The Florida Senate traditionally has been where bad ideas are killed, common sense prevails and independent thinking rules. That reputation will be tested Monday when the Senate votes on a misguided proposal to increase the homestead exemption, one of House Speaker Richard Corcoran's top priorities. This is part of a secret deal between Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron to resolve the state budget and other top issues, but it's a terrible trade-off, and senators should reject it rather than follow along like sheep.
Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, wants a constitutional amendment on the 2018 ballot that would increase the homestead exemption from $50,000 to $75,000. He hates taxes, distrusts local government and may run for governor. Envision Corcoran taking credit for the amendment that would be on the same ballot.
There is no clamor to increase the homestead exemption, and it would have a devastating impact on local governments. The version passed by the House would cost local governments more than $700 million in revenue the first year. That would mean a loss of $50 million to Hillsborough County, $45 million to Pinellas and $17 million to Pasco. Counties and cities could not raise taxes enough to make up the loss. The only alternative would be deep cuts to law enforcement, fire protection, parks and other services.
Increasing the homestead exemption also would exacerbate the unfairness of Florida's tax system. It would shift more of the overall burden from rural counties to urban counties, because the state would send millions in general tax dollars each year to 29 fiscally constrained counties to offset their losses from the higher property tax break. The overall tax burden also would be further shifted from homeowners to businesses and rental property owners, which don't get the homestead exemption. For business-friendly Republicans and Democrats who champion poor neighborhoods with lots of renters, it makes no sense to increase the homestead exemption.
Corcoran and Negron tied all of the big policy issues to the budget and cut their deal in secret. Negron, R-Stuart, sold his soul for a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee to store polluted water that triggered devastating algae blooms in his district. In return, Corcoran got support for his wrong-headed priorities: cuts in tourism advertising that are too deep, $200 million for charter schools that aren't wanted or needed, and a Senate vote on the constitutional amendment for the homestead exemption.
It takes 24 votes in the 40-member Senate to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot, and there was plenty of private arm-twisting over the weekend. Tampa Bay senators will play a key role Monday in determining the outcome. Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, is expected to vote against it. Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, is the shameless Senate sponsor and predicts voters in his district overwhelmingly would approve it. What voters don't know is the amendment would mean fewer police, parks, and sidewalks, and even worse traffic as east Pasco and Hillsborough continue to grow.
Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, is in the middle. His district covers parts of both St. Petersburg and Tampa. St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller, Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long and others warn Rouson raising the homestead exemption would hurt their communities. Rouson sometimes favors transactional politics over principle. This time, he should not sell his vote for a few pet projects. The stakes are too high.
Monday's homestead exemption vote is a test for the Florida Senate. Either senators reaffirm their independence and defeat it, or they bow to the speaker of the Florida House.