Business Group Calls for New Local Tax Cap

TALLAHASSEE — Arguing that local government spending has ballooned uncontrollably, the National Federation of Independent Business kicked off a petition drive Tuesday to put an amendment on the 2010 ballot restricting local governments' ability to spend.

Calling the initiative "Your Dollar, Your Decision," the small-business group is backing a proposed constitutional amendment to limit spending increases to inflation-plus-population-growth unless local voters approve a heftier hike.

The initiative still faces Florida Supreme Court review and backers must amass more than 611,000 verified signatures to put the issue before voters.

"The time has come to rein in local government spending," said Bill Herrle, executive director of NFIB/Florida. "We simply cannot have local governments growing faster than the citizens' ability to pay for it."

If approved, the amendment would establish the 2010 fiscal year as the point of departure. In subsequent years, local officials without voter approval could raise spending to accommodate population growth and the inflation factor experienced by urban workers.

To raise revenues more, local government officials would have to seek voter approval in a referendum, where a simple majority would prevail.

County representatives say the measure is a reincarnation of similar proposals rejected by lawmakers and the recently convened Taxation and Budget Reform Commission.

Such a tax cap initiative, critics like local governments charge, would unnecessarily hamstring local officials already hard-pressed to raise additional revenue to pay for state-funded mandates and past growth.

"If every government budget decision is sent to a vote, it is not the people that will lead the charge but special interests investing their dollars to influence and sway your opinion with spin rather than the complex facts that often go into making these difficult budget decisions," Chris Holley, executive director of the Florida Association of Counties said in a statement.

"State and local leaders agree that government cannot and should not grow faster than the public's ability to fund it, but (the proposal) is not a responsible way to address this issue," Holley said.

The proposal is the latest in a series of measures targeting local governments' ability to raise taxes. Earlier this year, the Florida Supreme Court struck down a proposed amendment that would have eliminated most local property taxes in exchange for an increase in the state sales tax.

In 2007, state lawmakers ordered local governments to roll back tax rates and placed a cap on revenue increases. But many local governments exceeded the caps. In Jan. 2008, voters approved a cap on local revenues.

Tax cap supporters say local business owners, renters and seasonal visitors bear the brunt of property tax increases because homeowners are protected by the Save our Homes amendment that caps tax assessment growth on homesteaded property at 3 percent.

"Taxes and fees continue to rise at a rapid rate," said coalition co-chairman Allen Douglas. "A large percentage of these taxes are paid for by the smallest businesses in the state. But those same businesses employ approximately 50 percent of all Florida workers."

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