Lawmakers are considering a proposal that would use hundreds of millions of dollars in state money to hold local education property taxes steady, as House and Senate negotiators continued working toward an agreement on the budget.
The proposal, floated by the House, would wipe out an increase in the "required local effort" that local school districts contribute to the state's funding formula for public schools. The increase would have been driven by rising property values, not a hike in the millage rate, but critics have argued that it still would have been a de facto tax increase.
The savings for taxpayers in the plan discussed Saturday would amount to more than $430 million, compared to the original budgets passed by the House and Senate
Sen. Don Gaetz, the Niceville Republican who chairs the Senate committee overseeing education spending, praised the plan that was offered by his House counterpart, Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami.
"What the chairman and I have been talking about publicly and privately over these weeks is finding some kind of alternative, so that the state could buy down a greater share of that increase, and so that at a time when we want our economy to continue to thrive and grow, that we don't provide a broad-based property tax increase on the backs of the people of Florida," Gaetz told reporters after a meeting with Fresen.
While the House proposal includes the largest per-student funding amount in state history --- at $7,178.49 a head --- it would provide less per student than the budgets approved by the House and Senate, as well as the spending plan recommended by Gov. Rick Scott.
The two sides were expected to meet again Saturday night, but Gaetz has been vocal on the issue of local property taxes, making it likely that the offer or something similar would be accepted.
Elsewhere in the Capitol, smaller deals were struck as both sides looked to finish work on a budget for the year that begins July 1. Lawmakers agreed on funding for smaller or non-controversial agencies like the Florida Lottery and the Office of Insurance Regulation.
A negotiating committee dealing with economic development and related issues finished work on the spending plans for the Department of Transportation and the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. Lawmakers there were still slogging through work on dozens of parochial projects late Saturday evening.
And Sen. Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican heading up those negotiations for his chamber, also expressed disappointment with the decision by legislative leaders to refuse to fund an economic incentive program touted by Scott.
Scott had pushed for $250 million for a "Florida Enterprise Fund" that would overhaul state incentive funding and help him attract businesses to the state. Senate leaders had backed the request, then dropped it to reach a deal with the House on the broad outlines of a budget and move to the current stage of the negotiations.
"I cannot possibly anticipate that we're not going to have some sort of economic development program to compete with the other states that are trying to get businesses to relocate," Latvala said. "It didn't have to be $250 million, but there's a big difference between $250 million and zero."
Rep. Clay Ingram, the Pensacola Republican working with Latvala, told reporters that the House wasn't interested in reopening the issue.