Crist bets it all on tax amendment


Published: Sunday, January 27, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 27, 2008 at 12:32 a.m.

TALLAHASSEE - The campaign for the largest property tax cut in Florida history could easily be mistaken as an election bid for Gov. Charlie Crist.

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Gov. Charlie Crist, right, supports Amendment 1.

The Associated Press

TV and radio ads, e-mails, direct mail fliers and automated phone calls have flooded Floridians, each bearing the gentle face or voice of Crist asking voters to say "yes'' on Tuesday's Amendment 1 referendum.

Crist has taken a number of days off work in recent weeks to barnstorm the state, using buses and planes paid for by donors. With voters confused about the sweeping plan, Crist could be the difference.

Nothing during his first year in office - not a historic budget deficit of billions, a floundering property insurance market or lawsuits over gambling and higher education - has dented Crist's popularity, with polls showing more than 60 percent of voters approve his performance.

"(Voters) associate him with issues closer than any other politician or elected official that I know because they trust him,'' said. Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey. "They like him and they trust him. That's why I believe this will pass next week, because they trust our governor.''

But unlike his previous campaigns, when donors and volunteers flocked to be by his side, Crist is largely alone on the Amendment 1 crusade. And with the amendment needing 60 percent approval for the first time in state history, Crist has put his hard-earned populist image on the line.

"He has certainly stepped up and become the champion of Amendment 1, so if it fails, I don't think there's any way he can escape the conclusion that, 'Well, Charlie wasn't strong enough to get it done,' '' said. Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville. "My personal opinion is that's grossly unfair. He has taken this thing on because he figures he's the only one who can make it work.''

Amendment 1 would increase the homestead exemption for residents and allow them to keep accrued Save Our Homes tax breaks if they move. Businesses would get a new exemption for equipment; businesses and part-time residents would have future assessment increases capped at 10 percent per year.

The amendment would result in billions in lost revenue for schools and local governments who say residents will howl about the cuts. Crist said it's a necessary step to reignite the state's economy and allow families to move without losing their Save Our Homes tax break.

Crist is a master of campaigning, staying firmly on message with a few pat answers on why Amendment 1 is wonderful. In recent weeks, he has turned interviews on issues as disparate as environmental land purchases and Martin Luther King Jr. Day into reasons to vote for Amendment 1. He even used his weekly audio message, on his taxpayer-funded Web site, to push for a "yes'' vote.

In recent weeks, Crist has refused to talk about the intertwining of his own political fortunes with Amendment 1.

"I have no idea,'' he said, before repeating his stock reply. "What's riding on next Tuesday is the opportunity for people to cut their property taxes in a way that doesn't come along very often.''

Crist tends to downplay his role in Amendment 1, saying the Legislature "showed great leadership'' in putting it on the ballot. But the two biggest components of the plan - increasing the homestead exemption and allowing residents to keep accrued Save Our Homes tax breaks if they move - were the centerpieces of Crist's 2006 campaign.

"This is a situation where the governor was out front in initiating this constitutional amendment,'' said Bob Graham, the former two-term governor and U.S. senator for Florida. "If this amendment has a parent, he's it.''

Graham, while declining to share his own views on Amendment 1, said there is nothing unusual with a sitting governor campaigning vigorously for a statewide referendum.

"I think it's an obligation,'' he said. "If there's an issue you feel strongly about and which requires constitutional change, that's part of your leadership obligation.''

Crist has been the recipient of an unprecedented bipartisan lovefest during his first year with Democrats just happy to be part of the process after eight years of alienation under Gov. Jeb Bush.

Crist has mocked complaints from local governments and law enforcement groups who say the plan will cost them billions and lead to layoffs. But even Crist's attacks have not dampened their support for him.

The Florida Police Chiefs Association, a group that usually does not get involved in political campaigns, took the unusual step of urging a "no'' vote on Amendment 1. They said it would lead to layoffs and service cuts.

But few chiefs said the battle would soften their support for Crist in the future.

"If you work with someone long enough, you're going to disagree on an issue,'' said Jay Romine, the police chief in Holmes Beach in Manatee County. "That doesn't mean we don't have a good relationship with him.''

The top Democrat in the Florida House, Rep. Dan Gelber of Miami Beach, has railed against Amendment 1. But the harshest criticism he has of Crist is a compliment.

"I think he's a little overly enthusiastic about it,'' Gelber said. "He seems happier about it than any other Floridian I've seen.'' Echoing many Democrats and some Republicans in Tallahassee, Gelber says Crist is hard to criticize when compared to the autocratic Bush.

"It's hard for me to rail against the governor (Crist) when I think the last one was too much of a control freak,'' Gelber said.

Whatever the outcome of Amendment 1, most agree that the political risk for Crist is minimal due to one ironclad political truth. "I don't know of any elected official who has been thrown out of office because he or she advocated a tax cut,'' said Fasano.

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