Wednesday, June 13, 2007

"Special Session" Going Badly

The more Florida lawmakers looked at their plan Tuesday to cut property taxes by $31.6 billion over five years, the more problems they found with it.

With legislators heading toward a likely Friday vote on the two-part package, questions swirled about whether there was enough support in the Florida Senate to OK the biggest part, a January ballot initiative creating a new, super-sized tax exemption for primary homeowners.

"All of the Democratic members will be voting against this bill," said Senate Minority Leader Steve Geller of Cooper City. With 14 members in the 39-member Senate (there's one vacancy), unified Democratic opposition would require virtually unanimous GOP support to get the necessary three-fifths vote for passage.

City and county officials, teachers and fire unions also intensified their criticism of the plan Tuesday, warning it could slash money for schools and local services while providing only modest tax relief.

Even a few Republicans joined in the attack on the opening day of the scheduled 11-day special session, saying they had misgivings about the proposal and the way it was crafted behind closed doors by legislative leaders.

"I am not happy with the last-minute deal-making," said Sen. Victor Crist, R-Temple Terrace.

The sniping threatens a $16 billion piece of the tax-cut package, a constitutional amendment that would effectively phase out the state's popular Save Our Homes limit in exchange for a constitutional amendment raising the homestead exemption from $25,000 to a maximum of $195,000.

Approving the constitutional amendment first requires support from three-fifths of both the 120-member House and the Senate. Then, three-quarters of each chamber must agree to add the amendment to the Jan. 29 presidential primary ballot.

Neither margin appeared a sure bet in the Senate.

The ambivalence expressed by many lawmakers drew a scathing rebuttal from House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-West Miami, who has made cutting taxes his signature political crusade and accused critics of trying to kill any tax-cut plan.

"This is not a multiple-choice exam. This is not a choice between this plan and some better plan. This is a choice between this plan and our current system," Rubio said.

"So the choice before us is very easy. If you think that there's no property-tax problem in Florida, then vote no. If you think we have a property-tax problem, you need to vote for this plan."

Less controversial is a $15.6 billion rollback of city and county government tax collections, in which cuts of 3 percent to 9 percent would be imposed on every community next year. School funding would be exempted.

Local governments complain that these cuts will force some reductions of police and fire services, or wholesale cuts in parks, libraries, social-service programs and road-building.

Lawmakers, though, generally shrug off these complaints -- saying most communities can absorb the cuts.

But their feelings about the January ballot initiative -- which would not exempt school property taxes -- are clearly more troubled, amid rising opposition from influential political blocs.

A major chunk of the $16 billion, five-year savings from the January initiative would be $7.2 billion in school property-tax reductions, which Florida educators say would devastate public education if they are not made up by the Legislature.

"This tax proposal threatens the long-term stability of Florida's public education system, and we do not believe that this outcome is what the citizens of Florida have desired from their elected leaders," said Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association, the state's largest teachers union.

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