Times poll: Amendment 1 tax cut is no slam dunk

By ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writer
Published January 26, 2008

Gov. Charlie Crist's monopoly on TV advertising and growing fears over the economy could boost passage of Amendment 1 on Tuesday, a St. Petersburg Times poll has found.

But, for now, the property tax cutting measure still falls short of the 60 percent needed to pass -- a bar rarely reached on referendums.

Among Floridians likely to vote in Tuesday's election, 55 percent support the measure and 30 percent oppose. In Tampa Bay, 56 percent of voters approve. Statewide, far more Republicans than Democrats like the plan.

The battle now is for the 14 percent statewide who remain undecided.

Opponents, who have stirred concern over the effect on local government and school budgets, hope they can tap enough of the undecided vote to thwart a win.

Pollster Tom Eldon, however, said he thinks the measure "appears headed to victory," due to Crist's aggressive efforts on TV, radio, mail and phone advertising.

"Basically they have the microphone to themselves," he said of Crist and the "Vote Yes on 1" campaign, which has raised more than $4-million, dwarfing the $1-million raised by the opposition.

"Traditionally in Florida it's been nearly impossible to build a coalition to be against a tax decrease," said fellow pollster Rob Schroth.

Plus, the growing attention to the economy could be a boon for the pro-Amendment 1 forces. Concern over financial matters ranked highest among voters, above the Iraq war, illegal immigration and improving schools and health care.

Read the ballot language and it's clear "it's very pro-homeowner," pollster Kellyanne Conway said. "In this declining economy this signals to people that help is on the way."

But the poll also shows that a higher than expected Democratic turnout for the presidential primary could end up thwarting Amendment 1 supporters, since only 46 percent of Democrats support the measure, while 64 percent of Republicans do.

Democrats were supposed to stay away from the polls because the state was stripped of its delegates after state leaders moved up the primary, violating national party rules. The presidential candidates signed a pledge not to campaign in Florida.

But early voting participation shows strong Democratic interest in an election couched in historic terms. It's likely that either a woman -- Hillary Rodham Clinton -- or an African-American -- Barack Obama -- will get the nomination. Either would be a first for a major party nomination.

The telephone survey of 800 registered voters was conducted Jan. 20-22 for the St. Petersburg Times, Bay News 9 and the Miami Herald.

The poll was done by Schroth, Eldon & Associates, whose clients primarily are Democrats, and the Polling Co., which mainly works with Republicans. The margin of error was plus or minus 3.5 percentage points overall.

Supporters of Amendment 1 were split on why they would vote yes. Some wanted the $240 average tax savings that would occur from increasing the state's homestead exemption from $25,000 to the equivalent of about $40,000.

Another enticement is a provision allowing homeowners to carry their accrued Save Our Homes benefit when they move. The savings could be in the thousands of dollars.

Others feel the package is the best that lawmakers can produce.

"It will give me $250 a year -- that's not a big deal," said Bruce Slack, 82, a Republican from New Port Richey. "But it's better than nothing. It does throw a bone to some of us."

Among those who said they do not support the amendment, 33 percent said it would put too much of a strain on local governments and schools. If enacted, the cuts would be $9.3-billion over five years, with $1.5-billion coming from schools.

Twenty-one percent of voters said they think something better will come from Tallahassee and 18 percent opposed it because it did not lower taxes significantly.

Earl Peck, 79, a Republican in St. Petersburg, wants a do-over. As a longtime homeowner the package favors him should he want to move and carry his Save Our Homes benefit.

But Peck thinks that only exacerbates an inequitable property tax structure.

"They are helping people who need help the least, and that includes me. I'm idealist enough to know that's not a good thing,' Peck said.

"I like Charlie," Peck said of the governor, "but I'm amazed he's putting all his credibility on the line for this."

Indeed, Crist stands virtually alone in trying to pass Amendment 1. Though the measure is a product of the Legislature, Crist was an early backer of increasing the homestead exemption and Save Our Homes portability.

Republican lawmakers have been openly critical of the package despite voting for it and few have shown up at recent events Crist has held around the state.

The public, though, still holds Crist in high regard. Entering his second year in office, he has a 57 percent approval rating, according to the poll. That is down from earlier ratings but Crist remains one of the most popular governors in the United States.

"I'm crazy about Charlie Crist," said Nancy Smith, 64, an independent voter from Lutz. "He's a real down-to-earth person."

Cliff Deardorff, 56 of Wesley Chapel believes Crist's argument that it will stimulate the housing market. "You'll get more people down here to buy all these homes that are vacant."

Floridians are more pessimistic about the direction of the nation than their home state. Sixty-six percent of voters said the United States is on the wrong track. But only 50 percent said Florida is on the wrong track.

The property tax amendment is up slightly from an earlier Times survey. In November, approval was at 53 percent.

The opposition has also gained in that period, from 27 percent in November to 30 percent now. That movement reflects a shrinking number of undecided voters.


Amendment 1

It has four major provisions: