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Homestead exemption expansion wins supermajority vote in Senate

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The Senate approved a proposed ballot measure Monday to raise the value of Florida’s homestead exemption, improving chances that separate legislation to expand gambling would survive the Legislative Session.

The vote was 28-10, within the required three-fifths majority.

House leaders, who have been reluctant to open Florida to additional gambling options, have made approval of legislation to do that contingent on passage of the homestead exemption increase.

Several senators referred to those stakes, but sponsor Tom Lee maintained that the resolution was about keeping people in their homes.

“Let’s respect property rights. Let’s give the people the opportunity to make this decision,” Lee said. “They will make the right call.”

Amendments to scale back the increase to $12,500, to let county commissions opt out, and to shift the effective date to 2022, failed on voice votes.

HJR 7105 would raise Florida’s homestead exemption to $75,000 on property values of as much as $125,000, effective Jan. 1, 2019.

The increase would not apply to school taxes. And it would be subject to approval by at least 60 percent of Florida voters.

A companion measure, HB 7107, would shield financially strapped small counties by promising state money to backfill any losses in revenue.

The Senate language would cost $644 million. The original House version was priced at nearly $795 million.

Opponents argued that Florida already is a low-tax state, and that raising the exemption would force local governments either to raise tax rates or cut back services, especially to lower-income Floridians. Renters would pay more, too, they said.

“If we think that we need to cut taxes … why don’t we just do it, instead of pushing it off on local officials and then blaming them with they increase the tax rate?” Sen. Jeff Clemens said.

Sen. Gary Farmer complained that no a committee of substance ever studied the wisdom of the proposal. Rather, it was rushed through the Rules Committee last week.

“I know we’re toward the end of the session, and things start getting a little funky,” Farmer said.

“I think it’s hard for us to fully understand the fairness of this change when the issue has not been fully vetted though the committee process,” he said.

Sen. Perry Thurston said every local official in his Broward County district opposed the rollback. “This is going to pass if we approve it. But who’s it going to hurt?” he said.

Sen. Denise Grimsley expressed reservations about the potential for budget cuts for police, firefighters, and other first responders, but concluded the voters would make the right decision.

While conceding the potential for harm, Sen. Darryl Rouson expressed faith in the voters.

“I expect to take some heat,” he said. But he offered: “Strip every project I have from the budget. It’s not about the projects. It’s about a fundamental belief that do the people deserve the right to speak.”

“They will figure it out. And I trust whatever decision they’re going to make,” said Sen. Wilton Simpson.

Lee said it wasn’t true that the bill was never heard in a committee of substance — the Community Affairs Committee debated it on March 22.

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Michael Moline is a former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal and managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal. Previously, he reported on politics and the courts in Tallahassee for United Press International. He is a graduate of Florida State University, where he served as editor of the Florida Flambeau. His family’s roots in Jackson County date back many generations.

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