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Rubio pushes 'other' tax cut
The House speaker backing a property tax cap underscores uphill fight for Amendment 1.
By ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writer
Published December 20, 2007
Marco Rubio, speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, promotes his 1.35 percent tax cap plan in front of City Hall in St. Petersburg on Wednesday. Rubio was joined by Dr. David McKalip of St. Petersburg and other business owners and proponents.
[Martha Rial | Times]
ST. PETERSBURG -- Standing on the sunny steps of City Hall on Wednesday, House Speaker Marco Rubio looked into the TV cameras and declared his support of a plan to cut property taxes.
"This isn't just about cutting taxes," the telegenic and ambitious Miami Republican said. "It's about stimulating our economy."
But Rubio wasn't talking about the taxplan on the Jan. 29 ballot. He was touting a citizen petition to amend the state Constitution and cap all property taxes at 1.35 percent of taxable value.
The scene underscores the challenge facing Gov. Charlie Crist, the main champion of the January measure, which would increase the homestead exemption and allow homeowners to take their tax savings under Save Our Home to a new home.
Teachers, firefighters and local government workers are already mobilizing opposition, saying the measure will hurt core government services. And now Rubio -- a growing critic of the governor on gambling, climate change and other issues -- is appealing to the other end of the spectrum, those who think the cuts don't go deep enough.
"It's like giving an aspirin to a cancer patient," Rubio said Wednesday as he made one of three stops to trumpet the 1.35 percent idea. Today he will be in Hernando County.
Crist is counting on the conventional wisdom that voters won't turn down a tax cut. But some tax cut advocates think calls for deeper cuts, such as Rubio's, will only succeed if Crist's measure fails.
Constitutional amendments now need 60 percent approval to become law thanks to a recent change championed by the Legislature.
It's a high bar for Amendment 1, considering the wildly popular Save Our Homes passed in 1992 with 54 percent. Recent polls showthe proposal falling just short of 60 percent with many voters undecided.
* * *
The tax vote puts Crist back in familiar and comfortable campaign mode. He's surrounded himself with people who worked for him during his gubernatorial bid last year. But Crist has struggled in one area he once ruled -- raising money.
Business groups are not crazy about the plan because it is largely geared toward homestead owners who already enjoy tax breaks.
"Vote Yes on 1," the political committee formed to promote the plan has only raised about $1.5-million so far -- short of the $5-million to $10-million goal.
The affable and popular governor has staged appearances at homes across the state to champion the tax cut. This week, people picking up the phone heard Crist in a recorded message.
Crist's picture adorns a flier mailed this week to several hundred thousand homes. His image will likely be on billboards. The campaign is also developing TV commercials.
The governor rejects the argument that the plan, which will save about $9.2-billion over five years, will lead to less government services.
"Five or six years ago, before we had this runup in property values and therefore property taxes, we still had policemen. We still had firefighters," he said in an interview.
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The face of the opposition is Karen Woodall, a longtime Tallahassee social services lobbyist. Last week, Woodall filed to create the "Florida is Our Home" committee.
The coalition includesfirefighters, the Florida Education Association, the health care workers union known as SEIU and others.
"Florida is Our Home" won't have big money. In fact, Woodall is advancing the image of a broad grass roots coalition fighting rich and powerful forces.
"Our focus is on mobilizing Floridians, and that's why we chose the name 'Florida is Our Home.' We live here," Woodall said. "This is about community. This is about quality of life, and that is the emphasis of this campaign."
The coalition is counting on each group targeting its own members first and then growing from there. The teachers union already has mailed its 137,000 members a glossy flier denouncing the plan.
Opponents hope free news coverage of the groups' events, not paid ads, will help deliver their message to the public.
One of the biggest battlegrounds in the tax fight could be in Miami-Dade, the state's largest county, where turnout could be higher because of a countywide casino gambling referendum on the same ballot. It also is home to one of the largest concentration of government workers outside Tallahassee.
Rubio, who will leave office next year due to term limits, knows the power of a anti-tax platform.The property tax issue has broadened his name recognition as he ponders his next political move.
As he wrapped up his speech Wednesday, Rubio was handed one of the citizen petitions to sign. "There you go," Rubio said. "Now you've got 20,000 and 1."
The Cut Taxes Now petition group needs 611,000 signatures to make the ballot. At this pace, they'll be ready for the 2010 election.
Times staff writers Steve Bousquet and Jacob H. Fries contributed to this report.
FAST FACTS: Falling short of 60 percent
Voters in 2006 amended Florida's Constitution to require 60 percent approval of future amendments. The higher bar would have spelled doom for many recent measures:
Require 60 percent approval for future amendments (2006): 57.8 percent
Prohibit confinement of pregnant pigs (2004): 54.8 percent