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Tax plan foes multiply
Gov. Crist touts the benefit to families, while a teacher union hints at a legal assault.
By JUSTIN GEORGE and ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writers
Published November 1, 2007
Gov. Charlie Crist greets Tampa homeowner Stan Fields holding his 1-year-old son Rex, with Chantal Fields holding their twin daughter Regina. Crist was on a statewide tour to promote the new proposed tax plan.
Gov. Charlie Crist holds a press conference in the front yard of Stan and Chantal Fields, promoting the recent property tax plan approved by the House and Senate. The Fields considered moving to a larger house, but decided against it because of tax increases. Fields bought the home in 1993.
TAMPA - Fourteen years ago, the white brick house on a South Tampa corner was the perfect fit for bachelor Stan Fields.
Today, the two-bedroom dwelling is home to Fields, his wife, twin 1-year-olds, two medium-sized dogs and a parrot named Bo.
"I just want something a little bigger with the babies," said Fields, 44.
On Wednesday, Gov. Charlie Crist used the home on Inman Avenue as a campaign prop, touting the tax cut plan the Legislature passed Monday and the savings the Fields would get if they move to a bigger home.
But as Crist embarked on the second day of a promotional tour, opposition was mounting from educators, organized labor and a state watchdog.
The most vocal dissent came from the state teacher union, which said it is considering strategies to defeat the plan when it goes before voters on Jan. 29.
The union hinted at a possible legal challenge and said Crist's promise to restore up to $3-billion in cuts to public schools over five years doesn't go far enough.
"I need something in my hand. A verbal commitment doesn't get me anything," Florida Eduction Association president Andy Ford said.
The watchdog group Florida TaxWatch also countered Crist's optimism with a harsh assessment, saying the plan gives relief to those who need it least and offers little for nonhomestead property owners, who are hit hardest by soaring property taxes.
"The new property tax amendment falls far short of what is needed," the group said.
For some, like Stan Fields and his wife, Chantal, the benefit is undeniable.
Fields met Crist last year while Crist was campaigning for governor. He told Crist about not being able to move due to higher property taxes.
"I told him we felt trapped in our home," Fields recalled.
For voters like Fields, Crist was offering a solution. He called it "portability," or the ability for homeowners to carry their accrued Save Our Homes benefit to a new home.
Save Our Homes caps annual assessments at 3 percent and has worked famously since going into effect in 1995.
Fields bought his home on Inman Avenue in 1993 for $75,000. Today it is worth $270,589, but the assessed value is $93,372.
The difference - $177,217 - is what is know as a Save Our Homes differential. Under portability, Fields would take that benefit with him to a new home.
With their expanding family and tight quarters, the Fields have been eager to move. But doing so would mean the loss of their tax advantage, not to mention a more expensive mortgage.
"It was better for us to stay right where we are," said Fields, a manufacturer's representative for a roofing and tile company.
He and Chantal, a pharmaceuticals representative, looked at larger homes in South Tampa two years ago only to shudder at paying property tax bills six to seven times higher.
But if portability becomes law, they would save significantly. If the Fields find a $400,000 home, they could take their Save Our Homes differential with them, and that would be subtracted from the market value.
Their current tax bill is $1,499 and the new one would be $3,908. That's a sizable increase, but the bill would have been $7,718 without portability.
The new tax bill would reflect the standard $25,000 homestead exemption and any additional homestead exemptions that would apply if the tax proposal passes on Jan. 29.
(While Crist touts it as doubling the exemption to $50,000, the new break would not apply to taxes paid to schools, which account for about 40 percent of a property tax bill. Hence, that "doubling" would be more like an additional $15,000 exemption, not $25,000.)
But doubling the homestead exemption and portability are popular, poll-tested concepts. That's why Crist feels confident the plan will pass.
Opposition lines up
Tempering the promotional tour was growing opposition to the proposal.
Two unions expressed disappointment with the plan because of its impact on local government and schools - as much as $12-billion over five years.
The Florida Education Association said it was laying groundwork for a campaign to defeat the measure. But officials said they would hold off for now in hopes of winning a guarantee that schools would be protected.
Crist and Republican leaders in the Legislature have promised to restore the estimated $1.8-billion to $3-billion schools would lose. Ford, the FEA president, said the organization would continue to talk with Crist and lawmakers in advance of the regular session to secure funding.
Ford said a constitutional challenge to the portability concept is still a possibility.
Legal experts say portability gives an unfair advantage to Florida home buyers over those arriving from another state, a potential violation of the U.S. Constitution's "right to travel" clause.
The AFL-CIO of Florida also opposes the plan, saying it will cost public employee jobs. The union has not decided on a course of action.
"In our opinion it's a very flawed product," said spokesman Rich Templin.
Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report.