State Politics

Florida Senate exploring alternative ways to boost dollars for K-12 education

The chairman in charge of crafting the Senate’s education budget proposal signaled again Thursday that Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s plan to increase K-12 education dollars primarily off the checkbooks of local taxpayers isn’t going to fly.

Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, is preparing his fellow senators to consider other options including ones that would require a greater share of state support — something that’s not likely to be met well by Scott, who’s also seeking a $1 billion tax cut in 2016-17.

The initial presentation by Gaetz came as no surprise. The former school board member and elected school superintendent in Okaloosa County has been critical of Scott’s intentions since September, when Department of Education officials first broached the idea with their legislative funding request.

Scott’s proposed budget, released last week, goes farther than that original ask. As one of his core priorities, along with the tax cuts, Scott aims to boost funding for K-12 schools by more than $500 million.

But only $80 million of that is extra state money, while $427.3 million — 85 percent — would come from property taxes that homeowners and businesses pay, revenue that’s increasing thanks to rebounding property values.

This just gives you a framework from which to begin to evaluate the issue.

Senate education budget chairman Don Gaetz, R-Niceville

Scott, as well as his staff in budget presentations to the Legislature this week, rejects that relying on those increased property taxes constitutes a tax increase because the proposed tax rate would remain unchanged under his plan.

The extra revenue from improving property values statewide means taxpayers will end up paying more in property taxes even if the tax rate stays the same.

Some Republican lawmakers in the House — including Gaetz’s son, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach — repeat Scott’s mantra about the stable tax rate, but some of their counterparts in the Senate, like Don Gaetz, aren’t buying it.

“The governor’s kicked the ball onto the field and we have to make the first play,” Gaetz told his committee Thursday. “The question for us to be thinking about … is: Do we consider taxpayers having to pay more in taxes to be a tax increase?”

Don Gaetz sought to illustrate his position that it does by requesting presentations from legislative aides who used data to show the impact of Scott’s plan, if it were enacted, on taxpayers in 10 major counties.

Among their findings:

▪ Miami-Dade homeowners would see a $10.61 increase for homestead properties assessed at $300,000 and a $120 increase on non-homestead residential properties (generally vacation homes), also assessed at $300,000.

▪ Broward homeowners would see a $10.34 increase for homestead properties assessed at $300,000 and a $92 increase on non-homestead homes assessed at $300,000 .

Palm Beach and Monroe counties were not included in the analysis.

Gaetz also presented three alternatives to Scott’s funding plan as examples of the sort he wants senators to mull before they return to Tallahassee in January for the 2016 session, when they’ll begin crafting next year’s budget in earnest. The scenarios include a 50-50 share of increases in education funding, with various dollar amounts attached.

“This just gives you a framework from which to begin to evaluate the issue,” Gaetz said.