The Associated Press May 2, 2011, 4:57PM ET

Fla. House passes tax relief amendment for ballot

Florida voters would have a chance to give themselves more property tax breaks under three proposed state constitutional amendments that advanced in the Legislature on Monday, but only one received final approval for the ballot next year.

The most far-reaching measure (HJR 381), which passed in the House and went to the Senate, has something for just about everyone who owns property. It includes primary homes, known as homesteads, that already benefit from the Save Our Homes Amendment, as well as businesses and second homes.

The other two would provide tax breaks for combat-disabled veterans and low-income seniors. The veterans amendment cleared both chambers, while the seniors proposal passed only in the House.

The amendment with something for everyone passed the House 96-18, but it could have a problem in the Senate. A similar Senate proposal (SJR 658) remains in the Budget Committee, which is not scheduled to meet again before the legislative session ends Friday.

It passed on a largely party-line vote, with Republicans in favor and most Democrats against.

The sponsor, Rep. Chris Dorworth, R-Lake Mary, said it would help create jobs by reducing taxes for businesses.

"You take money that goes for property taxes for commercial entities and can shift that toward the acquisition of new capital and new employees, you are actually getting people back to work again," Dorworth said.

The proposal has drawn opposition from local government officials. Their treasuries already have taken hits from falling property values and prior tax-cutting legislation. A Senate analysis estimates the new proposal could cost them between $570 million and $683 million annually.

House Democratic Leader Ron Saunders of Key West supported the proposal, but most Democrats argued that it doesn't go far enough in curing inequities in the state's tax system.

"What we're doing it putting Band-Aids on top of Band-Aids," said Rep. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth. "We should all really stop for a second, look back and say maybe we need to look at our tax system as a whole from the ground up."

Save Our Homes, which went into effect in the 1990s, caps annual assessment increases at 3 percent no matter how much property values go up. What's called the "recapture rule," though, can raise assessments up to 3 percent when property values drop.

The amendment would allow lawmakers to do away with the recapture rule.

Voters in 2008 passed another tax amendment that also sets a 10 percent cap on annual assessment increases for businesses, second homes and other non-homestead property.

Dorworth's amendment would drop that limit to 5 percent and give an additional exemption to home buyers who haven't owned a house for at least three years.

That exemption, intended mainly to aid first-time home buyers, would apply only to non-school taxes and last up to five years. The first year exemption would be 50 percent of the home's value and then decline by 20 percent a year.

Still pending was a bill that would put the amendment on the ballot for the presidential primary (HB 1053), which currently is set for late January instead of the general election in November 2012.

Approved for the ballot was an amendment (SJR 592) that would expand an existing exemption on primary homes for combat-disabled military veterans. Currently, only veterans who lived in Florida before enlisting can get the exemption. The amendment would lift that restriction. It passed unanimously in both chambers.

The third amendment (HJR 789) would allow cities and counties to limit assessed values of homesteads of certain low-income senior citizens. It passed the House unanimously and now goes to the Senate, where an identical measure (SJR 808) remains in committee.

All amendments need 60 percent voter approval for adoption.

The Senate also unanimously passed and sent to Gov. Rick Scott a bill (HB 1141) to implement an amendment that voters passed last to give deployed military personnel an additional exemption on their primary homes.

Separately, House and Senate budget negotiators have agreed to cut water management district property taxes by $210.5 million in the fiscal year beginning July 1. That reduction doesn't need voter approval.


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