tampabay.com

Taxpayers' anger may determine governor

By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published September 16, 2006


Floridians are in a foul mood over rising property taxes, and soon they will elect a new governor.

An election framed around taxes often means trouble for Democrats in Florida.

If Republican Charlie Crist's mantra of "less taxes, less spending" ever were to find a rabid following, that time is now.

This is the year of canceled homeowner insurance policies and double-digit property tax hikes by county commissioners across the state.

But the antitax fervor might work to Democrat Jim Davis' advantage. He's the self-proclaimed outsider who wants to shake up the status quo, and he says the property tax mess was created by Republicans.

Crist is so confident, though, he'll be raising money next week in Orlando with President Bush, whose unpopularity in Florida is matched only by those tax-hiking county commissioners.

Crowds of sign-waving, fist-pumping taxpayers are packing hearings across the state.

What's fueling their hostility is that cities and counties have reaped a windfall from soaring property values but have not rolled back local property taxes.

In what taxpayers see as a shell game, local politicians promise to hold the line on taxes, but they mean the tax rate, not the tax you pay. There's a huge difference. In Florida, holding the line amounts to a tax increase because the value of property keeps going up.

But county officials note that while legislators have lowered taxes in Tallahassee, they have played their own shell game by shifting a growing share of the cost of government to the local level, especially for schools.

The high cost of health insurance, gasoline, electricity and other services hits City Hall, too.

Crist isn't sympathetic.

"I believe that less taxing, less government, and less spending means more freedom," Crist said in his victory speech in St. Petersburg last week.

He then framed the Nov. 7 election as a contrast between himself, a low-taxing Republican in the mold of Ronald Reagan and Jeb Bush, and the pro-tax politics of the past, personified by Davis.

Crist claimed he has never backed a "new" tax, a claim contradicted by his support in 1998 for a penny-a-pound tax on sugar growers. He calls it a fee. He also is on record as having favored the elimination of sales tax exemptions.

Crist has not yet put forth a detailed, fiscally responsible plan to spend the billions to pay for the class-size amendment he supports. But on taxes, he offers red meat to an angry electorate: He wants to double the homestead exemption to $50,000, subject to voter approval on a county-by-county basis.

Davis opposes it.

The outsider favors the status quo on the homestead exemption, a stand that will be hard to explain to voters who feel overtaxed.

"It's a great sound bite. I don't support it," he said Aug. 11 at a forum sponsored by the Florida League of Cities.

"How are we going to pay for growth?" Davis asked. "We're the fastest-growing state in the country. I think this is a blessing, but I think our quality of life is slipping through our fingers.

"So I'm going to put the brakes on all these special-interest tax breaks that have gone out in Tallahassee. But I'll be darned if I'm going to pull the rug out from these local governments until we have a plan about how we're going to meet our future needs," Davis said.

Davis says the local property tax burden is too high because Republicans cut state taxes too much. "I'd veto these tax breaks in Tallahassee that ultimately cost all of us more in property taxes," Davis says.

Davis, like Crist, supports letting homeowners transport their Save Our Homes tax cap to a new home. But Davis has said he wants to be sure that a "portability" plan treats homeowners and businesses fairly.

Issues are often more complex than Crist makes them sound. But it would be interesting to see Davis go someplace where antitax fervor is hot and see the reaction when he calls a doubling of the homestead exemption a "special-interest tax break."

There's little doubt such a proposal would pass, but how many local governments would put it on the ballot?

Commissioners are aghast at the prospect of losing that money, and they appear to have Jim Davis on their side.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or 800 333-7505.