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Will fervor for tax cuts slowly ebb?
Experts say time and critics can chip away at a poll's high numbers.
By ALEX LEARY
Published July 20, 2007
TALLAHASSEE - The first statewide poll on a new tax plan shows clear support for the proposal to sharply increase homestead exemptions that will be put before voters in January.
But poll experts say the 57 percent approval mark is an ominous sign for prospects of final passage because ballot initiatives such as this one tend to get their strongest support at the beginning of a campaign.
In other words, history suggests it could be downhill from here.
"If I were managing that campaign, those would not be the numbers I was hoping for," said Damien Filer, a political consultant in Tallahassee who helped win approval for the constitutional amendment that limits class size.
With months to go, critics of the property tax proposal have plenty of time to sow seeds of doubt among voters, arguing that steeper tax exemptions will shrink vital government services. Opponents will be aided by the fact that the amendment must now win approval of 60 percent of voters to pass.
"It's always consistent that poll numbers drop," Filer said, "and no one has really heard from the opponents yet."
Filer saw that phenomenon at work in his own campaign. Early polls for the class size amendment in 2002 showed public support at about 70 percent, but it passed with just 52 percent of the vote.
"In any of these initiatives, you want to start out at a much higher level of support" said Paul Hull, vice president of advocacy and public policy for the American Cancer Society Florida chapter, which successfully got antitobacco amendments passed in recent years. "Starting out with just 57 percent poses a significant problem."
The poll released Thursday was conducted by Quinnipiac University Polling Institute on July 12-16 and included 1,106 Florida voters, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
In the Tampa Bay area, the approval was slightly higher than statewide, at 61 percent.
Seventeen percent of statewide voters oppose the tax plan and 26 percent remain undecided. But 67 percent say the proposal needs "a lot more" explanation.
Voters on Jan. 29 will be asked to replace the current $25,000 homestead exemption with a percentage based system that would knock off up to $195,000 on the first $500,000 of property value.
If the exemption is approved, existing homeowners would have to make a one-time, irrevocable choice whether to take the new exemption or stick with the 3 percent cap on annual property assessments known as Save Our Homes.
House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-Miami, said there is work to do to educate the public over the next six months. But he said he is confident the proposal will pass.
"The pundits underestimate the wisdom of the people," Rubio said. "Irrespective of the confusion ... it's almost an 800 percent increase in the homestead exemption."
Peter Brown, assistant director of the nonpartisan Quinnipiac University Polling Institute said the plan may be hard for many to turn down. "History," he said, "is not replete of examples of voters saying no to tax cuts."
Still, the complexity of the issue is likely to help drive down approval numbers, said Lance deHaven-Smith, a professor at Florida State University who specializes in public policy.
"Most of these things that pass generally do because the wording is simple and there's not a lot of public debate," he said.
The business community, often a wealthy ally in tax cut campaigns, is likely to remain relatively quiet about this homestead exemption plan because it applies only to owners of primary homes, not commercial property or second or investment homes.
Some firefighters have already joined a lawsuit challenging the amendment on the grounds it is misleading. "When you vote for this, you will lose services," said Bob Carver, president of the Florida Professional Firefighters, which plans to fight the amendment. "Once they realize that, along with the confusion, the polls will change."
Times capital bureau chief Steve Bousquet and researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.