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Double wins put Crist in control

A budget proposal for tough times is the next challenge for the riding-high governor.

By STEVE BOUSQUET, Tallahassee Bureau Chief
Published January 30, 2008


TALLAHASSEE - The biggest winner Tuesday night may have been Gov. Charlie Crist, who made two risky bets that both paid off.

Crist's beloved Amendment 1 tax reform package passed easily, and the candidate he recently endorsed in Florida's Republican presidential primary, John McCain, beat back all challengers.

The question is: How long will he be able to savor the victories?

Florida voters delivered a mandate for lower property taxes two days before Crist is to propose a budget for next year, at a time when the state's fiscal outlook is as bleak as at any time in two decades.

The state faces a $2-billion shortfall, universities are planning faculty layoffs and enrollment caps, and Crist somehow promises to boost spending on public schools without increasing taxes.

"We've got tremendous problems right now. We've got a fiscal meltdown," said Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach. But he, too, congratulated Crist for pushing the tax amendment to victory.

Times are tough, but the election results leave Crist riding a wave of popularity that's exceeded only by the night he was elected governor in 2006.

As he crisscrossed Florida in support of the property tax change, the always upbeat governor assured voters that services would not be impaired and the state's real estate-dominated economy would come back to life.

Floridians will soon find out if he is right.

Amendment 1's critics will press the argument that the tax change makes a bad property tax system worse by expanding protection from tax increases for homesteaders while shifting an increasing share of the tax burden to renters, snowbirds and commercial property owners.

"It locks the current inequities in the property tax system into the Constitution," Karen Woodall, a lobbyist, human services advocate and opposition leader, said on Florida Public Radio on Tuesday night. "It's not fair, it's not equitable, and it does nothing for renters."

Bill Herrle of the National Federation of Independent Business, which backed the referendum, said the election result "greatly invigorates the property tax reform movement" and ensures that the issue will remain alive in 2008.

"It's a very strong vote," Herrle said.

Crist again showed impeccable timing, as network TV exit polls showed that economic anxiety was the paramount concern among voters. Given the option of a modest tax cut or none at all, Crist predicted Floridians would take it, and they did.

As a result, Crist now probably controls the tax debate more than ever. His success Tuesday makes it less likely that legislators will push a new plan in the spring session, and it may mean that the 25-member Taxation and Budget Reform Commission will be less aggressive in wading into the property tax swamp.

The 25-member panel, which convenes about every 20 years, has the power to put its own tax proposals before voters in November, and plans to discuss the election results at a meeting today. One member of the panel said passage of Amendment 1 probably narrows the commission's scope.

"If this had failed, the scope is kind of A-to-Z. If it passes, the scope is much more focused on aspects of the tax system not addressed by the amendment," Tallahassee lawyer Martha Barnett said.

House Speaker Marco Rubio, a leader of an effort to cap property taxes at 1.35 percent of a home's value, said after the vote that "more must be done to further reform Florida's broken property tax system and provide meaningful relief to Floridians."

But Senate President Ken Pruitt said the Crist-backed amendment "will provide property tax relief and economic activity in a market that desperately needs it."

In the end, opponents said Crist's appeal was simply too much to overcome. "The advantage rests with a popular governor," Woodall said.

Crist's last-minute decision to endorse McCain on Saturday stunned many friends and political insiders. The campaigns of Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani and even McCain were convinced until the end that Crist would remain neutral.

Times staff writer Jared Leone contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or 850 224-7263.