Here's a fact about property taxes: In 1979, Floridians spent $86.41 per capita for the taxes that largely are used to pay for teachers, cops, firefighters and other local government workers.
By 2006, it rose to $454.84, according to the state Department of Revenue. Adjusted for inflation, then, the tax burden on a Florida home has almost doubled since the year after I graduated from high school.
Is it any wonder we have a tax revolt on our hands?
It is officially a tax revolt, in case you had any doubts; Time magazine headlined a story in its Nov. 8 issue, "Can Florida's tax revolt stay alive?" The answer is yes. Despite the fact that Floridians pay no income tax, and our tax burden as a percentage of income ranks just 40th in the nation, the fundamental inequities in the state's tax system, combined with uncontrolled growth, will continue to fuel the rebellion.
I was talking with a St. Petersburg neighborhood advocate who works behind the scenes on a number of civic issues, none of them tax reform, as far as I knew. But when I turned the discussion to taxes, he became livid. Local governments are "running fat. They need to get on a treadmill." And that treadmill, he insisted, is a voter referendum to limit taxes.
Already, there are more citizen tax reform efforts under way than I can list in this column. One would cap property tax growth at somewhere below 1.5 percent. Another would require voter approval any time governments want to raise property taxes more than 3 percent in a given year. A third would exempt 75 percent of a property's value from being taxed. A fourth would set three different levels of taxation, for houses, businesses and seniors' homes.
While many of the citizen proposals are only the pipe dreams of angry — but underfunded — campaigns, several appear to have a shot at getting on the fall 2008 ballot, depending on the outcome of the Jan. 29 vote on a legislative package of tax reforms that have been met with a lukewarm response. (See "Make No One Happy" on p. 6.)
"It's been evident for a long time that the Florida tax system is held together with baling wire and chewing gum, so no one should be surprised [by the tax revolt]," said John McKay, a Bradenton Republican who served in the Florida Senate 1990-2002, including two years as president of the Senate, "in part because of additional [sales tax] exemptions and exclusions and in part because of the ever-changing economy."
(McKay's own tax reform referendum effort, to expand the businesses that have to pay sales taxes, is on hold while he presses the issue in front of the Florida Commission on Taxation and Budget Reform.)
So are we close to becoming a state like California, famed for its three-decades-old Proposition 13 taxpayer uprising? Will the Florida of the next two decades be governed by a series of referenda on subjects such as, oh, pregnant pigs or mass transit?
"It sure seems like it. But I'm not in a position to come up with a judgment," McKay said. "It is a bad way to run our government. Our founding fathers put together a republic, a representative democracy. They didn't put together a pure democracy. To have referendums on everything would just be a terrible, terrible idea. People vote their own self-interest without any eye on the greater good."
Don't tell that to the people running the Florida Hometown Democracy movement, who are headed to the 2008 ballot with a move that would give voters more control over land planning and development. Or tax reformers such as Dr. David McKalip, the St. Pete neurosurgeon who is helping run Cut Property Taxes Now, a referendum to cap tax growth at less than 1.5 percent. He calls the Jan. 29 referendum plan an inadequate proposal that is "a political tool used to get politicians re-elected." And he thinks it may take some of the wind out of his group's sails.
"I do worry about it, but people aren't fooled by this politician scheme, and the polls that you see reflect that," McKalip said. "They don't want games. They want real tax cuts."
McKalip's group can do that — once it collects more than 600,000 petition signatures, passes the Florida Supreme Court's legal scrutiny, raises hundreds of thousands of campaign dollars and wins 60 percent of the vote. No sweat.
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