At first glance, opponents of a $9.3 billion property tax slashing plan
on the Jan. 29 ballot appear to be a dollar short, and if not a day
late, running out of time.
Subtract time off for the holidays, and organizers have less than a
month to convince Floridians not to vote themselves an average $240
windfall and defy a cheerfully centrist governor with stellar
Gov. Charlie Crist and supporters at "Vote Yes on 1" came out of the
starting block with a war chest of $1.5 million from the Florida
Association of Realtors. By the end of last week, Florida Power & Light
generated an additional $250,000 and the Florida Medical Association
paid a house call with a $50,000 check. Outdoor advertisers piled on an
Yes on 1 flooded the state with hundreds of thousands of fliers last
week targeting voters who are already receiving absentee ballots. The
barrage also includes a recorded phone message from Crist.
"Hello, this is Governor Charlie Crist. I am calling you today because
property taxes are out of control. The system is broken but you have
power to fix the system and lower property taxes for all Floridians,
guaranteed by law."
The Florida Education Association launched its opposition campaign
earlier in the week with $300,000, but it beat proponents to the punch
with a flier sent to its 137,000 members.
"Don't forget, the Republican Party of Florida also has access to $20
million," quipped Bill Phillips, a spokesman for the Public Education
Defense Fund political action committee, one of the measure's chief
opponents. "We as an individual group, and even with the other groups
collectively, can't hope to raise as much as the governor."
But don't underestimate the might of a 1 million-member coalition that
includes teachers, government workers, the Service Employees
International Union and veteran campaigners like the League of Women
Voters, opponents warn.
Floridians may be very fond of Charlie Crist, but they grew up
respecting their teachers and venerating the uniformed army of public
servants who protect their homes, fight their fires and dress their
wounds, Phillips said.
"The polls repeatedly show that the trustworthiness of police,
firefighters, teachers and nurses is always high," Phillips said. "We
like those odds."
The opponents' message is dire. Pass the amendment and schools will
a $2.7 billion hit over the next five years. While schools are
declining, the streets will become more dangerous when police,
firefighters and paramedics lose their jobs.
"Amendment 1 not only makes a bad tax system even worse for middle
Floridians, it will mean devastating cuts that put our public schools
and public safety at risk," screams the FEA flyer.
Crist doesn't buy it.
During the last economic slump, before local governments reaped
from rising property values and the growing real estate bubble, vital
services survived, Crist said.
"Five or six years ago, before we had the run up, guess what?" Crist
said. "They still had firefighters and police. This argument just
doesn't hold water."
Crist even goes a step further. He argues that blue-collar workers,
including government employees, are the ones who will benefit the most
from a tax cut.
Opponents counter with a question of their own. Why would a firefighter
vote for a $240 tax break when it could cost him his job?
"That would be like the chicken voting for Col. Saunders," said Doug
Martin, a spokesman for AFSCME, the government workers union.
Opponents say other factors will offset the money disadvantage, not the
least of which is a new constitutional barrier that requires all ballot
questions to pass with a 60 percent majority.
The complicated nature of the proposal also works in their favor,
At Crist's urging, lawmakers put the measure on the ballot at the end
a raucous special session in October.
Legislators pitched it as a vehicle for doubling the homestead
for homes worth more than $50,000, but that feature would not apply to
school taxes. Another provision, strongly supported by the real estate
industry, is "portability."
That would allow homeowners to keep the accrued 3 percent annual
assessment cap savings from Save Our Homes, when they move.
The measure also would give a Save Our Homes-like 10 percent assessment
cap for commercial and non-homestead property. The cap would sunset in
decade and then require voter approval again to continue.
Businesses would also get a $25,000 exemption on the taxes they pay for
such things as equipment and other "personal tangible property."
It's a dizzying array of complicated provisions that don't easily fit
a bumper sticker.
Former Panama City Beach Mayor Lee Sullivan, who is heading a petition
drive for another property tax cutting measure in November 2008,
recently suggested that Crist and his supporters are giving voters too
much to consider.
Sullivan's proposal is being championed by House Speaker Marco Rubio.
simply calls for capping all taxes at 1.3 percent of the property's
value. Sullivan and his group, "Cut Property Taxes Now," are rushing to
gather the 611,009 signatures they need before Feb. 1 to reach the
November 2008 ballot.
One of the biggest selling points is its simplicity, Sullivan said.
"Can you imagine how many pages it's going to take to describe that
thing?" Sullivan said of the competing plan.
Conventional wisdom says that the more complicated a ballot question,
the more likely it is to fail. Early indications are that voters are
already struggling with the language.
When Leon County Elections Supervisor Ion Sancho sent out 5,700
ballots last week, the phones at his office began lighting up. Most of
the two dozen callers wanted someone to explain the ballot language,
Some wanted a hint on which way to vote.
"We started getting calls right away," he said. "It's a huge question."
Taking up most of the ballot page, the question is just under 500
While polls show voter support for the measure has yet to top the magic
60 percent, a recent survey suggests opponents are up against more than
a popular governor. If the polls are correct, voters are angry about
pocketbook issues like taxes.
Some 20 percent of Florida voters put taxes and government spending at
the top of their list of the most important issues in a recent poll
Mason Dixon conducted for Leadership Florida. That's a dramatic
from only a year before, when 18 percent said public schools were most
"Floridians are becoming more disenchanted with the way things are
in the state and with government itself," said pollster Brad Coker.
Whether that signals a growing tax revolt remains to be seen.
"When their own pocketbooks get stressed, people get angry with
government," said University of South Florida political scientist Susan
Voters will decide Amendment One Jan. 29. It requires 60 percent
approval for passage. If passed, it's estimated it will cut property
taxes (and the revenue to local governments) statewide by $1.27 billion
in 2008, including $161.3 million from schools.
Over five years, it's projected to cut taxes $9.31 billion, including
$1.56 billion less for schools.
Here's what it proposes:
Increases the homestead exemption by $25,000 for homes worth more than
$50,000. The exemption does not apply to school taxes. The average
exemption would rise by about $15,000, with a $240 average savings.
Makes accrued Save Our Homes assessment protections "portable" to new
homes when homesteaders move. The total protected amount is capped at
$500,000. And homesteaders who move to a house of lesser value take a
pro-rated portion of their tax shelters.
Businesses would get a $25,000 exemption for personal tangible
usually things like equipment. This would wipe thousands of businesses
off the tax rolls who pay more in bookkeeping than they owe for the
All commercial and non-homestead property would be protected by a 10
percent annual assessment increase cap. This provision sunsets, or
expires, in 10 years. It does not apply to school taxes.
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