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The governor - with his hand out - takes his tax relief pitch on the road.
By ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writer
Published December 7, 2007
[Photo by Alex Leary]
In a room high above the street, Gov. Charlie Crist stood before a giant flat-screen TV on Thursday night, trying to sell his plan to cut property taxes.
"Preserving the American dream is incredibly important," Crist said. "That's really what this is all about."
The governor charmed the room of some 40 high-rollers who sipped pinot grigio and munched on crab cakes and vegetable wontons. But the governor wasn't in Tallahassee or Miami or his home of St. Petersburg. He wasn't even in Florida.
Crist made his pitch on the 25th floor of Trump Tower in Manhattan. At his side was the building's namesake - the flamboyant developer, casino boss and star of The Apprentice.
"He's working hard on real estate taxes," Donald Trump told the crowd. "I like him. He's just a special guy."
The splashy New York visit provided a strong indication of the lengths to which Crist must go if he expects his plan to win voter approval in a statewide referendum Jan. 29.
The $1,000-a-person fundraiser came on the heels of a sluggish effort back home to raise money for the promotional campaign of the plan, which emerged from a hectic and divisive special legislative session in October.
Polls have shown the amendment falling short of the 60 percent approval needed to pass. A multimillion-dollar television advertising campaign is vital to pushing it over the top.
So far, Crist is having a tough time.
Late last month, he had one-on-one meetings in Tallahassee with lobbyists for major business trade groups. Wrapping his high approval rating around their shoulders, the governor asked for donations ranging from $500,000 to $1-million.
The money would go to Vote Yes On 1, the political committee running the campaign. The organization has spent $36,000 on its own poll but refused to release the results, a move that may indicate the challenge facing Crist.
"It's a tough time to raise money," Carol Dover, president of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, said Thursday. "I don't think it's a secret that restaurant numbers are down, hotels. ... We're struggling as an industry right now."
Businesses might have been more willing to support the proposal had it done more for them. The plan, which would double the $25,000 homestead exemption and allow people to transfer accrued Save Our Homes benefits when they move, is geared mainly toward homestead property owners.
The plan does provide a 10 percent annual assessment cap for nonhomestead properties. Trump, who is exploring sites in Massachusetts to build a major gambling casino, owns two mansions in Palm Beach and paid about $1.3-million in property taxes this year.
Had the cap been in place in recent years, Trump would have saved tens of thousands of dollars. But those savings would be unrealistic in the current real estate market, leading some business interests to complain that a 10 percent cap is meaningless.
Trump and Crist met at a South Florida charity event in 1998 and Trump hosted two fundraisers for Crist's run for governor in 2006, one at Trump Tower .
Crist and his defenders say the plan is part of a long-term effort to combat soaring taxes.
"It's a good first start," said Gary Kompothecras, the Sarasota man behind the "1-800-Ask-Gary" ads.
He flew in Thursday with his wife to support Crist (and he managed to get Trump to say hello to his brother-in-law via cell phone).
Many in the room had some connection to Florida, or at least shared the pain of property taxes.
"We're buying in Vegas, not Florida," said Jill Zarin, who helped host the event along with her husband, Bobby, owner of a fabric business in New York. "Property taxes are really killing people."
Crist denied his visit exposed troubles raising money, and cited the ties between the two states.
"It's a natural relationship," he said. "These states in the Northeast, everybody has a connection to Florida."
Others scoffed at the move.
"It's not very smart," said Florida AFL-CIO president Cindy Hall. "Our polling shows they can't reach that 60 percent. Why isn't he raising money down here if it's so important to businesses and real estate in Florida?"
Hall said that next week a broad-based coalition will launch an effort to defeat the referendum. The group includes firefighters, teachers, League of Women Voters and ACORN, a grass roots organization of pro-worker organizations that led the fight in 2004 to increase the minimum wage in Florida.
Citing the estimate that the average taxpayer will save $240 a year, the break from doubling the homestead exemption, Hall said, "That's throw-away money. It doesn't give me any relief. I'd rather have fire and police service and good schools for my grandchildren to go to."
Times Tallahassee bureau chief Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.
[Last modified December 6, 2007, 23:18:10]