When politicians gathered in August for the Florida Cabinet meeting in Miami, Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, had a message about how the state treats Miami-Dade County, which we could boil down to this: No fair!
In his welcome to Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet, Garcia said that Miami-Dade is the "No. 1 donor county in the state."
In government-speak, a "donor county" is a county that gives more revenues to the state than it receives. (Fussing about being a donor county is a common refrain we’ve heard about Miami-Dade -- as well as about Broward and Palm Beach.)
Is Miami-Dade the chief Santa Claus of Florida, sending generous gifts to the state and only getting back stocking stuffers in return?
Garcia points to sales taxes
We asked Garcia for documentation to support his claim. A legislative aide sent us a chart showing sales taxes collected in 2012-13. Miami-Dade collected the highest amount of sales taxes -- $2.6 billion -- while Orange County was second with $2.2 billion.
But county-by-county sales tax comparisons aren’t a perfect indicator of what residents in a county contribute, for a variety of reasons. For starters, in some counties -- including Miami-Dade and Orange -- a portion of those sales taxes are paid by tourists. Visit Florida estimates that in 2012 tourists generated 23 percent of the state's sales tax revenue, while the state’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research estimates the figure at 13-15 percent.
"Every county is different and has special circumstances that affect sales tax collections," wrote Lily Oliveros, Garcia’s legislative aide, in an email. "Residents of some small counties do a lot of shopping in adjacent larger counties; that does not mean that those residents are not paying their fair share of taxes."
We asked Garcia if he had additional data to support his claim and he told us "it has been very difficult to get an accurate accounting of money going out and coming back in to each county."
There are two ways that a reader could have interpreted Garcia’s claim that Miami-Dade is the "No. 1 donor county in the state." It’s possible to interpret that to mean most tax revenues contributed, or to mean the imbalance between what the county gives and what it gets back. We sought some clarity from Garcia.
"I was referring to size of our population," he said. "This will however be a great case study to look at next session."
The problems with trying to rank counties
Two key experts on Florida’s budget -- Amy Baker, the state’s chief economist and Kurt Wenner, an expert at Florida TaxWatch -- told us they have never reached a conclusion as to which counties give more in tax revenues than they get back from the state. Both cited several problems with attempting to create such a ranking.
Some tax data isn’t available by county: for example corporate income taxes. And on the spending side, some state infrastructure projects benefit more than one county.
"To apply the ‘donor’ label, you would have to know the complete dollar value of both sides of the equation, and that information isn’t readily available on a definitive basis," Baker said.
Wenner pointed to another problematic example: a college in a county getting state money that benefits students from more than one county.
"Counties aren’t their own little fiefdoms," Wenner said. "There are not walls around them. It’s hard to allocate spending and revenue to a particular county and do it well. There’s a lot of blurred lines."