Crist talks up new tax plan

Worries about the amendment cutting into

local services are "overblown," he insists.

Article Courtesy of The St. Petersburg Times


Published September 18, 2007

TAMPA - With polls showing waning support for the super homestead exemption, Gov. Charlie Crist visited a Tampa woman's home Monday to trumpet his support for a new campaign to convince Floridians to vote for it.

There has been speculation about whether Crist and influential statewide business groups would really show much enthusiasm for the Jan. 29 property tax referendum, but the governor said he would "work like crazy" to get it passed.

Crist and a crowd of local Realtors squeezed into the living room of Veronica Greco, 59, whom they called an example of the kind of person the new exemption would help.

Greco is trying to sell her home of 15 years off N Howard Avenue so she can downsize to a condo, but she says she's having trouble because would-be buyers can't afford the taxes. She pays $670 a year in property taxes on the $239,000 home, but its next owner would pay $4,000.

If a proposed constitutional amendment is approved by voters, someone buying Greco's house could get a "super homestead exemption" on about $155,000 of its value and would pay taxes on $80,000 of it, said Nancy Riley, president of the Florida Association of Realtors, which is backing the campaign.

Realtors say the tax break would help revive moribund real estate sales, boost the economy and make houses more affordable for first-time home buyers and middle-income people, such as police officers, teachers and nurses.

On the other side of the debate are cities and counties, sheriffs and firefighters. They say if the amendment passes, they'll have to cut billions in services, including in law enforcement, libraries, parks and after-school programs.

Crist said Monday that those concerns are overblown.

"All they need to do is prioritize," he said. "Five or six years ago," when property taxes were significantly lower, "we had cops, we had firefighters."

A statewide poll released last week shows that support for the super exemption has dropped 10 points in two months, to 47 percent of voters. To be approved, it must get 60 percent of the vote.

But the referendum still is four months away, nearly a third of the electorate is undecided, and two-thirds want more details.

Crist and the Realtors said they'll work to win over undecided voters, partly by focusing on the message that homeowners still would have a choice between switching to the larger exemption or keeping their current Save Our Homes 3 percent property tax cap.

The state Realtors' association has pledged to funnel up to $1-million to a new nonprofit political group called "Yes on 1 - Save Our Homes Now!"

Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who signed on Monday to be the group's co-chairman, said it will rally support for the amendment through a soon-to-be-unveiled Web site, a voter education campaign and possibly through television ads.

Fasano and Crist are not the only politicians to lend support to the tax proposal. This week, House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-Miami, is expected to stand with homebuilders and other business interests. Rubio said Monday that he would still fight to eliminate property taxes on primary homes altogether.

"Those who oppose the amendment should know that if the amendment fails in January it will not be because it goes too far," Rubio said. "It will be because for many Floridians, it doesn't go far enough."

Detractors think the Legislature's other property tax plan - a rollback of local tax bases that's already in effect - is eating into support for the amendment. Across the state, many property owners have been unimpressed by the savings under the rollback.

"The math just isn't adding up," said Rich Templin of the Florida AFL-CIO. "It's going to take a lot more than the governor, a lot more than the myriad of public relations firms and expensive commercials that will run on TV."

The Florida League of Cities says the proposal is confusing and doesn't tell voters how much money could be taken from local government. That detail is unknown because it depends on how many people would elect to go with the new exemption.

"We're all for people lowering their taxes, but you really ought to have some knowledge on what you're voting on," said John Thomas, the League's director of policy and political affairs.

The ballot language is the subject of a lawsuit brought by the mayor of Weston in Broward County. A circuit judge in Tallahassee is expected to issue a ruling this week.