By ALEX LEARY
Published September 30, 2007
TALLAHASSEE - When property tax notices arrived in mailboxes this summer, Florida had a Where's The Beef? moment. Yes, tax bills went down, as legislators promised. But homeowners hoping for dramatic relief were sorely disappointed.
Don't worry, lawmakers said. The big savings will come in January after the vote on what's become known as the "super homestead exemption" amendment.
But on Monday a state judge struck the amendment from the ballot, ruling that the language was confusing and misleading. Now the Legislature faces an Oct. 29 deadline if there's to be a vote in January.
Time is the least of the Legislature's worries.
The legal setback has revived bitter divisions among Republicans in the House and Senate over the depth of property tax cuts. In so doing, it may have put outnumbered Democrats in a rare position of power, where their votes might be enough to kill the amendment.
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The tax reduction cause is not yet lost. But each solution that would allow a Jan. 29 vote has a downside that could end up delaying any action until 2009.
The simplest approach would be for the Legislature to clarify the ballot language to meet the judge's objection: that it was not clear that a vote for the super exemption means the eventual end to the popular Save Our Homes cap on property tax increases. A few simple words could do the trick.
Frankness, though, carries a risk. So cherished is Save Our Homes that clarifying the ballot could hurt chances of the new plan, which is already struggling in the polls.
"It would never pass. People aren't going to give up a sure thing," said Sen. Mike Bennett of Bradenton, one of several Republicans in the Senate who voted for the amendment in June but who now question its worth.
That sentiment might explain why legislative leaders decided to appeal the circuit judge's decision rather than simply plan to rewrite the ballot language during this week's special session.
Senate President Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, said the best course would be to "vigorously defend our work product." His tone did not conceal the fatigue many in the Senate feel over the property tax issue. Said Bennett, "I don't think we're in the mood to go back to war."
Indeed, getting the super exemption on the ballot in the first place required a rancorous regular session, followed by secret negotiations and a special session that left few entirely satisfied with the plan Pruitt now wants to defend.
House Speaker Marco Rubio sought to display a united front by echoing Pruitt's call for an appeal. But the Miami Republican also repeated his demand for a plan that would grant even greater tax relief than the super exemption and suggested another special session to take up the issue.
(An official agenda for this week's special session was released Friday afternoon and did not include property taxes. The session ends Oct. 12, giving lawmakers just over two weeks to revisit taxes before the deadline to put issues on the Jan. 29 ballot. Gov. Charlie Crist said Friday he would not rule out a second session to begin Oct. 17.)
Rubio's desire to add more tax cuts (for business and other non-homesteaded property owners) brings its own complications. Even if he could get fellow House Republicans to go along, the Senate likely would not. Many senators seem content with the tax relief already in effect. That's the millage rollback and cap on local government tax revenue.
The tax cap, as it's called, has already been incorporated into municipal budgets. But it produced an average savings of less than $200.
That, Rubio said, is not enough.
"If you only have one part of a two-part plan, you don't have a plan yet," he said. "It's like the Beatles without Ringo, they're not the Beatles."
But he likely cannot get what he wants without support from the Democrats.
Normally, Republicans dominate the agenda with a majority in both chambers. But putting a constitutional amendment on a special election ballot requires a three-fourths majority of both the House and Senate.
Three-fourths of the Senate is 30 votes, but the GOP only has 25. Three-fourths of the House is 90 votes, but Republicans have only 78.
House lawyers have already begun researching whether simply rewording the ballot would require another supermajority vote. They apparently believe it does not.
But this technical point becomes an issue if Rubio successfully pushes through a different tax cut plan.
Democrats, many of whom don't like the super exemption amendment, voted for it the first time on the theory that the voters ought to have a chance to decide. And for consistency's sake, they might go along with a simple clarification of the ballot language.
But all bets are off if Rubio gets his way and drafts a bigger tax cut plan. It's an idea, by the way, that seems to have the support of Crist, who called this week's court decision a "blessing in disguise."
Rep. Jack Seiler, a Broward County Democrat who is among the most respected lawmakers in Tallahassee, acknowledged Crist has built up a lot of good will with Democrats since taking office in January.
But if Rubio and company push for an expanded menu of tax cuts, expect gridlock.
"If you start changing the plan," Seiler said, "then that changes the dynamics."