Tax vote foes speak softly

Like CFO Alex Sink, many officials voice their opposition only when they are asked.

Published January 23, 2008

The top Democrat in Florida government urged voters Tuesday to oppose the property tax amendment on next week's ballot, saying the tax savings are not worth the cuts to public services.

But don't expect to see Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink's face splashed across billboards or television ads criticizing Amendment 1. Sink voiced her opposition only when a reporter asked her opinion Tuesday.

As Gov. Charlie Crist makes his way across the state, lobbying for the property tax plan, high-profile opponents of the proposal are quietly starting to voice their opposition-but only if asked.

Despite the dramatic cuts local governments would face if Amendment 1 passes, some elected officials said they are reluctant to actively bash the measure, lest they be criticized for spending taxpayers' dollars on voter education or for telling voters what to do.

"I wish there had been a more broader look at tax reform. I don't believe this tax amendment really gets to the issue of equity," said Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio. But "it's up to the voters. The voters can determine whether it is in their best interest."

The reserved approach adopted by the opposition stands in contrast to the well-funded, flashy advertising drive led by Crist, who has pushed the plan as desperately needed relief for Florida's families in TV ads, mailers and campaign stops across the state in recent weeks.

A new Crist-centric television ad begins today, including a Spanish-language version in Miami. And the "Yes on 1" campaign now boasts two $1-million contributors. Florida Power & Light contributed another $250,000 this week, matching the $1-million given by the state's Realtors group.

Two of Amendment 1's provisions would help homesteaded homeowners. An increase in the homestead exemption would save homeowners an average of $240 annually. The measure also would allow homeowners to transfer their tax benefits under Save Our Homes to a new residence -- potentially saving them thousands.

Who doesn't benefit

But opponents argue the measure could cripple local government while doing little to help those hurting most -- business owners and recent home buyers who haven't benefited from Save Our Homes.

Amendment 1's two other provisions would create a new $25,000 exemption for some business property and would cap assessment increases for nonhomesteaded properties at 10 percent annually. Those two provisions are expected to cut taxes about $2-billion in the next five years, compared with the $7.3-billion for homesteaded homeowners.

Crist contends that "some local officials have become really enamored with the idea of spending a lot of money," more than giving a tax break. He questions how governments functioned just six years ago when tax collections were half what they are today.

As CFO, Sink serves as state fire marshal and said she is concerned that firefighters could lose jobs. Sink also said most constituents she has spoken to on the issue share her opposition.

"They're really more concerned about the little amount of money and the possible broader implications for our quality of life," Sink said.

Crist disagrees, "I believe that responsible local government will do the right thing and will prioritize their spending and make sure that the services people want and deserve will be delivered."

In west central Florida, some opponents are taking a grass roots approach, spreading the word against the plan at church gatherings, private dinners and government.

Some boards oppose

On Tuesday, the Hillsborough County School Board voted 5-1 to oppose Amendment 1. Board members stressed they didn't trust the Legislature to make up the $1.5-billion school districts would lose over the next five years under the amendment.

Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, a vocal opponent of the amendment, has reached out to voters at neighborhood association meetings and commission workshops.

"It will cut critical government services and it won't solve the problem," Welch said. "The business owners and the non-homesteaded property owners who have been screaming for relief will still be screaming for relief if Amendment 1 is passed."

Mayor will vote no

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, normally a staunch Crist ally, said he tells people he won't be voting for the amendment if they ask.

"I support the governor. We are friends," he said. "We are allowed to disagree on things."

But Baker said he has been too busy with other city issues to lead the rallying cry against the tax plan.

Opponents of the measure, who lack both funding and a high-profile spokesman to face off against Crist, aren't surprised their supporters aren't more vocal.

While some elected officials have been quiet, many organizations they belong to oppose Amendment 1, including the Florida League of Cities, Florida Tax Watch, the Florida League of Mayors and, locally, the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce.

Karen Woodall, chairwoman of Florida is Our Home, the committee formed to oppose the plan, believes such decisions will make a difference: "Word of mouth is just as effective and sometimes more effective as being splashed across TV."

Times staff writers Alex Leary and Janet Zink contributed to this report. Cristina Silva can be reached at csilva@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8846.