November 05, 2007

Florida: Keeping an Unfair System Unfair

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel's Michael Mayo gives a dispiriting (but probably quite accurate) assessment of Florida's property tax mess in a Sunday column.
True tax reform, and an overall fair and reasonable tax system in Florida, have about as much likelihood of happening as Fidel Castro getting a ticker-tape parade down Calle Ocho.
Mayo's pessimistic assessment is driven by the revised ballot measure referred to voters by the state legislature last month. Since the passage of a property assessment cap known as "Save Our Homes" almost 15 years ago, Florida law has allowed owner-occupied homeowners a tax break that gives the biggest tax breaks to (a) people whose homes are worth the most and (b) people who have owned the same home for the longest time. Who pays for this tax break? In Mayo's words:
Everyone Else (businesses, landlords, recent and first-time buyers, snowbirds).
From a policy perspective, the obvious solution is to repeal "Save our Homes" and enact targeted property tax breaks that are actually geared toward the homeowners, renters and businesses who need it most.

The second most obvious solution is to take Florida out of the diminishing "no income tax" club, enacting a personal income tax to reduce the upwards pressure on state sales taxes and local property taxes.

Both approaches are sound-- but neither is obviously a political winner in the short run. In the spirit of our federal fiscal policies this decade, Florida lawmakers clearly believe that short-term realities require "no losers"-- that is, tax reform shouldn't make anyone worse off. And that's exactly what Floridians will get to vote on in January-- a "reform" that expands the Save our Homes break rather than paring it back.

This is absurd, of course. When you have a group that's received wildly too-generous tax breaks (long-time homeowners) and groups that have been completely hosed (renters, businesses, first-time homebuyers), true reform needs to gore a few oxen. And Florida lawmakers have steadfastly refused to do so.

What's it gonna take to change this depressing trend? Mayo thinks it'll take "voters going against their self-interest and politicians actually leading." He's only half-right on this score-- while it would clearly require lawmakers to show a little backbone, any shift from regressive property and sales taxes towards a progressive income tax will almost certainly make a majority of Florida's voting age population better off. A better way of phrasing it is that voters would need to see through anti-tax rhetoric and recognize where their self-interest lies-- also no easy trick.


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