Crist relying on lawmakers to dole out tax relief
By STEVE BOUSQUET, Tallahassee bureau chief
Published June 9, 2007
One year ago today, Charlie Crist was on his three-day "Fighting for Florida" campaign tour.
He walked into a yacht club in Naples and outlined his vision of tax relief: letting counties double the homestead exemption to $50,000, making the Save Our Homes 3 percent assessment cap portable so people could keep it when they move, and reducing the tax on cell phones.
"I believe Florida's next governor must work with the Legislature to take a comprehensive approach to this very issue," he said. "That means requiring local governments to run as efficiently as possible and providing property tax relief in a responsible and equitable manner."
One year later, the Legislature is considering a $32-billion tax cut package over five years, including billions for public schools. "The largest tax cut in Florida history," said Crist and lawmakers, sharing the same talking point.
Now, as legislative leaders prepare for a special session on taxes starting Tuesday, they have embraced a supersized homestead exemption tied to a percentage of a home's value, a plan that would require voter approval.
"Very good work," Crist said.
The rest of the tax savings would come from a mandated rollback of tax rates by cities and counties, which could be overriden by local board votes.
Before and after his recent goodwill trip to Israel and Jordan, Crist has largely been monitoring things, more a spectator than sleeves-rolled-up participant.
There was no "governor's tax bill," as there would have been if Jeb Bush were still around, and no late-night strategy sessions in the governor's conference room.
Crist, Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp and chief of staff George LeMieux have spoken by phone with top lawmakers, and Crist has repeated his demand for "significant" property tax relief, without much exactitude in what that means.
The ever-cautious Crist knew that if he tossed out a number and the result fell short, the work would be stamped a failure by the media and the public, if not by Crist. But the number released on Friday met with Crist's roaring approval.
Still, some grumbling could be heard that Crist was too disengaged from the tax debate swirling around him.
As Crist saw it, he has showed proper deference to a separate, co-equal branch of government -- the Legislature, where he and Kottkamp once served.
One leading Democrat, Rep. Dan Gelber of Miami Beach, says Crist deserves credit for "respecting the Legislature's role."
"Jeb Bush sucked the air out of the room," Gelber said. "If it wasn't in 'the governor's bill,' it didn't go anywhere."
On property taxes, Crist was simply being his Reaganesque self.
"I'm engaged," Crist said. "I think the role of the lieutenant governor and myself is to continue to encourage, to persuade and tell members of the legislative branch that they're doing good work."
A lot of preliminary negotiating among legislators has been in private. Not until very late Friday did lawmakers provide numbers showing the impact of their plans.
Special sessions can implode if there's no consensus, especially on complex issues witness five special sessions in 2003 alone on medical malpractice.
Crist is counting on lawmakers to deliver on the promise of tax relief. If they fail, Crist is sure to get blamed.
He knows the buck stops with him.
"I think it's going to work out pretty well," Crist said. "I hope I'm not overly optimistic."
Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.
[Last modified June 8, 2007, 23:38:30]
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