Solutions become taxing

Most people want property taxes cut, but the how of it isn't so clear.

Published May 14, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - Floridians want property tax relief now. But like the Legislature, they're not sure how to get there.

Fifty-one percent of people surveyed in a St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9 poll say legislators made the right decision to call a special session next month rather than trying to rush a plan during the regular session that ended May 4.

But when they were asked to choose between five possible ways to reduce property taxes, which had been discussed by lawmakers, no clear winner emerged.

"They have a singular message for Tallahassee: Do something. But how you get there is less clear, " said Kellyanne Conway of the Polling Co. in Washington, D.C., one of two firms that conducted the poll.

Conway noted that every demographic - renters, homeowners, Republicans, Democrats, men, women and people of all races - agree lawmakers must do something to lower property taxes.

The survey was conducted by Schroth, Eldon & Associates, which traditionally works with Democratic candidates, and the Polling Co., which does Republican polling. They spoke to 901 Floridians from May 6 to May 9. The margin of error for statewide figures is 3.5 percent.

Like the voters they represent, lawmakers have also been afflicted with indecision. After failing to find a compromise from among three proposals during the session, House leadership as recently as Friday announced a new proposal for reducing property taxes.

House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-Miami, is no longer seeking to swap property taxes on primary homes for higher sales tax. Instead, he has called for higher tax exemptions for homes and commercial property.

While there was little support in Tallahassee for the original House plan, 32 percent of voters in the poll ranked it as their first or second choice.

"I agree, " Rubio said. "Unfortunately not enough of them are in Tallahassee right now."

Other proposals discussed in the poll included: Doubling the homestead exemption to $50, 000, which was as popular in the poll as Rubio's tax swap; rolling back property taxes to 2003 levels; allowing homeowners to carry the 3 percent "Save Our Homes" property tax cap with them into new homes and increasing the homestead exemption to half of the county-wide average home value.

"Tax is still a four-letter word to a majority of Floridians, but when you look at the five different choices given, Floridians are asking for a smattering of solutions, " Conway said.

"There was no dominant response to this such that the others should be dismissed."

Conway noted that men who responded to the poll were 11 percentage points more likely than women to favor abolishing property taxes. Women were generally more likely to roll back taxes to 2003 levels.

"Men are much more drastic in their solutions, in saying abolish them all together, " she said.

While 42 percent of seniors favored doubling the homestead exemption, a solid 33 percent of seniors said they were unsure of the property tax choices.

"That's an incredibly high number, that's so much higher than the average and it suggests that people are really going to have to reach out to this reliable constituency of voters and explain the implications of these possible property tax solutions, " Conway said.

Chester Fowler, a Republican retiree living Sun City Center, typified the response of senior voters in the survey. He prefers the idea of doubling the homestead exemption and isn't so keen on increasing the sales tax.

"If you buy a car, your sales tax is going to be way up there, " said Fowler, 84, a former construction manager.

Tommy Stafford, 59, of New Port Richey, shared that view. A tire salesman, he said a higher sales tax would invite out-of-state dealers to market to Floridians.

"It would hurt me pretty bad, " Stafford said.

But Robert Fletcher, 76, of Plant City, likes trading property taxes for more sales tax.

"I'd like to see everyone pay their fair share, " he said. "Right now we've got a great number of people who aren't paying any taxes."

On the other big issue for Floridians, the poll found that a slim majority, 51 percent, said they are confident that Gov. Charlie Crist's efforts to reduce the cost of hurricane insurance will result in more affordable premiums.

And 59 percent of those polled blame insurance companies for the high cost of property insurance now, which is up from 51 percent when the Times conducted a similar poll last October.

Peter Dennis, 28, a lawyer in Fort Myers buying his first home, said he wants property tax and insurance relief. Yet, he is skeptical about the Legislature's efforts.

"I haven't been impressed with any of the property tax reforms and I don't think they are really going to be successful in the end, " said Dennis, a Democrat who moved to Florida from New York.

He believes insurance companies are to blame for the high cost of insurance. "The companies are going to raise rates where they see justification, and our government has not really put any limitations on them."

On other issues, the poll also found that a slim majority of Floridians, some 52 percent, said that in light of the recent killings at Virginia Tech they would support more restrictive legislation of handguns.