Judge knocks property tax off ballot

Article Courtesy of The Palm Beach Post

By Michael Bender

Published September 25, 2007

TALLAHASSEE A Leon County judge threw the property tax amendment off the Jan. 29 ballot Monday, sending shock waves through a legislature that now faces the tough question of appealing the decision or recasting the ballot question.

Circuit Judge Charles A. Francis ruled that the proposed amendment is "misleading and confusing" and should be removed from the presidential primary ballot because it does not explain clearly that the change would phase out Save Our Homes protections.

"Nowhere in the ballot summary is the voter alerted to the elimination of these constitutional protections on homestead assessments," Francis wrote. "They are simply led to believe they are preserved or revised."

The Republican-controlled legislature debated the issue for two sessions over four months this year before approving the ballot question in June on a party-line vote.

The judge's decision could be appealed or the ballot language could be changed when lawmakers return to the Capitol next week to make budget cuts during their third special session of the year. Republican leaders said they would consider their options.

"This gives us a chance to pause, revisit this initiative and respect the court's position and see if it would be appropriate to readdress this language," said Sen. Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach. "Why not take a period of time to reflect, look back at the quality of our product and see if an appeal or a rewording is appropriate within the next 30 days? We've got a couple of days to consider those options."

Democrats, who opposed the constitutional amendment, pointed out that they tried to change the proposal to tell voters explicitly that it would phase out Save Our Homes, but their motion failed along party lines. Save Our Homes, a constitutional amendment that a group of citizens put on the 1992 ballot, caps homestead assessments at no more than 3 percent a year.

"I'm very pleased," Senate Democratic Leader Steve Geller said of the ruling. "Every single Democrat in the House and Senate voted against that amendment. It was misleading, and we said all along that it was misleading."

The proposed amendment would end Save Our Homes benefits for everyone who buys a primary home, called a homestead, after Jan. 1, 2008, and instead offer them a tax exemption that totals 75 percent of the first $200,000 in assessed value, plus 15 percent of the next $300,000. Current homestead owners could choose to keep their Save Our Homes benefits or give up the protections forever and take the new exemption.

Save Our Homes, Francis wrote, "would be lost under the proposed amendment for anyone not entitled to a homestead exemption on the effective date of the proposed amendment, and nowhere is the loss of this valued constitutional protection disclosed in the ballot summary."

The issue arrived in Francis' courtroom after Weston Mayor Eric Hersh asked the Florida Supreme Court to throw out the legislature's entire property tax package, which included the constitutional amendment plus a law that forced a five-year, $15.6 billion cut on local governments. The Supreme Court kicked the issue to the Leon County Circuit Court.

"I'm hoping the legislature looks at this as an opportunity to revisit the issue and ultimately pass something meaningful and lawful," Hersh said after Francis' ruling. "We really need meaningful tax reform in this state, and we have a responsibility to make sure that what goes on the ballot is understandable and tells the public what we're trying to accomplish."

Francis also ruled Monday that lawmakers have the ability to impose the five-year tax reduction. That cut, which totaled 3 percent to 9 percent for most counties and municipalities, will take effect this year.

"The good news is that part of the legislature's tax reform was upheld today," Senate President Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, said in a statement. "Taxpayers will receive a measure of property tax relief immediately."

Coming just four months before the Jan. 29 election, the ruling creates two high-risk scenarios for Gov. Charlie Crist and the legislature.

The first is an appeal of Francis' decision. Because the state is entitled to the presumption that its actions are lawful, any appeal probably would receive a stay, meaning the amendment would go back on the ballot until the Florida Supreme Court made a ruling.

But if the Supreme Court were to uphold Francis' ruling after late November, it would knock the amendment off the ballot for good.

The ballot has to be finalized by then because that's when Secretary of State Kurt Browning has to certify the names of the presidential primary candidates in time for local elections supervisors to mail overseas ballots in December, a spokesman for Browning said.

On the other hand, lawmakers could preempt that problem by reconsidering the amendment with Francis' critique in mind during their special session next week. But revisiting a major tax cut such as the amendment, particularly during a special session in which lawmakers and Crist must cut $1.1 billion from various state programs, could bring its own political hazards.

Republican leaders didn't indicate Monday which way they'll go.

"The legislature smartly put the power to cut property taxes into the hands of the people," Crist said in a statement. "We will continue to work to ensure Florida's homeowners get the relief they need and deserve."

House Speaker Marco Rubio's statement said, "The legislature, working with the governor's office, crafted a ballot summary that fully and accurately explains the implications and effects of the proposed constitutional amendment. ... One way or another, we will give Florida taxpayers the relief they deserve."