Property tax-cut fate hard to call, with only two full weeks before vote

Jan 14, 2008

Property tax-cut fate hard to call, with only two full weeks before vote



By Linda Kleindienst
Tallahassee Bureau Chief


January 13, 2008




It was supposed to be a no-brainer. Give Florida voters a chance to cut their taxes and they will, case closed.


But with just over two weeks before the fate of Amendment 1 is decided, the future — and the impact — of the much-heralded tax-cut package on the Jan. 29 ballot is murky.


Special interests have lined up on both sides, but many homeowners have been left in the middle, still wondering how to vote and whether their property taxes will drop as state politicians promised.


Polling to date shows public support hovering just below the 60 percent needed for passage.


Compared to previous constitutional amendment battles — such as high-speed rail, Everglades cleanup and slots — the fight over the tax package has been a relatively low-profile affair.


“It has been quiet,” said Lance deHaven-Smith, a public administration and policy professor from Florida State University. “Normally, if you have a high-visibility amendment, you have two dueling interest groups slugging it out.”


Only in recent days has the rhetoric begun to heat up, as proponents began a television ad campaign and opponents used mailers and planned rallies.


Out in front for the proponents is Gov. Charlie Crist, who hounded the Legislature into putting a tax plan before voters. Elected on the promise of tax reform, Crist has been traveling the state, giving speeches and meeting with homeowners to push the amendment, which he claims will help reignite home sales.


“We have a duty to make Florida affordable … when government takes less [from people], they have more to spend on their family,” Crist told state business leaders in Tallahassee last week.


Other backers of the amendment include Realtors, developers, builders, power companies and some of the largest owners of land and timber — those who could save the most with even a slight reduction in property taxes or a cap on how much their property assessments can go up.


“When proponents of this tax amendment wanted to go out and get financial support for their cause, where did they start?” asked Sunrise Mayor Steve Feren, a former state legislator who is president of the Florida League of Mayors, which opposes the amendment. “Did they go to Stan in Port Charlotte? No, they went to Donald Trump in Manhattan.”


Trump, who indeed hosted a $1,000-a-head-fundraiser for Yes On 1, pays about $1 million a year in property taxes on his $56 million Palm Beach mansion. Passage of the amendment would give second homeowners such as Trump future tax breaks by insuring the assessments on their homes would rise by no more than 10 percent a year. In 2006, the assessment on the Trump home went up by 35 percent.


Meanwhile, the average homeowner in the state would save about $240 — but only if local governments don’t raise taxes, which the proposed constitutional amendment would allow them to do, possibly obliterating the potential savings.


To date, Yes On 1 has raised $2.8 million for its campaign. The TV spot introduced last week features Crist during his 2007 inauguration lamenting the toll that high property insurance premiums and taxes have taken on Floridians. “This cannot, this will not stand,” he pledged.


On the other side are school boards, cities and mayors — as well as civic groups and unions, including those that represent teachers, firefighters, police and paramedics, who have formed a coalition known as Florida Is Our Home. The coalition, which represents 1 million union members, has raised about $915,000, with about half the money coming from teachers.


The opponents, who predict fewer police on the streets and slower response times by firefighters because of possible budget cuts, are relying on word of mouth, mailings to likely voters and community forums to explain the potential effects of the amendment on local government.


“We are increasingly getting calls from folks asking for speakers to participate in public forums, which is how we are counting on getting our message out,” said Karen Woodall, chairwoman of the coalition. “It’s always frustrating when you’re running a campaign that has fewer dollar resources than your opponent.”


On Friday, Florida TaxWatch, a government spending watchdog, released a report describing the proposed tax changes as unsatisfactory and likely to be detrimental.


Kurt Wenner, director of tax policy, said some of the proponents’ promises aren’t true.


Yes On 1 ads claim that the $25,000 homestead exemption will be doubled. But that’s only true for the purpose of city, county and special district tax bills — not for school taxes. Lower property taxes are promised with no mention that local governments can increase taxes without penalty.


“To call it tax reform is stretching it,” Wenner said. “A lot of people reading the bill recognize it isn’t all they thought it was.”


For those who do read it, there may be more confusion than understanding. Sunrise Mayor Feren said he read the ballot language at least four times before he understood it.


Such confusion could lead to the amendment’s downfall at the polls, deHaven-Smith said.


“Voters may not know the details, but if they think something stinks, they shy away,” he said.


Linda Kleindienst can be reached at


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