TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – State lawmakers moved closer Friday to letting voters decide if middle-class homeowners should receive a bigger property-tax break.
But Senate Democrats may still be able to block a proposed constitutional amendment, which is drawing opposition from local governments worried about maintaining services.
The proposal, which likely will be up for a vote Monday, is a priority of House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes. But it needs support from three-fifths of the Senate, and Democrats might be able to marshal enough votes to defeat it.
The Senate on Friday moved forward with the proposed constitutional amendment (HJR 7105) and an accompanying bill (HB 7107). If the proposal gets through the Legislature, voters would be asked in November 2018 to increase the non-school homestead exemption by $25,000.
"What we're doing here is taking a look at the spectrum of property owners who are paying into the system and trying to find a band of where we can attach an additional homestead exemption that will most broadly affect the middle class in our state," said Senate sponsor Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa.
The proposal is part of a series of tax breaks the House approved Wednesday, with the proposals also including a nearly $300 million tax-cut package. The Senate Appropriations Committee is scheduled to take up that package (HB 7109) on Monday.
The Senate quickly moved Friday to position the proposed constitutional amendment for a vote. Senate Democrats expressed opposition to the proposal, but they have yet to take a caucus position on it.
Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, said the proposed amendment "exacerbates" an already uneven property-tax system in the state.
Also, Fort Lauderdale Democrat Perry Thurston said he couldn't support the measure because voters will approve the amendment without understanding potential consequences, such as impacts on parks, library services, law enforcement and fire protection.
"This is a bill that no one is asking for," Thurston said.
The proposed constitutional amendment needs 24 votes to hit the three-fifths mark and pass the Senate. But Republicans are one vote shy of that number because of the resignation last week of Miami Republican Frank Artiles and the absence of Sen. Dorothy Hukill, a Port Orange Republican who is being treated for cancer.
In an unusual move, the Senate had already scheduled the proposal for floor discussion Friday before the measure had made it through the Rules Committee. But during a Rules Committee meeting Friday morning, the proposed constitutional amendment was approved in a 9-2 vote and the accompanying bill was approved 7-1. Democrats joined the majority in support in both votes.
Even if approved by the Senate, the proposal will return to the House because of the way it would be structured.
Currently, homeowners receive a tax exemption on the first $25,000 in value of their properties. They pay taxes on the value between $25,000 and $50,000 and then receive an exemption on the portion from $50,000 to $75,000.
The House plan approved Wednesday would expand the exemption to cover the portion of home values between $75,000 and $100,000. The Senate, however, would apply the exemption to the portion of values between $100,000 and $125,000.
The Senate version would reduce the revenue hit to local governments. But local officials continued their objections Friday.
"If you put it on the ballot, it will pass because people vote for what they want, and of course everybody always wants a tax cut of some kind," said Edward Labrador, a lobbyist for Broward County. "But those things have impacts and we can't ignore that, and this will have a significant impact for the people of Broward County."
Escambia County Commissioner Grover Robinson said the proposal subverts "home rule" and transfers more of the tax burden to businesses and other non-homestead properties.
"Nobody wants to pay for taxes, but at the end of the day if we want to provide services, people are still demanding those services," Robinson told members of the Rules Committee. "I get it. I understand that this is a good political bill, but it is not good government."
The House version of the tax break has been estimated at saving average homeowners about $170 a year. For local governments, the revenue reduction could collectively top $750 million in the first year and grow to almost $850 million a year within five years.
Lee's amended version would cost local governments about $150 million a year less than the House proposal.
Lee said the proposal is intended to help people maintain home ownership and most local governments have tax rate "head room" to handle the potential impact.
"It is a joint resolution that would be adopted by the voters, so if home rule is to be subverted, it'll be subverted by the people who elected all these folks who believe we are subverting home rule," Lee said.
The House proposal has been projected as a $76 million hit to Miami-Dade County, $40 million for Broward, and $27 million to Pinellas County.
Palm Beach County Assistant County Administrator Todd Bonlarron said the Senate measure would reduce the potential local impact from $71 million under the House proposal to about $56.8 million.
The proposal would direct the Legislature to offset revenue losses for “fiscally constrained” county governments, which are in rural areas.