House pursues property tax cut

- Voters next year could be asked to expand Florida's homestead property-tax exemption, under a measure introduced Wednesday in the House that quickly drew objections from local governments.

As a companion to a nearly $300 million tax-cut package, the House Ways & Means Committee voted 13-6 to approve a proposal (PCB WMC 17-04) that would ask voters in November 2018 to expand by $25,000 the non-school homestead exemption.

Rep. Mike La Rosa, a St. Cloud Republican and real-estate developer who is handling the bill for the committee, said it is about making homeownership more affordable. A similar proposal  (SJR 1774), filed by Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, has been approved by one committee.

"At minimum, this constitutional amendment gives the ability of homeowners and non-homeowners to make a decision if they want to lower their costs of owning a home and achieve that American dream," La Rosa said.

The state Revenue Estimating Conference projected that, if approved by voters, local governments collectively would see non-school property-tax revenue drop by $752.7 million annually starting in the 2019-2020 fiscal year.

Committee Chairman Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, had estimated the change would save property owners an average of about $170 a year.

Voting against the proposal, Rep. Don Hahnfeldt, R-The Villages, asked if it was unreasonable to force local governments to "sharpen their pencils" to enact further budget cuts that will be felt most by those who need local services.

"This is an idea that is great in intention, but is at best a feel-good for legislators and it's going to be devastating for our communities," Hahnfeldt said.

Meanwhile, Rep. Al Jacquet, D-Lantana, voted for the measure after briefly proposing an amendment that would have boosted the exemption to cover up to $150,000 of a property's assessed value.

"Let's put our people first," Jacquet said. "I did not hear from one taxpayer in my district who said this is a bad idea."

Yet, local officials from across the state told lawmakers that the proposed constitutional amendment would put more of the tax burden on fewer people and force county and municipal governments to decide if they would cut services or increase taxes.

The savings for homeowners would cut Seminole County revenue by more than $16.5 million, Orange County would see a revenue reduction of $35.3 million, and Leon County about $9 million, according to local officials. Palm Beach County could see a revenue drop by $29 million.

Edward G. Labrador, a lobbyist for Broward County, estimated the homestead change would result in a $38 million reduction in revenue for Broward, more than "what we fund countywide for parks and recreation."

Nancy Detert, a former state lawmaker now on the Sarasota County Commission, told the committee that solving road gridlock and improving quality of life are concerns for her local government, where the measure would cut revenue by $7.7 million.

"It's well intentioned," Detert said of the proposal. "I think we have different problems, and those different problems require funding."

Miami-Dade County Commissioner Sally Heyman, also a former state lawmaker, said her county could be out $76.8 million in revenue if voters approve the change, requiring a $17.5 million cut just to fire-rescue services.

"If this legislation is really about tax relief for our citizens of Florida, let's not punish the local governments who are delivering services, sometimes underfunded, to all of our citizenry," Heyman said.

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