Despite millions spent, nobody can predict if Amendment 1 will pass

Jan 29, 2008


Despite millions spent, nobody can predict if Amendment 1 will pass

Aaron Deslatte and Christine Show

Sentinel Staff Writers

January 29, 2008


It has been a campaign as much about the charisma of a popular governor as the pocketbook appeal of a tax cut.

Across television screens and billboards, Gov. Charlie Crist has asked voters to embrace his Amendment 1 property-tax amendment today — an air-versus-ground war, with Crist on television and the opposition limited to mailboxes, the radio and phones.

Crist’s “Yes on 1” campaign committee raised $4.1 million through last week.

In opposition, public employee unions and local government have thrown at least $1.9 million into advocating its defeat.

The result: the first Florida ballot initiative to require 60 percent support is too close to call.

“It’s a high bar,” said Brian Ballard, a Tallahassee lobbyist and Crist adviser. “He’s been raising millions of dollars for it. He’s campaigned exhaustively for it. But it is a tough thing when you’re fighting the vested interests that want these taxes locked in.”

Pass or fail, the governor has pledged to continue the fight for deeper and broader property-tax relief.

But a defeat could weaken his ability to steer his agenda through the Legislature.

Although still predicting victory, Crist conceded that a defeat could be “a momentum stopper,” even if a majority of Floridians vote for the plan.

“My concern is the damage it will have on Florida’s economy if it doesn’t pass,” Crist said Monday while in Orlando to wave signs at passing motorists.

Crist stood at the corner of Colonial Drive and Maguire Boulevard waving at afternoon drivers as part of last-minute efforts to encourage Floridians to vote for the property-tax amendment.

Surrounded by a group of supporters who held up green “Vote Yes on 1” banners, the governor circled the busy downtown street, confident he raised enough money to win.

Crist has once again demonstrated why he has garnered the image of Florida’s “campaigner-in-chief.”

Crist coaxed the Florida Association of Realtors and Florida Power & Light to each give $1 million toward the push. He tapped longtime campaign hands, Florida developers such as Donald Trump and GOP check writers.

Al Hoffman, the wealthy Fort Myers developer and former finance chairman of the Republican National Committee, gave $25,000. Brent Sembler of St. Petersburg, Crist’s gubernatorial finance chairman in 2006, gave $50,000. Former chief of staff George LeMieux’s law firm Gunster Yoakley & Stewart gave $10,000. Miami Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga gave $20,000, and the developers of The Villages gave $25,000.

The money has fueled a three-week campaign including $1.55 million for television and $320,000 for telemarketing calls.

The push-back has come from unions, local governments and traditionally Democratic-leaning organizations. Public safety, teacher and service employee unions have committed more than $1 million through a group called Florida Is Our Home that bought radio ads and mailers.

The Florida League of Cities spent about $800,000 on consulting and leaflets dropped in mailboxes around the state. And the Florida Professional Firefighters and local firefighter unions threw in another $100,000, which financed automated phone calls to voters.

The Orange County Council of Mayors added its voice to the list of critics Monday, with a 6-1 majority of the members in attendance saying they worried that the amendment will cut services, including fire, police and educational services. Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and Orange County Mayor Rich Crotty were absent.

“It might be good politics, but it’s not good public policy,” Belle Isle Mayor Bill Brooks said of Amendment 1.

Even some backers of deeper tax cuts agree on that. Amendment 1 “will not turn the economy around, taxes will go up, and voters will feel cheated if he does not campaign hard for a more drastic cut,” said Brett Doster, a lobbyist and consultant for Floridians for Property Tax Reform, a group allied with House Speaker Marco Rubio’s push for deeper cuts. “If it fails, the ‘I did all that I could do’ excuse will not fly if the Florida economy continues to bottom out.”

Many of the business groups lukewarm to Crist’s plan will push on regardless of today’s final vote.

Barney Bishop, president of the powerful business lobbying group Associated Industries of Florida, said the governor had personally assured him recently he would keep up pressure to enact more reforms.