The TaxWatch Research Blog

The TaxWatch Research Blog is a forum where our research staff can address topics and issues in a short format. Keep an eye on this space during Legislative Session for frequent posts making sense of the activity at the Capitol. 

Post Election Wrap-Up: Local Tax Referenda

On November 3, 2020, Floridians went to the polls (or voted by mail) to elect the next President of the United States, voted on numerous state and local races, and decided the fate of six proposed amendments to the Florida Constitution. As if that were not enough, voters across the state had to consider more than 200 local referenda, including some significant tax increases. 

Proving that 2018 was not a fluke, voters in many Florida counties again voted to raise their taxes in 2020.  This taxpayer generosity follows the primary and general elections of 2018, where 22 counties passed 26 sales and property taxes worth $1.5 billion.

In 2020, 19 counties approved 20 sales tax and property tax increases worth $400 million.  This includes ten sales taxes and ten property taxes.  Most of these passed rather easily, with 11 tax increases receiving more than two-thirds (66.7 percent) of the vote.  Only one county-wide tax increased failed, a school sales tax extension in Liberty County that lost by only 17 votes.  Moreover, voters in Liberty approved a second sales tax referendum, this one for emergency fire services.

Voters also approved a new tourist development tax in north Walton County, $250 million in proposed bond issues, and several major spending issues.  In addition, nine county commissions and six municipal governing bodies asked for the authority to grant property tax exemptions to new and expanding businesses that are expected to create new, full-time jobs.  Voters approved all fifteen proposals.

Local Option Sales Taxes – Voters in ten counties approved the enactment or extension of ten local sales tax levies worth more than $250 million annually.  Four of these are for school capital outlay needs and three are for other infrastructure such as transportation, public safety facilities, water and sewer, parks, and libraries.  Two of the sales taxes will fund fire and rescue services and another will be used to retire the outstanding debt of a public hospital.

Property Taxes – Nine counties passed ten different valorem levies totaling almost $150 million annually.  These will fund school programs and teacher salaries, land acquisition and other environmental proposals, children’s services, and fire services.  Some of these new levies accompany bond issues, including two in Volusia—one for conservation land protection and one for environmental—cultural, historic, and outdoor recreation projects.

Fire District Assessments – Significant increases in assessments property owners pay passed in one county and failed in another. Navarre Beach voters approved moving forward with creating a new district, and voters in North Okaloosa shot down the idea of using impact fees to fund fire services.

Florida taxpayers have shown they are willing to pay more taxes if they feel the return will be worth it. Voters made a significant commitment to fund local government services—especially schools—in the 2018 primary and general elections when they approved 26 county-wide tax increases worth $1.5 billion, four special district tax hikes, and $1.2 billion in new bond issues.

Following the defeat of three sales tax proposals in 2019, many wondered if the COVID-19 pandemic would further dampen voters’ appetite for tax increases.  That turned out to not be the case. 

Many of the tax referenda created a citizen oversight committee to monitor the spending of these new dollars. This is a great idea and taxpayers need to get involved. Florida TaxWatch has been involved with one such committee—the Broward County Bond Oversight Committee created for a $800 million bonds issue in 2014—and has released quarterly reports and presented our findings to the Committee.  If your local government has proposed a tax increase without such a committee, oversight is up to all of us.

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