Florida homestead exemption increase closer to ballot

Florida Senator Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, has received the endorsement of the Florida Education Association.
Florida Senator Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, has received the endorsement of the Florida Education Association.
Published May 2, 2017

TALLAHASSEE — A big property tax break for homeowners is likely headed to the Florida ballot after Republicans and Democrats in the Senate joined forces Monday in support of a broader homestead exemption.

The most far-reaching change to Florida tax policy in years now heads back to the House, where it is all but assured a favorable vote as the linchpin of Speaker Richard Corcoran's agenda.

Six Senate Democrats joined 22 Republicans in approving the measure. If passed by voters, it would expand the state homestead property tax exemption to $75,000.

Back-room talks continued Monday night as lawmakers face a deadline of midnight Tuesday to complete a budget or risk an extended session.

The Senate vote was 28-10, with one seat vacant and one senator absent. The only Republican who voted no was Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater.

To pass, the proposal needed three-fifths of the Senate, or 24 votes. Without Latvala, there were 22 Republican votes, making the issue a rare case in which Democratic votes were necessary to pass a Republican priority.

Some Democratic senators were visibly frustrated that they couldn't unify and defeat it.

"I am begging my colleagues to think long and hard about this," said Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point.

Even though voters won't have their say for 18 months, the proposal is sure to play a big role in the 2018 campaign, which will include a race for governor. About 4.3 million Floridians claim the current homestead exemption, which lowers the taxable value on a primary residence by $50,000.

With the loss of so much revenue at stake, cities and counties are likely to mount an aggressive campaign to rally public opposition, and every candidate for state office in 2018 will be under pressure to take sides.

Supporters said voters deserve a chance to approve a property tax break, including seniors and people whose home values still have not recovered from the 2008-2009 recession.

"Let's give our voters an opportunity to do what they know is right," said Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby.

Opponents said the higher exemption would force cities and counties to cut back needed services, lay off workers and raise taxes on snowbirds, small businesses and renters, including low-income people.

"It's absolutely unfair and irresponsible for us to pass a potential tax cut without telling people what the cuts are going to be," said Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth.

The Florida Association of Counties said local governments will lose $637 million statewide in 2019 if the plan is approved.

Pinellas faces a first-year loss of $33.8 million, Hillsborough $39 million, Pasco $13 million and Hernando $2.8 million, the counties' group said.

Broward County and all of its cities and special taxing districts would lose a combined $73.5 million, and Miami-Dade would face losses of $70.3 million.

The House initially passed the proposal last week on an 81-35 vote, and Corcoran said he personally lobbied senators.

"I've had numerous conversations with tons of senators about making sure that we fight for the people," Corcoran said, "and not wasteful, unaccountable, lazy governments."

Despite a big projected hit on her county of Broward, first-term Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, voted yes.

"This is a matter for all Floridians to decide," Book said.

Her father, Ron Book, is a lobbyist with scores of clients, including 23 cities and six counties, including Miami-Dade, Broward and Pinellas.

The other Democrats voting yes were Sens. Daphne Campbell and Jose Javier Rodriguez of Miami, Bill Montford of Tallahassee, Linda Stewart of Orlando and Darryl Rouson of St. Petersburg, who said he spent days agonizing over how to vote.

"We're just saying, 'Put it on the ballot,' " Rouson said.

Rouson proposed delaying the effect for five years so cities and counties can avoid "massive layoffs," but Republicans blocked all Democratic amendments in unrecorded voice votes.

Under the proposal, sponsored by Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, the value of a home between $100,000 and $125,000 would be exempt from property taxes, which he said favors the middle class. Lee said an owner of a home valued at $220,000 would save $275 a year.

Property taxes collected for public schools would be exempt from the higher exemption.

After the bill (HJR 7105) returns to the House for a final vote, it heads straight to the November 2018 ballot, where it must be approved by at least 60 percent of voters to take effect. As a proposed amendment to Florida's Constitution, it can't be vetoed by Gov. Rick Scott.

At a caucus of Democratic senators before the vote, Clemens urged them to vote against a proposal he said is part of a broader Republican strategy to "starve" local government and target poor people.

"This hurts poor people. You can deny that all you want," Clemens said.

Florida's initial $5,000 homestead exemption was created in 1934 to help Depression-era residents keep their homes if they couldn't afford to pay property taxes.

Voters increased the exemption to $25,000 in 1980 under a Democratic governor, Bob Graham, and to $50,000 in a 2008 special election when Charlie Crist, then a Republican, was governor.

Contact Steve Bousquet at Follow @stevebousquet.