Governor hits road to push tax-cut plan

Dec 14, 2007

Posted on Fri, Dec. 14, 2007D

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Charlie Crist ratcheted up his push to win the votes to pass the property-tax amendment on Jan. 29, with a news conference in the home of an Orlando couple on Friday and the launch of mailers and phone calls directed to likely voters.

But as the governor mounts his ”Vote On 1” campaign, several teachers, firefighters and interest groups are pushing back. The statewide teachers union has already mailed a brochure and begun automated calls urging members to vote down the tax-cut plan because, saying it would lead to “devastating cuts that put our public schools and public safety at risk.”

The governor’s not balking.

”I believe Floridians know how to spend their money better than government does,” he said.

The plan would raise the homestead exemption an additional $25,000 on all but school taxes and allow homeowners to carry their Save Our Homes savings with them when they move, a feature that has been dubbed “portability.”

Crist says the proposal will ”re-ignite Florida’s economy” and ”fix the broken property tax system in Florida.” He was joined at the press conference by business leaders and Realtors, who have given $1 million to the campaign, and the property appraisers from Orange and Broward counties.

”It’s important for our economy, but the main thing is this gives working families choices,” said Lori Parrish, Broward County’s property appraiser and a Democrat.

She believes the measure, which needs 60 percent of the vote to become law, will pass overwhelmingly in Broward, which conducted a straw poll on portability in the gubernatorial ballot in November 2006 and found that voters supported it by 78 percent.

A growing coalition of unions, parent-teacher organizations and the Florida League of Women Voters have joined together to mount a grassroots drive to stop the amendment.

Karen Woodall, chairwoman of the ”Florida is Our Home” coalition, says the average $20 a month homeowners would save under the amendment ”is a bad deal for Florida” because the meager savings for homeowners will cause deep damage to schools, public safety, parks and even public sanitation.

While these groups can’t compete with Crist’s group in money, they can walk door to door and supply grassroots information, she said.

Meanwhile, House Speaker Marco Rubio is conducting his own campaign, making the rounds on the speaking circuit at Rotary clubs and Chamber of Commerce luncheons to send the message that Amendment 1 is not enough.

He is backing a citizens’ initiative on the November 2008 ballot that would limit tax assessments to 1.35 percent of the market value for any property in Florida. The plan would let homeowmers keep all their homestead exemptions and the Save Our Homes savings, which caps the annual increase in tax assessments at 3 percent. But homeowners would never pay more than 1.35 percemt of their home’s market value in taxes.

Promoters say it would reduce property taxes by 26 percent for the average homeowner. Last year, homeowners paid an average of 1.84 percent of their market value in taxes.

The idea, originated by a St. Petersburg tax group and now embraced by Rubio, ”would be disastrous” for Florida, said Gary Rainey, vice president of the Florida Professional Firefighters Union and a member of the Miami-Dade Fire Department.

The property-tax reductions imposed by legislators early this year have already forced Miami-Dade to cancel two recruitment classes of 75 firefighters who were ready to be trained and hired.

”It’s a meat-ax approach to tax reduction,” Rainey said. “It doesn’t take into account essential services.”

Police, fire and emergency management accounts for about 50 percent of cities’ and counties’ budgets. ”If you don’t have police and fire and you artificially cap the taxes, where is there to go?” he said.

Rubio plans speeches in Sarasota, St. Petersburg, Brooksville, Panama City and Kissimmee next week to drum up signatures for the petition drive, even though he admits it’s a long shot to collect the 611,000 signatures needed by Jan. 31 in order to get on the November ballot.

In Miami-Dade, Rubio holds a town hall meeting with Rep. Carlos Lopez-Cantera on Tuesday at Ransom Everglades Middle School and a Rubio-backed group is planning a ”Florida Tea Party” on Monday, at the Miami-Dade auditorium to gather petition signatures. The event, to run from 4-7:30 p.m., is scheduled a day after the 234th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party.

Instead of tea, organizers plan to have bags of Cuban coffee and hope the aroma of cafecitos will entice people to show up and sign the petition supporting the 1.35 percent amendment.

And instead of a rebellion, they will hold up a declaration ”that people are fed up with skyrocking property taxes and no foreseeable resolution,” said Evelio Medina, the organizer of the event and a member of Fair Property Taxes for All.