State Politics

Plan for cap on property tax lives

MANATEE — The idea of a cap on property taxes at 1.35 percent of a home’s taxable value seems to have found new life in the Florida Senate this legislative season.

The idea to amend Florida’s Constitution with a property tax cap was proposed a few years ago and a petition drive gathered steam to put the cap on the general election ballot. But the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the language was not clear enough to meet requirements for a ballot question.

Senator Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, however, is sponsoring a Senate bill this spring that would place the cap on the ballot for voter approval in the 2010 election.

“The 1.35 percent cap could cut property taxes about 20 percent and provide real economic stimulus,” Bennett said. “It is just what our citizens need, especially in these difficult economic times.”

Although Senate Joint Resolution S738 doesn’t currently show any change in that controversial language that frustrated the Supreme Court, some significant changes are coming, Bennett said Monday.

“We are waiting for the tweaks and until then we have the placeholder information in there,” Bennett said. “But it will be there. All the bills had to be filed 10 days ago.”

When the changes are inserted, Bennett promises that the bill will spell out the answers many are raising, such as which government agency that currently gets tax money now will not get funded.

That’s the portion of the bill that concerns Jim Seuffert, director of the Manatee County financial management department.

“There is nothing in the bill that says who will not get money if this passes,” Seuffert said Monday. “There’s a lot of unanswered questions.”

Seuffert fears one intent of the bill might be to eliminate funding for cities, some of which survive on higher tax rates. For instance, some Manatee County cities have property taxes that work out to 2 percent of taxable value while many in unincorporated Manatee County have rates below 1.6 percent of taxable value, Seuffert said.

“I don’t know if that is the intent, to eliminate the cities,” Seuffert said. “This would force them all to come down to the same rate. It is very difficult to imagine how you can cut all these tax rates and not impact county services and education.”

Seuffert also disagrees that the tax cap would be a stimulus to the economy.

“We have heard a lot of things would stimulate the economy, including increasing the homestead exemption and portability of tax rates and they haven’t,” Seuffert said.

“Does making schools and local governments ineffective and unable to provide services stimulate the economy and make people want to do business here?”

Bennett’s bill, while perhaps looking out for taxpayers, may impact important quality of life services, said Ron Getman, a Manatee County commissioner.

“We are not in the business of investing our money for profit purposes,” Getman said. “All the tax money we receive goes to quality of life for residents. Even though our residents want lower taxes, we are still among the states with the lowest taxes in the nation.”

Both Getman and Seuffert are also not pleased that Bennett is proposing the tax cap through a referendum.

“My personal belief is that we should legislate through the legislative process and not through constitutional amendments,” Getman said. “I would hope the Legislature would take the initiative themselves. Often we are impacted negatively by these well-meaning constitutional amendments.”

Getman pointed out that the class-size amendment, geared to create smaller Florida classrooms, has cost counties millions and millions just to comply.

California, which is famous for its “Proposition 1” style amendments, is facing bankruptcy, Seuffert said.

“Is that a model we want to follow?” Seuffert asked.

Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 708-7917.