Democrats could block Corcoran priority

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – As a sign of "increasing weight" in the legislative process, Senate Democrats have enough votes to block a key priority of House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who wants to increase the property tax exemption for homeowners.

The House this week voted 84-30 for a proposed constitutional amendment (HJR 7107) that would increase the homestead exemption by $25,000. But the measure is strongly opposed by city and county governments that would lose more than $750 million in annual revenue.

The Senate homestead-exemption measure (SJR 1774), sponsored by Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, has passed only one committee.

But the issue is important to Corcoran, a Land O' Lakes Republican who vowed in his opening-day speech of the 2017 session to "fight for another $25,000 homestead exemption that will give Florida's homeowners over $700 million in savings."

Lee acknowledged the proposed constitutional amendment is part of the discussion between Senate and House leaders as they try to reach agreement on a series of issues to conclude the legislative session on May 5, including passing a new $83 billion state budget.

But the 15 Senate Democrats have the power, if they stay united as a caucus, to block the amendment, given that the Republicans are missing two of their members. Sen. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, resigned last week and Sen. Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange, has been unable to attend the session as she recovers from cancer treatments.

It means the 23 Senate Republicans in the Capitol are one vote shy of the 24 votes, three-fifths of the Senate's 40 members, required to place a constitutional amendment on the 2018 ballot.

Senate Democrats discussed the amendment in a caucus meeting Thursday morning, with Minority Leader Oscar Braynon of Miami Gardens calling the proposal "devastating" to local governments. For instance, Miami-Dade County would lose $76 million, Broward County $40 million and Pinellas County $27 million if the constitutional amendment passed, according to local government advocates.

Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, said an increase in the homestead exemption would increase the unfairness in a tax system that favors long-time homeowners over new residents, renters and commercial property owners.

"We're pretty united on that issue," Clemens said about a caucus stand against the amendment. "It's an issue that hurts the poor. It hurts renters and it hurts small businesses. Why would we want to do that?"

Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, said Democrats, who as the minority party are often overrun on majority votes, "do have the power" to stop the homestead-exemption amendment, as Republican backers need to get to 24 votes on the issue.

Clemens, who will lead the Senate Democrats after the 2018 elections, said the ability to block the amendment is a sign of the minority party's rise in the Senate, after picking up an additional seat last year. The Democrats will battle to claim the Artiles seat in the coming months and then try to further narrow the margin in the 2018 elections. Republicans have controlled the Senate since the 1990s.

“I think President (Joe) Negron is very aware of our increasing weight in the process," Clemens said "But I'm not sure yet that the (House) speaker is. It is very difficult for any Senate president to make promises without the support of the Democratic caucus at this point."

Lee said amendment supporters will have to factor in the potential for Democratic opposition.

"That's one of the challenges, trying to figure out how to craft it in such a way that it would garner the necessary three-fifths vote," he said.

Lee also said he and other amendment supporters are looking for a way to decrease the financial impact on local governments.

"That's part of what we're trying to work to mitigate, to see if there is a way to thread that needle," he said.