Tuesday, March 27, 2007
TALLAHASSEE — The bipartisan spirit that took hold of the Florida Legislature earlier this year in the effort to lower homeowner insurance rates is showing signs of cracking in the House over property tax relief.
A divide has developed over a proposal by House GOP leaders to swap less property tax for more sales tax. Democrats are unified in opposition, questioning the wisdom of asking Floridians, in the words of one Democratic leader, to “swallow the largest sales tax hike in our state’s history.”
The House majority leader, Marty Bowen, R-Haines City, responded by accusing Democratic leaders of “backhanded partisan sniping” in a written statement last week.
House Democratic Leader Dan Gelber of Miami Beach said Monday he’s trying to stay on the high road, and directed his spokesman not to respond in kind to Bowen’s statement.
“I actually went over there and said ‘What are you guys thinking?’” Gelber said in an interview. “I was perplexed by their response because I had actually thought I had not said many of the things I could have said about their plan.”
Bowen said Monday she reacted so strongly because Republicans see the proposal as the biggest tax cut in Florida’s in history with a potential net reduction of up to $5.5 billion, although sales taxes could increase from the present 6 percent statewide rate to 8.5 percent.
“Maybe it was a bad choices of words, but those things are going to happen and they’ll happen on both sides,” Bowen said.
Gelber said all legislators are seeking meaningful property tax relief and that it shouldn’t be a partisan issue.
“I’m trying very hard not to get into the blame game with the Republicans on anything,” Gelber said.
Bowen said House Republicans and Democrats have “a good relationship going forward” even though they won’t agree on everything.
Although Republicans control the House, they will need some Democratic support to pass the sales-for-property tax swap. It will take a three-fourths vote, or 90 of the 120-seat chamber, to pass the proposed amendment to the Florida Constitution. The GOP holds 78 seats.
House Democrats have developed their own property tax reform proposal that would limit increases to inflation plus 3 percent annually. It also includes an increased homestead exemption for primary homes and adds new exemptions for other residential and commercial property.
The Senate’s Republican leaders, meanwhile, have not yet announced a comprehensive tax reform-relief plan, but senators of both parties have been cool to the sales-for-property tax trade.
“If the Republican Senate isn’t adopting the plan either, you can’t really call it partisan,” said Senate Democratic Leader Steve Geller of Cooper City.
Senate Democrats are set to unveil their own proposal Tuesday. Geller said he has consulted with Republican leaders and Gov. Charlie Crist and while he doesn’t expect their endorsements, he isn’t anticipating criticism from them, either.
Crist also has offered a tax reform proposal but is taking the same approach to the issue that he did with property insurance during a special legislative session in January — laying out a broad theme and letting lawmakers work out the details.
The Legislature responded then by passing bipartisan measures designed to reduce insurance rates that skyrocketed after a series of destructive hurricanes in 2004-05. Property taxes also have climbed rapidly in the past few years due mainly to escalating property values.
Lawmakers also are trying to do something about inequities from the Save Our Homes Amendment, which has shifted much of the tax burden from existing primary homeowners to recent home buyers, second homes, businesses and other non-homestead properties.
“We got lucky on property insurance,” Geller said. “We’ll see where (Crist) is on property taxes.”
© 2007 Naples Daily News and NDN Productions. Published in Naples, Florida, USA by the E.W. Scripps Co.