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Judge: Tax ballot misleads
The judge's ruling may only be a temporary setback before a vote.
By ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writer
Published September 25, 2007
TALLAHASSEE - A state judge ruled Monday that the Legislature's proposal to increase the homestead exemption is "misleading and confusing" and cannot appear before voters Jan. 29.
The decision dealt a blow -- though perhaps only a temporary one -- to lawmakers seeking to cut property taxes and seize on one of the hottest issues in the state.
Responding to a challenge brought by a mayor in Broward County, Circuit Judge Charles A. Francis ruled that the ballot language misleads people into thinking they are preserving Save Our Homes, the 3 percent cap on annual property assessments.
In fact, if the amendment passes, anyone who buys a home will not get Save Our Homes, nor will current Florida homeowners who move. Only those who pick the option to reject the new homestead exemption will preserve Save Our Homes.
"The summary is just not correct," Francis wrote of the proposed ballot language.
"Nowhere in the ballot summary is the voter alerted to the elimination of these constitutional protections on homestead exemptions. They are simply led to believe that they are preserved or revised."
The Legislature could deal with the problem as early as next week, when it is tentatively scheduled to address the budget deficit in a special session. Lawmakers could clarify the language or work out an entirely new proposal in time for the Jan. 29 presidential primary.
An appeal of the ruling directly to the Florida Supreme Court is also possible.
"We are going to weigh our options and consult with legal counsel before moving forward," said state Sen. Daniel Webster, R-Winter Garden, one of the main authors of the plan.
"As Republicans," he added, "we remain committed to providing Floridians with the opportunity to vote on an amendment that will provide property tax relief."
The proposal, which was already drawing tepid support according to a recent statewide poll, called for voters to replace the $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.
Democrats opposed the plan because they say it did not amount to significant reform, killed off Save Our Homes and would take billions from local government coffers as well as schools.
Despite their objection to the plan itself, Democrats voted to allow it on the Jan. 29 ballot, seeking to avoid the perception they were not giving the public a chance to decide for itself.
But Democrats warned early on of problems with the amendment's wording.
"These were obvious defects that were pointed out even before the bill became law," said state Rep. Jack Seiler, D-Wilton Manors, who sponsored a failed amendment to clarify the threat to Save Our Homes. "This wasn't a judge looking for something to toss out. This is a judge who applied the Constitution in a very fair and balanced manner."
The challenge, filed by Weston Mayor Eric Hersh, was initially scorned by pro-amendment forces as local government trying to avoid making budget cuts.
"I don't think people are going to believe my intentions until all is said and done," Hersh said Monday. "This is not about the reduction of property tax to local government. In fact if this passed, over years we would take in more money.
"What I don't believe is that any government has the right to ignore the Constitution and mislead the voters. The reason this was such a disaster was because (the Legislature) rushed it through."
The proposal was unveiled on the eve of a special session in June that lasted three days.
State Senate President Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, noted Monday that the judge did not rule against the second part of the Legislature's tax package, a rollback and cap of local government revenue already in effect.
State House Speaker Marco Rubio, who has publicly stated that the effort was only a good "first step," defended the ballot language and blamed local government for refusing to provide tax relief.
"One way or another," Rubio said, "we will give Florida taxpayers the relief they deserve."
The proposal would save $10-billion to $15-billion over four years, according to the Legislature.
Gov. Charlie Crist, who last week unveiled a coalition that would raise money in support of the amendment, said Monday evening that he hoped the kinks could be worked out in the special session, due to begin Oct. 3. Crist spoke briefly Monday with Pruitt and Rubio.
"I think that would be appropriate, and I think they're eager to do it," Crist said as he walked into a fundraiser for a social services agency in New Port Richey.
The Legislature would have to act by the end of October to meet the 90-day advance notice requirement for putting at item on the Jan. 29 ballot.
"This can be worked out," said state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey. "If the cities and counties who fought this think it will go away, they are mistaken."
He said the defeat may actually provide opportunity to propose even deeper tax cuts, a position Rubio and other lawmakers are increasingly vocal about.
There is precedent for challenging the wording of a ballot initiative written by the Legislature. In 2000, a divided state Supreme Court voted to remove an already-approved amendment regarding the death penalty. "A ballot title and summary cannot either 'fly under false colors' or 'hide the ball' as to the amendment's true effect," the 4-3 decision read.
Times staff writers David DeCamp and Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.
"Try as this Court has, and having considered all memoranda and argument presented to the Court, and having read, reread, examined and studied the ballot summary under review, the court cannot find that the language is clear, concise, unambiguous and fair. The language at issue is misleading and confusing, and does not provide fair notice to the voter, educated or otherwise, of the purpose and effect of the proposed amendments to the Florida Constitution."
Chief Judge Charles A. Francis, 2nd Judicial Circuit