Dual tensions raise pressure on ballot issue

Article Courtesy of The Palm Beach Post

By S.V. Date

Published October 5, 2007


TALLAHASSEE House Speaker Marco Rubio holds out for deep property tax cuts. Senate President Ken Pruitt wants to protect education funding. Gov. Charlie Crist supports both but leans with the Senate.

If Floridians think they've seen the movie before, it's because they have.

Just as in the final weeks of the spring legislative session, Rubio has focused the ongoing budget-cutting special session on what he calls the root problem, Florida's property tax, and is insisting on dramatic reductions, preferably by replacing all or part of it with a higher sales tax.

"We were going to do that anyway in the regular session," he said. "Let's get it done now. That's the opportunity that we're in."

And just like in the regular session, Senate leaders see problems in the property tax system caused by Save Our Homes and the once-soaring real estate market. Both led to rapid increases in the tax bills of non-homesteaded owners.

Senate Majority Leader Daniel Webster, the architect of the proposal on the Jan. 29 presidential primary ballot that is facing legal questions, said he prefers to protect the super-exemption plan, which phases out Save Our Homes. "The plan we had was a good plan," he said.

But the ending to this drama probably will be different this time around.

The failure to reach an accord by the end of regular session in May begat a special session in June. The result was a law that promised to cut local government taxes by $15.6 billion over five years, and a proposed constitutional amendment that would increase the homestead exemption dramatically and reduce taxes by as much as $16 billion.

Even if that session had ended in failure, there would have been time for several more tries over the summer.

This time, the state is facing a strict deadline: If lawmakers fail to fix the super-exemption language on the ballot or replace it with another proposal by Oct. 31, they and Crist in the best case are stuck with the one they passed in June and in the worst case will having nothing at all if appeals courts agree with a circuit judge's ruling that struck the amendment question from the ballot. The state must submit a plan to the Division of Elections no less than 90 days prior to the voting date.

"They're expecting to be able to vote on a property tax amendment in January, and we should be able to deliver that to them," Rubio said.

That, however, is not up to Rubio or other Republicans, but to the minority party, the Democrats. Placing a question on the ballot of any election other than the next general election requires a three-quarters vote of both chambers, and Democrats hold slightly more than one-third of the seats in each.

Last time, Democrats agreed to allow Crist and legislative leaders to put the question on the Jan. 29 presidential primary ballot.

This time, Democrats say they will not go along with any plan that hurts education and social services.

That is why elements of the unofficial "consensus" proposal making the rounds in the Capitol are from the Senate's original plan this spring that Democrats helped craft. Those elements, which would not cut as much in taxes as the proposed constitutional amendment, include doubling the $25,000 homestead exemption; giving homesteaders a limited "portability" of their accrued Save Our Homes benefit if they move; and giving first-time homeowners an added break.

"I want to do the will of the people," Crist said. "I'm not sure exactly what that's going to be, every part and parcel of it. But I am encouraged that the House and the Senate want to work very hard."

Crist, because he is governor, likely has the most at stake.

In February 2006, before his campaign put the issue front and center, only 1 percent of Florida voters polled by Quinnipiac University named property taxes as the worst problem in Florida. By December 2006, after hundreds of campaign events and tens of millions of dollars in television advertising, that figure was up to 6 percent. And last month, after nine months of Crist using the bully pulpit of his office to demand that property taxes "drop like a rock," the figure stood at 14 percent in the same poll - just slightly below the 15 percent who believed property insurance remained the worst problem.

But Crist has been noncommittal about a property tax session and what it should accomplish.

In his proclamation adding no-fault auto insurance to the special session's agenda Monday, the statement from his office announced that "the Legislature will call a special session to be scheduled later in October" - putting the responsibility of an agreement back on Rubio and Pruitt.

Doing so, however, brings back the dynamics that failed to bring a compromise six months ago.

Rubio, seen by many as the Capitol's ideological heir apparent to conservative former Gov. Jeb Bush, has continued to push an agenda supported by proponents of the so-called "fair tax," who are working around the country to replace income taxes and property taxes with increased sales taxes.

"It's the fairest tax out there," Rubio said. "Sales tax, everyone decides how much they're going to pay, based on what they decide to buy. If you buy a Bentley, you're going to pay us more than if you buy an Audi."

As he largely has all year, Rubio finds himself fighting two-against-one against the more politically moderate Senate and Crist, who often has seemed more receptive to the input of Democratic leaders Steve Geller in the Senate and Dan Gelber in the House than he has to fellow Republican Rubio.

"The governor and the Senate, who both want tax relief, are not going to let the House Republicans walk the state into the Cuisinart blade," Gelber said.