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Truth gets lost in tax debate
A Times Editorial
Published January 25, 2008
Whether Amendment 1 is a welcome tax break or an expensive, unfair handout may depend on the situation of each property owner, but the competing campaigns share a common trait. They are bombarding voters with half-truths and distortions.
Gov. Charlie Crist, at least, has begun to use the word "essentially" when he claims the $25,000 basic homestead exemption would double under Amendment 1. He must say "essentially" because the Legislature decided not to apply the extra $25,000 to school taxes, which account for roughly 40 percent of a homeowner's bill. So the tax break is increased by 60 percent, not doubled.
The Crist commercials also turn to a poll-tested and utterly irrelevant claim that the amendment "keeps the promise of Save Our Homes by preserving your 3 percent tax cap." Yes, the amendment would preserve the popular Save Our Homes protections, but so would rejecting the amendment. In fact, some legal experts say Amendment 1, which would allow homesteaded property owners to take a Save Our Homes benefit with them when they move, threatens the constitutionality of Save Our Homes.
The proamendment forces are also eager to be known as protecting "Florida families," and one flier claims property taxes for that group have doubled in the past six years. That may be true for families who have moved or own businesses. But most families who have enjoyed homestead protection during those six years, which is the majority, have experienced only an incremental increase in taxes because of Save Our Homes.
On the other side, police and firefighter unions have resorted to scare tactics. One mailer claims that "emergency services will be pushed to (the) breaking point" if Amendment 1 passes. An exuberant PTA official even linked cutbacks in school crossing guards with threats to students' lives: "We don't want them to be run over."
These appeals are designed to bring more heat than light. Local governments would indeed collect 8 percent to 11 percent less in property taxes next year, according to a legislative estimate. But it is far from clear how much of those cuts would come from public safety.
The most blatant deception in this campaign season may belong to the Florida League of Cities. It mailed a colorful flier that pictures an "out-of-state owner" in front of a fancy estate who gets "a great deal" and an elderly "Florida homeowner" who gets "a raw deal." Such a claim borders on the absurd. If anything, the amendment does precisely the opposite.
The amendment gives homesteads a greater exemption and the ability for Florida homeowners to transfer tax savings to another homestead. Out-of-state owners can't claim homestead exemptions, and the owners of nonhomesteads would receive only modest breaks: a 10 percent cap on annual increases in assessed value, which is too high to provide much protection, and a $25,000 exemption on tangible property. Adding to the flier's insult is a seemingly authoritative citation to a Daytona Beach News-Journal editorial that actually makes no such claim.
These misleading and competing claims are reason enough for voters to leave the Constitution alone on Tuesday. This was an amendment rushed to the ballot by a Legislature that was so politically duplicitous it raised school property taxes statewide at the same time it claimed to offer tax relief at the ballot.
Voters looking for an even-handed assessment might turn to Florida TaxWatch, an independent, business-backed watchdog. It has produced a report (available at www.floridataxwatch.org) that explains the amendment and argues that it gives relief to those who need it least and worsens the inequities that already exist with Save Our Homes.
"It will be hard for voters/homeowners to reject a proposal that cuts their taxes even a modest amount," TaxWatch writes. "But they need to weigh that against the negative effect the property tax system can have on our economy, competitiveness, and quality of life. ... Unfair taxes on one group of taxpayers have ramifications for all taxpayers."
Amendment 1 would further distort Florida's property tax system. It already has distorted the political debate.
The Times' recommendations for Tuesday's election:
Florida Constitution Amendment 1: No
Continuation of Pinellas School District property tax: Yes