Conservatives could sink tax cut

Dec 17, 2007

TALLAHASSEE — During his eight years in office, Gov. Jeb Bush earned national stature as a tax-cutting conservative icon with nearly $20 billion in cumulative cuts during his eight years. But the same conservatives who relished their role during Bush’s era have been silent or even hostile toward the property tax cuts pushed by Gov. Charlie Crist this year, potentially the biggest in state history. Their support grows more critical as a Jan. 29 referendum on a property tax cut nears. To pass, the tax cuts must win 60 percent of the vote. That plan would allow residents to keep accrued Save Our Homes tax savings if they move and get a near doubling of the $25,000 homestead exemption. Businesses would get a $25,000 exemption on property such as office equipment as well as a promise of a 10 percent limit on future annual assessment increases that would also apply to part-time residents. The hostility from some Republican leaders to the tax proposal comes at a time when Crist is actively campaigning for its passage and when Floridians, in a recent poll, rated property taxes as their No. 1 concern. Indeed, Florida residents said that rising property taxes have been a greater onus than hurricane insurance, $3-plus a gallon gasoline or even their credit card debt. If approved, the proposal would cut taxes $9 billion over five years and would follow another tax cut already in place that forced local governments to cut $2 billion in property taxes just this year. Yet instead of embracing the cut, as they did under former Gov. Bush, conservative Republicans have become unlikely allies with groups such as the Florida Education Association against the plan. House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-West Miami, bitterly said the Jan. 29 referendum will do little to help taxpayers. Heralded by Bush as his ideological successor, Rubio has heartily endorsed a number of other plans, including the Cut Property Taxes Now constitutional amendment that would cap all property taxes at 1.35 percent of assessed value. That group’s Web site mocks Gov. Crist’s vow that taxes would ‘drop like a rock,’ calling the claim ’empty promises.’ Similarly, the most recent quarterly journal of the James Madison Institute, Tallahassee’s pre-eminent conservative think tank, features a cover photo of a large rock ready to crush a Florida home with a fake For Sale sign that reads, ‘Re/Tax.’ Rep. Frank Attkisson, R-Kissimmee, is among the most conservative House members. He said that the cuts during Bush’s tenure reflected a philosophical victory lap for conservatives eager to shrink government. He said that House Republicans are not ‘rejoicing’ over the recent and proposed cuts because they do not do enough. ‘It might be the battle of expectations,’ he said, noting the January proposal would cut tax bills an average of about $200 for residents who do not move. ‘We think this is merely a pittance compared to what’s needed to get us out of a recession.’ But other Republicans say it is better to forcefully support the Jan. 29 vote and then press for more changes later. ‘If you vote ‘yes,’ you get at least a $200 or $300 tax cut,’ said Sen. Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne. ‘If you vote ‘no,’ you get to keep the status quo.’ Crist, who campaigned Friday at an Orlando home to symbolize the need for the Jan. 29 amendment, views it even more simply. ‘Who’s going to vote against a tax cut?’ he said last week. House Democratic Leader Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, said the lack of enthusiasm for the cuts shows some Republicans are more interested in cutting taxes for special interests. Most of Bush’s tax cuts benefited businesses and the wealthy with little if any criticism from GOP lawmakers. And under Bush’s watch, lawmakers forced school districts to take on a bigger share of school funding paid for with property taxes.. ‘The megaphone of the Republican Party has been totally co-opted by special interests,’ Gelber said. ‘They have a stable of supporters that their tax plan is intended to curry favor with.’ Still, businesses and part-time residents have suffered the most under Save Our Homes, taking big tax increases while full-time residents were shielded. The Jan. 29 proposal, except for the cut on business equipment, would do little to fix that inequity. But David Daniel, vice president of governmental affairs for the Florida Chamber of Commerce, said his group is ‘more committed’ to supporting the Jan. 29 amendment than a previous effort that was ruled unconstitutional. He said a chamber poll in September showed that more than 60 percent of all voters regardless of party affiliation want more property tax cuts. The Chamber hopes that tax savings would be spent in other ways to help the economy. Unions, local governments and education groups are mobilizing to defeat the January tax amendment. The Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, sent a mailer to its 137,000 members this week that includes a dramatic photo of an apparently devastated teacher pressing his forehead to a chalkboard in dismay. ‘Raises will be wiped out, school services eliminated, jobs will be cut,’ the mailer claims. Those groups with general Democratic support may get unlikely aid from rabid anti-tax groups. By joining Rubio in the Cut Property Taxes Now petition drive, support for the Jan. 29 vote could be diluted. Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said the group’s claim that enough signatures can be gathered by January to place the measure on the 2008 ballot is wrong and diverts attention from what should be a historic tax cut. ‘They’re giving misinformation out there to the voter, and that’s wrong,’ Fasano said. ‘They should be honest with the voter and say the only tax cuts that will be available to them right now is the Jan. 29 tax cut; that whatever they’re pushing, good or bad, won’t be on the ballot until 2010.’