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Property tax debate looms for Florida education budget

The House and Senate made opening bids Tuesday on boosting public-school spending, with the Senate unveiling a proposal to increase per-student funding by roughly 10 times what the House is offering.

But the upper chamber’s heftier increase is built in large part on allowing local property taxes to increase with property values, something that is a non-starter for the House and could become a major sticking point as lawmakers attempt to wrap up the annual legislative session by its scheduled May 5 conclusion.

The proposal from Sen. David Simmons, an Altamonte Springs Republican who chairs the Senate’s education budget-writing subcommittee, would boost per-student spending by 2.9 percent, or almost $210 a head, in the budget year that will begin July 1. But about $191 of that would come from local property taxes, which are part of the state’s school-funding formula.

RELATED: Complete Florida Legislature coverage

Meeting with his subcommittee Tuesday morning, and perhaps anticipating the House’s reaction, Simmons brushed away criticisms that accounting for the increased property values’ effect on taxes amounted to a hike. He pointed out that the tax rate would not change.

“We’ve kept that at the same (level) and believe that keeping the millage rate the same is not a tax increase,” Simmons said.

In building the budget for the current spending year, which ends June 30, lawmakers lowered the state’s portion of the property tax rate for schools to essentially offset any increase in property values for education. Gov. Rick Scott and others touted the change as a tax cut, because the tax rate fell, although it kept the actual taxes collected at the same amount.

House leaders have repeatedly said this year that they will not allow property-tax bills to go up because of rising values.

As a result, the House education proposal unveiled late Monday would provide a 0.3 percent spending increase, or roughly $19 a student. Another $509.8 million would be devoted to rolling back the tax rate so that property taxes would stay flat.

Asked whether there might be room to negotiate, Simmons’ House counterpart pointed to something House Speaker Richard Corcoran told a reporter for the Tallahassee bureau shared by the Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald.

“I think the speaker was quoted as saying ‘hell no’ on raising taxes, so I’m just going to defer to his quote,” said Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah.

There are other issues and initiatives that divide the two chambers. For example, the House is working on a proposal that would spend $200 million to attract charter schools to areas where public schools have repeatedly received low marks on state report cards.

The legislation, though, is still being developed.

“The idea would be to bring in charter schools that specifically have been successful and have a track record at dealing with poverty-stricken areas, with generational poverty and low-performing students, (to districts) where the public schools have failed for more than five years and up to 10,” Diaz said.

Meanwhile, the Senate would eliminate the Best and Brightest teacher bonus program, a House priority in previous years. The House plan, accounting for proposals to expand eligibility for the bonuses, would add a net of $165 million.

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