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Support for tax referendum slow to emerge
By STEVE BOUSQUET and ALEX LEARY
Published June 23, 2007
TALLAHASSEE - It's easy to see who's lining up to fight the proposal to increase the homestead exemption: cities, counties, unions, sheriffs, firefighters and the Democratic Party, which calls the tax cut a record cut in school spending.
But who's leading the charge to get people to support it?
Influential statewide business groups that like low taxes and usually support Republican policies are showing very little enthusiasm for the property tax referendum.
"From a practical standpoint you've got a long list of opponents, and there's not a lot in it for us, " said Rick McAllister of the Florida Retail Federation. "I'm not very optimistic about it passing."
Business groups are sitting on their hands because the property tax plan chiefly benefits homeowners, not business owners. Business interests are saving their money to fight another ballot question they fear more - the so-called Hometown Democracy amendment to require voter approval of future land-use changes.
Florida voters will decide on Jan. 29 whether to increase the annual tax break on owner-occupied homes from the current $25, 000 to a maximum of $195, 000 on a home valued at $500, 000 or more.
If it passes, all homeowners would have to make a one-time decision to stick with the current Save Our Homes 3 percent annual assessment cap or switch to the larger homestead exemption.
Realtors are not yet ready to commit resources to the effort.
"We have 170, 000 members, and it's pretty easy for us to get the message out to them, " said John Sebree of the Florida Association of Realtors. "We may just work among our own membership, and that doesn't really cost us anything."
The Florida Chamber of Commerce calls the tax proposal "a good first step, " but lobbyist David Daniel said it's premature to say how much effort the group will put into passing the amendment.
"It's a little too early to tell what the number is going to be, " Daniel said.
The Florida Bankers Association says it is not taking sides for now.
Associated Industries of Florida is officially neutral.
"We're not going to be forceful advocates for it, but neither are we going to be opposed to it, " said CEO Barney Bishop.
Bishop said the plan helps homesteaded property owners, not commercial property owners, snowbirds or renters, and AIF is a voice for businesses.
"The problem is, where are you going to find the folks to put out the money to pass this?" Bishop asked.
One group solidly behind the effort is the Florida Association of Mortgage Brokers. "The constitutional amendment will be an immediate spark to our industry, " said incoming president D. Ritch Workman. But he said the group does not have money to pour into a statewide advertising campaign. Rather, it will spread word among 4, 000 members and their employees.
The Republican Party of Florida plans to highlight the role of GOP lawmakers and Gov. Charlie Crist in fighting for lower taxes, but chairman Jim Greer also said it's too early to talk about dollar amounts.
No downside seen
"I don't want to commit to the fact that I'm going to provide any financial resources to it, " Greer said.
If the amendment fails, Republicans could face a high-profile setback that Democrats could exploit. But Greer said he does not see a downside because voters get to choose.
"Gov. Crist and the Republican leadership believe that taxpayers know what they want to do with their money, " he said.
Greer also acknowledged the risk of the party getting too involved because it could make the issue look partisan, potentially turning off Democrats and independents. "As chairman of the party, I recognize that when serving citizens you have to reach across the aisle and put the people first."
Some business groups are also closely watching Crist.
If the governor with a 73 percent approval rating doesn't aggressively campaign for the tax proposal, they may interpret that as a sign Crist is unsure of its passage.
Crist, who has been vague about how visible he will be in the tax campaign, said he isn't concerned that businesses are distancing themselves.
"Whether organizations support it or not really doesn't matter to me, " Crist said. "What matters to me is what the people want, and they have been crushed by increasing property taxes."
One Democrat who admires Crist, Pinellas County teachers union leader Jade Moore, said the "people's governor" is misjudging public opinion in this case.
"We have a plan that's very difficult to understand, and it really doesn't benefit a lot of people. I think that condemns it to failure, " said Moore, a member of the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission reviewing Florida's tax system.
Moore's parent union, the Florida Education Association, is not yet committed to opposing the tax.
"We're still weighing our options, " said FEA spokesman Mark Pudlow. "We have to look at this from a lot of different standpoints. A lot of people need property tax relief in Florida - among them, many of our members."
'Middle of nowhere'
Also in limbo is a leading law enforcement group that might be presumed to oppose tax cuts that cities and counties say could reduce public safety.
"We haven't determined what we're going to do. We're weighing our options, " said David Murrell, executive director of the Florida Police Benevolent Association. "We're in the middle of nowhere right now."
The PBA, an ally of Crist and Republican legislative leaders, represents sheriff's deputies, state and county correctional officers and city police officers throughout the state.
The special session that ended with approval of the tax referendum ended just a week ago, and legislators have only begun to gauge the reaction from their constituents.
Sen. Carey Baker, R-Eustis, a small-business owner who represents a conservative swath of suburban Orlando, said he has found much public uncertainty about the tax proposal.
Baker, who supported the tax package, said the two major questions surrounding the proposal are whether people can keep their Save Our Homes tax breaks (they can) and whether the change will hurt education funding ($7-billion over four years, according to Democrats, but the Republicans have promised to hold schools harmless from a loss of existing funds).
If voters remain unsure about those questions, Baker said, the referendum is in serious trouble.
"I think they still want property tax relief, but they're not sure what this means to them personally, " Baker said. "It's going to take quite a campaign for people to understand what we did and feel comfortable with it."