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Monday, Sep 24, 2018
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Groups vie for scraps of real estate tax

When 75 percent of voters approved a land conservation amendment in November, it was hailed as a win by environmentalists excited by the prospect of hundreds of millions more dollars for Florida’s environment.

The estimated $757 million that Amendment 1 will steer toward things like conservation land purchases and maintenance of existing state lands, though, has to come from somewhere. The amendment requires that 33 percent of the roughly $2.3 billion collected each year from real estate taxes be spent on the environment.

It means pots of money currently funded by those taxes — known as documentary stamps — could see cuts. That’s prompting a frantic push by groups on the cutting block to save their piece of the funding pie.

“I anticipated a long time ago that once the value of those projects and allocations came out, there would be people coming out of the woodwork,” said state Sen. Charlie Dean, an Inverness Republican sponsoring six bills setting up an Amendment 1 framework in state law.

First up, affordable housing advocates.

An amendment debated Wednesday by a Senate panel chaired by Dean would have maintained the $266 million flowing from documentary stamps to the state trust funds used to pay for affordable housing. Under the Senate’s current plan, those trust funds would lose roughly $112 million.

State Sen. Chris Smith, the Fort Lauderdale Democrat who sponsored the amendment, says in recent years when state revenues plummeted, lawmakers took money from the trust funds to patch non-housing-related budget holes. As the state economy rebounds, housing trust funds should be replenished, not cut, he said.

“We are at a point now that this great economic engine for our state is in a position to revive itself,” he said during a meeting of the Senate Environmental and Conservation Committee.

The proposal was authored by the Sadowski Housing Coalition, which advocates for affordable housing funding. It was publicly supported during the meeting by groups like the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Habitat for Humanity and the Florida Association of Realtors.

Proponents argue they are only requesting the current 16 percent, which leaves plenty of documentary stamp tax revenue to fully cover Amendment 1.

“It just restores the same amount of money that is now going into the affordable housing trust funds,” said Jamie Ross, the facilitator of the Sadowski Coaltion.

Smith withdrew his amendment after saying that Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, assured him affordable housing would be fully funded from other areas of the budget. Once his amendment was withdrawn, the proposal passed on a 5-2 vote, with Smith and Orlando Democrat Darren Soto in opposition.

It will not be the last time groups push to protect their portion of real estate tax revenues, but they could face an uphill climb. Its next stop is a committee chaired by state Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, who does not favor carving out such protections.

“If we allow all these different entities interested in this to come get their piece of the pie, first thing you know we have no pie left,” he said.

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