The Senate debated Friday whether to raise Florida’s homestead exemption to $75,000 on property values of as much as $125,000 — a key to the chamber’s budget compromise with the House, but bitterly opposed by local governments.
The increase would be subject to approval by Florida voters, but is a high priority for House leaders, and represents a major give by Senate leaders in the interest of compromise on a budget for next fiscal year.
The debate on HJR 7105 set the measure up for a final floor vote, and followed its approval in committee on a vote of 9-2.
Sen. Jeff Clemens asked sponsor Tom Lee whether it wasn’t unusual to take up a bill in committee and on the floor on the same day.
“The abnormalities that occur in the Legislative Session, they all occur in the eighth or ninth week,” Lee said. “It’s not abnormal for the eighth or ninth week.”
A companion measure would shield financially strapped small counties by promising state money to backfill any losses in revenue.
The House version of the legislation was priced at nearly $795 million. The Senate language reduces that to $644 million.
Some senators, mostly Democrats, worried about the hit to local government coffers.
That led Sen. Dennis Baxley to wonder: “Whose money is this and what’s the fiscal impact on them?”
Lee replied that many local government representatives spoke against the measure in committee, but “I didn’t see anyone’s constituents in there.”
Sens. Perry Thurston and Oscar Braynon voted “No” in committee.
“When we do these politically motivated cuts — things that sound great in a sound bite, or maybe make certain organizations happy — we don’t think about the real, legit consequences of it,” Democratic leader Oscar Braynon argued.
“I can’t in good conscience vote for this,” he said.
“I look on this more as an opportunity to do a broad-based tax cut that is directed at the middle class, and that will apply as equally as possible throughout the state of Florida — but recognizing that special designation of fiscally constrained counties,” Lee said in committee.
Escambia County Commissioner Grover Robinson argued the proposal would subvert home rule and undermine finances for local governments still recovering from the Great Recession.
“Your citizens are not asking for less services,” Robinson said.
“I get it — I understand that this is a good political bill. But it is not good government,” he said.
Sen. Rob Bradley asked the local government representatives in committee to declare their millage rates. Many were below the legal limit, and theoretically could raise tax rates.
Critics argued that would still burden local governments.
“I do not see this as a tax increase. I see this as a tax shift,” said Ralph Thomas, chairman of the Wakulla County Commission.
“Claiming a tax decrease by taking money away from the local community is like claiming to lower calories by taking away someone else’s lunch,” Thomas said.
“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,” said Eddy Labrador, intergovernmental affairs director for Broward County.
“But those things have impact, and we can’t ignore that. This is going to have significant impact for the people of Broward County.”
“The state government has been reducing recurring revenue every year since 2013. Now you are forcing local governments to reduce revenues in the same way. Working families will suffer,” said Rich Templin, lobbyist for the AFL-CIO.