the House had a policy of increasing the RLE on new construction only. ... When possible, we cut taxes,” he said. “I anticipate that policy will not change this year.”

During the session, some other tidbits about the budget organization also came out.

Rep. Ralph Massullo, a Citrus County Republican, asked why DeSantis had proposed reducing funding for digital classrooms by $50 million. A spokeswoman for the governor responded that DeSantis wanted to provide more spending flexibility to districts, so he moved the money into the base student allocation for a $50 per student increase, compared to that 47 cent figure of a year ago.

Several members noted the line item for Best and Brightest teacher bonuses, a program DeSantis wants to revamp (he held a news conference on the subject Wednesday outside Tampa), had been moved from general appropriations into the FEFP funding stream. DeSantis has called for a $224 per student increase in the FEFP.

Regardless of the governor’s proposal, the House will not necessarily be bound by it.

“We certainly appreciate the governor’s budget,” Latvala said during the meeting. “But we will be releasing our own.”