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  1. Opinion

Column: Will rising seas swallow Florida's tax base or will we revise our tax system in time?

Property and sales taxes are vulnerable to the adverse effects of storm surge and tidal flooding.
Published Apr. 5, 2017

Florida's tax revenues are too dependent on what happens in our coastal communities, where more than 75 percent of us live. And since Florida's coasts are increasingly vulnerable to storm surges and rising seas, the Sunshine State's reliance on coastal community sales taxes and real property taxes for funding their essential infrastructure services has to square up against Mother Nature's unyielding challenges. Over the next 20 years that's going to be tough.

Coincidentally, Florida's Constitution, unique among state constitutions, requires that every 20 years a commission propose revisions, which if 60 percent of Florida's voters approve, become part of our Constitution. The next revision is due next year. The Partnership for Revising Florida's Constitution's "Citizens Guide" lists these issues: transportation, education, natural resources, crime and justice, representation, health care, and youth, elderly and the underserved.

Missing from the list? Taxes. It needs to be there.

When I was chair of the tax section of the Florida Bar in the mid 1970s, Florida, as now, was attractive because of its friendly business and personal tax policies. However, in those days, Florida had a more robust tax system. Over the intervening years, Florida's prime concern has been directed toward reducing taxes to improve its business climate and attract growth. In that regard, Florida has been successful.

The Tax Foundation's 2017 State Business Tax Climate Index ranks Florida as the fourth best business-friendly state. That may not last.

University of Miami professor Harold R. Wanless warned in a talk at St. Petersburg College that oceans have absorbed so much carbon-induced heat that future sea level rise is inevitable. Wanless recommends focusing on damage control.

The risk of higher seas and storm surge is why Florida coastal communities are mandated by Florida law to include strategies that reduce flood risk from storm surge and the related impacts of sea-level rise in their coastal management plans.

Pinellas County has a wealth of coastal geography that requires that sort of careful planning. That's why Pinellas County, as do other coastal communities, uses sea level rise maps to aid its planning. Pinellas' maps include targets: 2.22-foot sea level rise by 2050 and a 6.9-foot sea level rise by 2100. A study from Climate Central points out that in Pinellas County:

• 28,678 people live less than 3 feet above sea level;

• 18,210 homes are less than 3 feet above sea level;

• $8.5 billion of property values are less than 3 feet above sea level;

• 163 miles of roads are less than 3 feet above sea level.

This background brings me to the tax issues and why an evenhanded, nonpartisan review and revision of Florida's tax policies is essential. The constitutional revision process is an excellent place to start.

Consider:

• Coastal communities have used grants to fund coastal management planning. Politically, federal grant revenue sources have dried up. Will Florida provide a revenue source to coastal communities for planning?

• Coastal communities need adequate "problem-solving revenues" — taxes — if they are to solve the growing flood problems they all face.

• But political erosion of Florida's tax resources over the years leaves only two prime revenue sources available to coastal communities: real property and sales taxes. These two taxes are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of storm surge and sea level rise flooding. What happens to a coastal community when its tax base, provided by coastal real property values, sinks under rising seas and it loses sales tax revenues as tourists no long come and residents leave?

• Florida's penchant to prioritize the rights of businesses through pre-emption laws that thwart local communities' abilities to solve problems exacerbates revenue shortfall and problem-solving abilities.

If Florida's coastal communities are to continue to be vital for the 75 percent of us who live there, and if our coastal community production of 79 percent of our state's economy is to continue to be useful for the entire state, Florida must redesign its tax structure and enhance the home-rule capabilities of local communities.

The following should be given consideration in the process of developing appropriate planning and tax resources for Florida communities, particularly its coastal communities:

• Alternative tax strategies will be needed to fund essential community services, as local property taxes and sales taxes no longer produce enough revenues.

• Strategies for funding interim "band-aid" solutions, such as beach renourishment and raising roads, should be considered.

• "Super Fund" strategies to provide a substantial state-wide tax resource for sea level rise and storm surge disasters should be developed.

Redesigning Florida's tax system, building support, and ultimately its implementation will be neither easy nor quick. What we need is the political will. The Florida Constitution Revision Commission — and its product that would have a 20-year life — must not ignore tax revenues and home-rule tools for Florida communities.

Richard O. Jacobs is senior council with the Tampa Bay law firm of Johnson, Pope, Bokor, Ruppel and Burns. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

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