Ruling on tax ballot question appealed

Article Courtesy of The Palm Beach Post

By Michael C. Bender

Published September 27, 2007


TALLAHASSEE The court ruling that struck the state legislature's proposed property tax change from the Jan. 29 ballot was appealed Wednesday, putting the lawsuit on a course to finish where it began: the Florida Supreme Court.

"While we have great respect for the judiciary, we're going to seek a second opinion," Gov. Charlie Crist said

The notice of appeal was filed by Attorney General Bill McCollum on behalf of Secretary of State Kurt Browning, a Crist appointee, who was named a defendant in the lawsuit from Weston Mayor Eric Hersh.

The notice starts a 30-day deadline for the state to make its argument about why the Supreme Court should reverse a circuit judge's order to remove the proposed property tax question from the ballot. But lawyers on both sides expect normal timelines to be cast aside as the state is facing an Oct. 28 deadline to submit a question for the January ballot.

"It's in no ones interest to drag this on," said Hersh attorney Jamie Cole. "There is a limited amount of time."

Browning's spokesman said the state would ask the First District Court of Appeal to pass the case through the state Supreme Court, but that motion was not filed Wednesday. Just by filing the appeal, the state will receive an automatic stay that keeps the amendment question on the ballot, an attorney general spokeswoman said.

Hersh has said he probably would file a motion to have the stay lifted, but if the stay is kept in place, the question would remain on the ballot until the Supreme Court rules. That decision could come after Oct. 28, which would be too late to get a new question on the ballot if the court rules against the state, or it could even come after Jan. 29, which would allow the question to go to the voters.

Hersh originally filed his lawsuit in Florida Supreme Court, but justices said the arguments should be made in a lower court first.

Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Francis, who got the case, agreed with Hersh that the proposed constitutional amendment eventually would phase out Save Our Homes, the 3 percent cap on assessments of homesteads, and that such an outcome was not clear by reading the ballot question. He ruled Monday that the amendment should not be placed on the ballot because it was "misleading and inaccurate."

But Francis ruled in favor of the state regarding another part of Hersh's lawsuit, which sought the reversal of a state law passed this year that forced a property tax cut of between 3 percent and 9 percent on most local governments. Hersh's attorney said they would decide by Friday whether to appeal that ruling.

Crist and House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-West Miami, have indicated they would support revising the amendment proposal while the appeal is pending, but Senate President Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie has publicly supported only the appeal.

If the amendment passes, people who buy primary residences, called homesteads, after Jan. 1, 2008, would not receive Save Our Homes benefits.

Instead, they would receive homestead exemptions worth 75 percent of the first $200,000 of their property's assessed value plus 15 percent of the next $300,000 in assessed value from most of their property tax bills. That means the owner of a $500,000 home could get a homestead exemption of up to $195,000.

The amendment would let current homestead owners pick between keeping Save Our Homes, which caps annual assessments at 3 percent, or taking the new exemption. But once a homeowner gave up Save Our Homes, it would be lost forever.