A Taxing Situation

No new taxes.

We’ve been hearing that ubiquitous phrase for a long time. Taken at face value, it sounds like a good idea. I don’t really want to pay more taxes. I don’t know about you, but I’m not making more money than I was five years ago.

Presidential candidate George Bush spoke the infamous phrase “Read my lips: no new taxes” at the 1988 Republican National Convention when he accepted the nomination. That sound bite crystallized what had been a consistent theme of Bush’s election platform and cemented it in the public consciousness. It probably helped him win the election.

Once Bush became president, however, the reality of working with Congressional Democrats on the 1990 budget kicked in. He had to compromise and raise taxes to reduce the national deficit. This bit Bush in the butt during the 1992 election campaign, when Pat Buchanan hammered him with his own phrase in the primary and Bill Clinton used it in the general election as evidence of Bush’s untrustworthiness. Bush became, as Dana Carvey used to whine in his stinging “Saturday Night Live” impression of the president, “a one-termer.”

Since then, politicians, mostly Republicans, have had to either carry the “no new taxes” torch or be bludgeoned with it. Grover Norquist, founder and president of the single-issue political interest group Americans for Tax Reform, created the Taxpayer Protection Pledge in 1986. It asks every state and federal candidate to sign a written commitment to “oppose and vote against tax increases.” If you’re a Republican, it’s required. If you’re a Democrat running in a Republican district, it’s a necessity.

According to the Americans for Tax Reform, 1,244 legislators around the country have signed the pledge as of this June, including seven of the 49 Florida State Senators and 34 of 120 House members.

The Tea Party has embraced the “no new taxes” mantra as well, successfully forcing many moderate Republicans to parrot this sentiment or be replaced by more fervent opponents. See the 2010 Florida Governor’s race where Charlie Crist was pushed out of his own party by pledge-signer Rick Scott.

For his second budget year in a row, Mayor Alvin Brown has also promised not to increase taxes. He knows which way the wind is blowing, and he is a lonely Democrat in a Republican city. Faced with falling revenue, he insists he can “streamline” his way out of it. That means cutting as many as 500 city jobs and a whole lot of services.

Because of falling property values, property tax revenue is projected to drop from $454.8 million to $431.9 million for the fiscal year that begins on Oct. 1.

To raise the same amount of money as was raised this fiscal year, Sheriff John Rutherford is lobbying to raise the tax rate to what is called the rollback rate. That means setting the property tax rate to bring in about the same amount of money to make up for falling property values. The current rate is 10.0353 mills. The rollback rate would be 10.5709 mills. (A mill is $1 of taxes for every $1,000 of a property’s assessed value.) And it means that most taxpayers would not pay any more money out of pocket than they did the previous year.

Two-thirds of Duval County homesteaded properties (homes that are primary residences eligible for tax exemptions) in Duval County have the same market and assessed values and owners would pay no more in taxes. About 32 percent of homesteaded residence owners have a gap between the higher market value and the lower assessed value of their homes and faced a 3 percent increase in assessed value this year, the limit under the Save Our Homes law. Those homeowners could see an increase in their property taxes.

That will be painful for those homeowners. But we’re all feeling the pain. And that’s a small price to pay to maintain vital services such as police, fire, infrastructure, libraries — you know, the stuff that makes a city a good place to live.

Rutherford’s suggestion didn’t sit well with Councilmember John Crescimbeni, the chairman of the Finance Committee.

“For him to say that’s not a tax increase is ridiculous,” Crescimbeni told The Florida Times-Union. “He never mentioned that on the campaign trail, so to bring it out now is irresponsible.”

Well, it’s a gray area. The assessments aren’t finalized, so we don’t really know who will end up paying more property taxes.

Over the years, Jacksonville’s mayors have made small cuts year after year, thinking that was the way to keep people happy and get re-elected. There were some exceptions. Jake Godbold bit the bullet and called for tax increases to invest in infrastructure. John Delaney pushed through Better Jacksonville to make much-needed improvements. Now we need to maintain the same revenue just to keep the lights on.

It’s time to do the right thing and set the millage at the rollback rate. It won’t fix everything, but it will help get Jacksonville out of the hole it has been digging itself into for years.

Then we’ll have to turn our attention to the elephant in the room — the Police & Fire Pension Fund.