TaxWatch: Property tax amendment could end hopes of real reform

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  • | 12:00 p.m. October 31, 2007
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by David Ball

Staff Writer

Only a week ago, officials at Florida TaxWatch advocated that Florida voters approve the constitutional amendment to reform property tax law being considered by the State Legislature.

But after the final bill passed Monday, the non-profit, non-partisan tax research group had a different stance — that “passage of this amendment could be the end of hopes of real reform for non-homesteaded property.”

Those words closed a Monday TaxWatch, written just hours after the House passed a compromise bill from the Senate that was hardly a compromise. The voting public will now have the final say when they go to the polls Jan. 29.

Kurt Wenner, TaxWatch director of tax research who penned the release, said the amendment, if passed, would work to reduce taxes paid by owners of homesteaded properties and virtually no one else.

“We don’t think it’s good, and I imagine we will eventually come out and recommend not voting for it,” said Wenner. “But I think it probably has a pretty good chance of passing. It’s hard for people to turn down some money.”

Wenner said TaxWatch much preferred the plan previously crafted by the House, which would cap assessments of non-homesteaded properties and exempt at least 40 percent of value for all homes, homesteaded or not.

The goal, according to Wenner, would be to slowly phase out the popular Save Our Homes tax cap limiting taxable homestead value increases at 3 percent a year — a policy that has led to large gaps in tax assessments between longtime Florida residents, businesses, renters and snowbirds.

“You have two residents living in the same area, receiving the same government services, that have vast differences in their tax bill based on how long they have lived there,” he said.

However, that previously agreed upon amendment was thrown out by a Tallahassee judge for being misleading, and Wenner said it also appeared not to have enough support to gain the 60 percent vote to pass at the polls.

Then on Monday, one day before the deadline to place the amendment on the presidential primary ballot, the Senate produced a compromise bill that, if not approved by the House, would mean no amendment on the ballot.

“Senate President (Ken) Pruitt then told his members they could go home, meaning the House had to take it or leave it,” wrote Wenner in his release. “There was very little real support for the proposal in the House, and members spent the afternoon and early evening taking shots at the Senate for leaving town and leaving them with a ‘mediocre’ product.”

Still, the House voted 97-18 in favor of the joint resolution. The crux of the new plan would double the $25,000 homestead exemption (except for school taxes) for an average savings of $240 per homeowner. A homeowner could also transfer up to $500,000 of current home value protected under Save Our Homes when they move to a new property

Businesses get a break with a $25,000 exemption of tangible personal property, and non-homesteaded property assessments are capped at 10 percent growth, which Wenner said is too high.

“Most of the time your property is not gong to grow that much, and it’s hard for anyone to accumulate any kind of savings,” he said. “Tangible personal property is a good thing, but it will only provide about $500 in savings for businesses. There’s really very little in here for non-homesteaded properties.”

Also excluded, according to Wenner, are exemptions for new homeowners, low-income senior relief, working waterfront relief and affordable housing relief.

Florida TaxWatch is a private, non-profit and non-partisan research institute that over its 25-year history has become recognized as a watchdog of citizens’ tax dollars.

The group operates on a little more than $2 million a year funded through memberships, contracted research services and grants. A board of directors, currently chaired by Jacksonville Prudential executive Mike Jennings, oversees a staff of 20 as they initiate studies and research and convey findings with recommendations of action to government leaders, civic leaders or anyone else with a stake in Florida’s economy.

Besides working with state legislators, the group also works with local governments almost like a consultant to help reform budget and taxing polices.

According to TaxWatch reports, the group’s efforts have saved Florida taxpayers more than $6.2 billion since 1979 — about $1,067 back into the pockets of every Florida family.



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