Mudslingers debate Amendment 1


Published: Friday, January 25, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 25, 2008 at 6:25 a.m.

TALLAHASSEE - Distraught toddlers and Donald Trump are being deployed along with exaggerated warnings and distorted claims as the ad campaign surrounding Tuesday's sweeping property tax referendum attacks your mailbox, radio and TV.

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This ad opposing the tax-cut amendment comes from "Citizens For Home Rule," a group backed by the Florida League of Cities.

Special to The Sun

But the heat of the campaign rhetoric may only confuse voters in a battle over what's expected to be a close vote on Amendment 1.

The complicated nature of the proposed tax cut allows for loose interpretation by proponents and detractors.

Simply put, if 60 percent of voters vote "yes'' in Tuesday's election, Amendment 1 will increase the homestead exemption and allow residents to keep accrued Save Our Homes tax breaks if they move.

The amendment would also create a loose cap on assessment increases for part-time residents and businesses as well as a new exemption for business equipment.

Beyond that, fans and critics of Amendment 1 are focused on convincing voters that the other side is lying.

"The proponents of this tax scheme are being disingenuous,'' said Rep. Curtis Richardson, D-Tallahassee.

"Totally untrue,'' said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, referring to a mailer that went out last week attacking Amendment 1.

The mailer, paid for by the Florida League of Cities and targeted toward Democrats, features a photo of a cheesy "out of state property owner'' in front of an expansive Spanish-style mansion.

Next to that is a photo of an elderly couple standing by their humble home with an American flag hanging by the door.

The mailer claims Amendment 1 would provide "special tax protection'' for non-Floridian homeowners. But legislative analysts said at least 80 percent of Amendment 1's tax savings would go to Florida residents and businesses.

The only provision that benefits part-time residents is the proposed 10 percent cap on annual assessment increase for non-homestead properties.

Few expect the cap to have much impact since real estate values are not expected to rise nearly enough to make the cap effective.

Another mailer from the cities features a young child with a stunned look on his face with the words, "Amendment 1 Does What!?'' calling it a "property tax scheme that will shock you.''

John Thomas, director of policy and public affairs for the FLC, said drawing attention to the break for out-of-state homeowners was important, regardless of the tax break's primary benefit for residents.

"We've always said the fiscal impact is unknown,'' he said. "Acknowledging (the break for non-Floridians) is a fair start.''

Amendment 1's top cheerleader, Gov. Charlie Crist, has indulged in creative campaigning as well.

While his latest TV ad shows the words "doubles your homestead exemption,'' a careful listen reveals Crist adding the word "essentially.''

That's a bit of late editing by Crist, who has backed away from verbally promising a "doubling'' of the popular $25,000 homestead exemption.

Since school taxes are not included in the proposed change, the average increase in homestead exemption savings would likely be about 60 percent, not a 100 percent doubling.

In a radio ad, Crist warns voters to not be "fooled by the special interests.'' But supporters of Crist's "Yes on 1'' campaign are a "who's who'' of Tallahassee special interests, with most of the major business lobbyists supporting the plan.

"Yes On 1'' has raised $4 million, with $1 million coming from Florida Power & Light, a company that would not benefit directly from Amendment 1 but has plenty to gain by carrying favor with Crist.

The governor pointedly refused to take FP&L's donations in 2006 after they supported his primary opponent.

The Florida League of Cities included a photo of Donald Trump's twisted, angry face in one flier, noting Trump's fundraiser for Crist in New York City last year.

Pitting special interests versus average Floridians is a key tactic for Amendment 1 opponents.

A group backed by local governments and the teachers union called "Florida Is Our Home'' has warned that passing Amendment 1 would be "catastrophic.''

Their flier shows a gritty fireman and police officer who "won't be able to respond as fast as needed'' if the tax cut trims local budgets.

Crist has dismissed that criticism, saying cities and counties need to simply "live within their means.''

Another flier, prepared by Florida Is Our Home, shows morose teens in a classroom with a stern warning that Amendment 1's passage would result in "$3 billion stripped out of the education budget.''

But legislative analysts revised that estimate deeply to $1.5 billion.

"It's a guesstimate,'' said the group's chairwoman, Karen Woodall, of the wildly varying figures. "Nobody knows for sure.''

In the colorful history of negative campaigns, the Amendment 1 battle is a spitball fight compared to the heavy artillery shown in other battles.

But the rhetoric could boil over in the last few days as polls from both sides show support is just a bit short of the necessary 60 percent.

"I don't involve myself in the assertions so much,'' Crist said of the campaign. "My concern is to get the truth out about what this will do for people.''

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