The Senate Ethics and Elections Committee is looking into whether the Legislature should have more oversight of local boards that collect property taxes.
In Florida, more than 200 special districts collect taxes based on property value and use it to perform a variety of functions, including developing a downtown area, running hospitals, protecting beaches or funding children’s community health organizations. A small number of those district boards are appointed by the governor, and an even smaller percentage of boards also need confirmation by the Senate.
Ethics and Elections Committee Chairman Jack Latvala (R-Clearwater) says, “You know, we have water management districts that have ad valorem taxing authority and basin boards that have ad valorem taxing authority, and those are all subject to Senate confirmation.”
And then there’re a handful that don’t undergo that scrutiny.
“And I’m just raising the issue as to whether there’s some sentiment to treat them similarly,” he said during this week’s committee meeting.
A report prepared by committee staff shows boards performing identical functions in different counties are not subject to the same vetting process. Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla (R-Miami) says he sees that as a potential problem.
“It is a good idea to require Senate confirmation of appointees who will be in a position to affect people as directly and as powerfully as anyone who affects property taxes or makes a vote or a decision on property taxes,” he said.
Kurt Wenner, with the government watchdog group Florida TaxWatch, says overall, special taxing districts are already beholden to the people they serve because the vast majority are elected locally, not appointed by the governor. But he applauds Latvala’s investigation, even into such a small number of districts.
“One size doesn’t always fit all, but there should be some uniformity with important things like how are the boards elected,” Wenner says.
But he says the locally run and operated districts might not take kindly to changes.
“Whenever the Legislature gets into local issues, you tend to get pushback from local governments because they want to retain their control,” he says.
And changing the board confirmation process for all boards might not be so simple. That’s because some of the boards are created by local ordinance, not state law. An updated report will be presented to the committee for further discussion at a November meeting.
The same committee was also the first to approve a bill for the 2014 legislative session -- moving the start date of the Legislature from March to January.
Bill sponsor, Sen. Anitere Flores (R-Miami), says, “The fact that it got a hearing so very early on in the process I think is positive.”
She says the idea seems to be gaining steam after it died last session because it didn’t have a House companion. The permanent move occurred to her during a redistricting year when session began in January, when, she says, she heard from school districts how grateful they were for the extra time.
“That process usually happens about the first week of June for the budget to be totally finalized, and the fiscal year begins July 1,” she says.
She says the shift would give agencies three months instead of one to adjust to having more—or less—money and to figure out how to implement new laws.
But even if the bill dies again, she says she hopes to encourage conversation among lawmakers about whether they’re using their time efficiently—especially during pre-session committee weeks.
“The early committee weeks tend to be very light on substance, and I think that’s problematic. I’d like us to be more focused every time we’re in Tallahassee doing the people’s work, and making sure—you know, it’s expensive to send us all to Tallahassee for a week of committee week,” she says.
In opposition to the bill, Sen. Darren Soto (D-Kissimmee) says he fears holiday conflicts would cut into time for committee weeks leading up to a January session. Even with his “no” vote, though, the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee passed the bill 11-to-2. Its House companion, sponsored by Rep. Jeanette Nunez (R-Miami), is not yet assigned to any committees.