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Will lawmakers again fail to deliver tax exemption for first responders?

Bill addressing break for those hurt on duty may not be heard.

Police and firefighters deal with alarming surprises for a living. But when lawmakers failed to deliver a tax exemption to many disabled first responders, it caught many off guard.

“We were blindsided with this,” said Joe Johnson, a retired New York police officer.

Amendment 3 in 2016 passed with the support of 83.8 percent of Florida voters. That’s a higher margin than any amendment to Florida’s Constitution passed in the last 26 years.

But when lawmakers approved implementing legislation in 2017, the bill restricted the exemption to those injured on the job in Florida on behalf of the state.

A bill filed this year (HB 6035) aims to correct that, but it has yet to be heard by the Local, Federal & Veterans Affairs Subcommittee.

The legislation doesn’t appear on the agenda for the subcommittee’s meeting Tuesday. And since this week marks the last when House subcommittees are supposed to meet, the problem may not be remedied in 2019.

“It’s unlikely it will be heard,” lamented state Rep. Adam Hattersley, a Riverview Democrat. That has left first responders agitated by the process for a third year in a row.

But state Rep. Bobby Payne, the subcommittee’s chair, said the legislation just wasn’t ready for a vote.

“The clock just runs out on a lot of bills,” the Palatka Republican said.

According to Payne, the main problem with the bill remains that despite tax implications, the bill never went through revenue estimating conference. Without a complete understanding of financial implications, the bill did not move, he said.

“I recognize the sacrifices of first responders without question,” Payne said. “We should be honoring their service.”

But if that service is to a different state, the question becomes more complicated. Should a firefighter injured in New York City get a tax break in Florida, which in turn means other Florida taxpayers pick up the cost?

Payne suspects that concern led to the requirements in implementing legislation the disabled responders must have served Florida communities to qualify for the exemption.

For the many retired or transplanted responder who live in Florida, that ignores the letter of Amendment 3. The measure authorized ad valorem tax relief for those “totally and permanently disabled as a result of injuries sustained in the line of duty.”

Any residency requirement added later would be unconstitutional, Johnson said. No court has ruled on the issue to date.

Moreover, the revision proved to be extremely consequential. Hattersley notes 52 disabled responders applied in Pasco County for the exemption after its passage, but just six qualified.

And many property appraisers didn’t expect the requirement either.

Johnson shared letters from two county property appraisers, a Democrat and a Republican, to show the bipartisan consensus on the original amendment.

“All first responders should be included, even if they were out of state first responders when injured,” wrote Broward County Property Appraiser Marty Kiar.

Seminole County Property Appraiser David Johnson agreed.

“I am perplexed as to why the Legislature in writing the implementing language for Amendment 3, decided to exclude first responders who were not working for a Florida agency,” he wrote.

Jim Bomford of the Alliance of Retired First Responders in Florida said the cost would be minuscule as well. And he balked at concerns about revenue estimates.

He notes the financial consequences were already studied after the measure in 2017. Then, estimators figured providing exemptions to all disabled responders would cost other taxpayers some 10 to 14 cents a year.

Companion legislation sponsored by state Sen. David Simmons (SB 1490) easily cleared its first committee vote in the Senate.

But Bomford and Johnson most feel shocked a measure with such broad support faces continued obstacles.

Hattersley, a Democrat, carries the bill in the House, but it enjoys bipartisan co-sponsorship.

Payne suggested the problem isn’t so much to do with party as with experience. He said the freshman lawmaker didn’t know everything about House methodology leading into session. “But no bill is perfect when it goes to its first committee,” Payne said.

As it happens, the committee the bill went to has a lot of legislation to consider this year. Tuesday’s agenda already includes 21 other bills, Payne noted.

Hattersley acknowledged the Senate companion legislation was more substantive, though that may have changed in committee. But he’s left promising to bring the bill back again next year.

“If you served as a first responder and you were disabled or permanently injured, I don’t care if you were in New York, if you were in New Jersey, if you were in Illinois,” Hattersley said. “That ultimately is serving your country.”

Written By

Jacob Ogles has covered politics in Florida since 2000 for regional outlets including SRQ Magazine in Sarasota, The News-Press in Fort Myers and The Daily Commercial in Leesburg. His work has appeared nationally in The Advocate, Wired and other publications. Events like SRQ’s Where The Votes Are workshops made Ogles one of Southwest Florida’s most respected political analysts, and outlets like WWSB ABC 7 and WSRQ Sarasota have featured his insights. He can be reached at jacobogles@hotmail.com.

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