Tax-cut amendment faces 60 percent requirement


Published: Wednesday, January 23, 2008 at 12:48 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 23, 2008 at 12:48 p.m.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. If it took only a simple majority to pass Amendment 1, the property tax-cutting proposal on Tuesday's ballot, its backers would be more confident of victory.

But in 2006, at the urging of Legislative leaders and business interests, voters adopted a measure that made it harder to amend the Florida Constitution by requiring 60 percent approval at the ballot box. That amendment won with 58 percent good enough under the constitution's old simple-majority requirement.

Now those same legislators and business groups are pushing the tax-cut measure and it may be the first victim of the 60 percent threshold. A recent poll by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and The Florida Times-Union showed the amendment winning 45 percent to 34 percent among likely voters, with 21 percent undecided.

"There's a certain irony in politics, and this is a classic example of it," said Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville.

He sponsored the 60 percent requirement in the Republican-controlled Legislature and now he's supporting Amendment 1.

"Any time you change the rules of the political system you always run into unintended consequences," said Darryl Paulson, a political science professor at the University of South Florida's St. Petersburg campus.

In this case Republicans, who by-and-large support the property tax amendment, "are going to be responsible perhaps for creating their own defeat," said Paulson, himself a Republican.

The tax amendment is expected to save primary homeowners an average of about $240 a year by doubling the existing homestead exemption to $50,000 except for school taxes and only on homes valued at more than $50,000.

Homeowners who move can expect bigger savings. That's because they would be able to take with them accrued benefits from the existing Save Our Homes tax break a 3 percent annual cap on assessment increases up to a value of $500,000.

Other provisions would give non-homestead properties, including businesses and second homes, a 10 percent cap on assessments, although they seldom increase that much, except for school taxes. Businesses also would get a $25,000 exemption on equipment and other personal property.

Supporters of the 60 percent ballot requirement, including the Florida Chamber of Commerce, were worried mostly about citizen initiatives rather than Legislative proposals, which they said were cluttering the constitution.

The critics cited such examples as an amendment prohibiting pregnant pigs from being confined in pens too small for them to move around in. That proposal passed with nearly 55 percent voter approval in 2002.

Businesses also were apprehensive about a still-pending petition drive called Hometown Democracy that would limit growth by requiring voter approval for changes in local comprehensive plans. Those plans govern the type and location of new development.

King said lawmakers thought about limiting the 60 percent requirement only to citizen initiatives but rejected that idea.

"It seemed grossly unfair," he said. "What's good for the goose is good for the gander."

That includes Gov. Charlie Crist, who has been stumping the state in support of the tax cut. The ever-optimistic Crist said he is undaunted by the 60 percent hurdle.

"Who doesn't want to have their property taxes cut?" Crist asked. "I know everybody does that I'm talking to."

Crist, also a Republican, said he was lukewarm to the 60 percent idea.

"I'm a democracy guy, and I think it's good to have 50 percent plus one," Crist said. "It was good enough when we founded the country, I think it ought to be good enough now, but it's changed and I'll live with the change."

It could be a make-or-break change for the tax amendment, though.

The proposal has drawn opposition from many local government officials and labor unions including those representing teachers, firefighters and other public employees. Opponents argue the relatively small average tax break would be a bad trade-off for the resulting service cuts.

"I'm going to vote no because too many people are losing their jobs in county government," said Democratic voter Gloria Gettinger, 66, of North Miami Beach. "It's not worth what I am going to lose."

There also have been defections among some interests that usually support tax cuts such as Florida TaxWatch, a Tallahassee budget watchdog group. TaxWatch says it does little to help non-homesteaders most in need of relief and may exacerbate existing inequities.

Some Republicans have offered only tepid backing including House Speaker Marco Rubio of West Miami. Rubio is campaigning for the proposal but says it doesn't go far enough. He also has endorsed a petition drive for a stronger measure.

"It's going to be very difficult to get the 60 percent mark for this particular amendment mostly because you've got these core Democratic groups that are against it," said University of Central Florida political science professor Aubrey Jewett, an independent.

"And, you have some lukewarm support on the Republican side," Jewett said. "I think that's a recipe for maybe not quite getting there."

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