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Voters flock to property tax relief

By ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writer
Published January 30, 2008


It's the tax cut no one seemed to love but, in the end, was too hard to pass up.

Florida voters Tuesday overwhelmingly approved Amendment 1, giving themselves modest property tax relief and Gov. Charlie Crist a profound victory.

The Republican governor overcame relentless criticism from unions and others fearing cuts to local government and schools. Poll after poll showed the measure falling just short of the 60 percent needed for passage. Newspapers across the state editorialized against it.

But Tuesday's results were unambiguous: 64 percent of voters approved. At least 53 of Florida's 67 counties approved the plan.

"As a taxpayer, I'm grateful for any little crumbs they can drop," said Eleanor Nicholas, 81, a Republican from St. Petersburg.

"It's better than nothing," agreed Shawn Jacobson, 49, who was leaving the same polling location Tuesday morning. "I felt it would take years for them go back and do something better."

An exultant Crist appeared in Miami, where he shared the stage with Sen. John McCain, winner of Florida's Republican presidential primary.

"I'm delighted for the people of Florida," Crist said, sweat rolling off his face. "It's a win, that's all I wanted."

The victory could stymie further efforts to tackle Florida's complex and, many argue, unfair property tax system. A blue ribbon panel that has been studying tax reform returns to work in Tallahassee today with far less room to play.

At the same time, Tuesday's vote could bolster legal challenges to Save Our Homes, the 3 percent annual cap on assessments that has shielded longtime homeowners from soaring property taxes yet created large differences between what neighbors pay.

Crist always bet that voters wouldn't turn down a tax cut, no matter what the size.

A struggling economy added to the urgency some felt and diminished the argument that a better deal could rise from the amendment's failure.

The plan is estimated to save taxpayers $9.3-billion over five years (and take that much from local government and school budgets).

But the total belies small savings for individual property owners -- and the reason why few embraced the plan as enthusiastically as Crist.

The average homeowner will see taxes drop by about $240 this year under the increased homestead exemption.

Starting this year, homeowners can carry accrued tax benefits under Save Our Homes to a new home -- a privilege potentially worth thousands. But it is expected to soon be challenged in court because it further favors longtime homeowners over those who bought homes more recently.

"It's going to put a sharper point on the sword," said Stan Chamberlin, a North Palm Beach resident who is one of three plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging Save Our Homes.

Chamberlin, who established his homestead in 2007, pays $22,700 a year in property taxes. A neighbor in a nearly identical house pays $9,000.

Amendment 1 also includes a new $25,000 exemption on business equipment on business property and a 10 percent annual cap on assessments. It is expected to have little effect.

Tuesday's vote brings to a close a combative episode for Florida's Republican-led Legislature. It took a regular session and two special sessions for Amendment 1 to reach the ballot.

Initially, lawmakers sought to greatly increase the homestead exemption and phase out Save Our Homes to address the imbalance between longtime homeowners and all other property owners.

But in late September, a circuit judge threw out the proposal on the grounds that the ballot language masked the fact that Save Our Homes would go away. A second special session in October found Crist in a more prominent role, pushing the increased homestead exemption and Save Our Homes portability. In the end, a dispirited Legislature handed the ball to Crist.

He took it in typical fashion, offering an endless stream of praise for the plan despite mountains of criticism and tepid fundraising efforts.

Crist raised twice as much money as opponents, but half the $4-million came from two sources: Florida Power & Light Co. and the Florida Association of Realtors.

"This is about giving the people their money back," Crist said, while visiting with Realtors at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort in St. Petersburg minutes before the polls closed.

The money allowed Crist to run repeated TV ads the past two weeks, send direct mailers, record phone messages and embark on a statewide promotional tour.

Meanwhile his opponents never matched him on TV, hoping that a grass roots campaign focused on unions and direct mail pieces would provide the 41 percent of votes needed to thwart the measure.

The message was that local governments, already forced to cut $15-billion under a property tax rollback, could not sustain additional cuts without eliminating funding for parks, libraries, and police and fire protection.

"The worst thing about this is it's now in the Constitution. There's no tweaking it," said Dwayne Sealy of the Florida AFL-CIO. "I think this will be just as bad as we said it would be."

Crist scoffed at such sentiment as "scare tactics." Yet it resonated with many voters across the state, including Mike Barnett, 36, of Brooksville.

"I don't think what you are going to get back is really what it's worth in cuts to local government."

House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-Miami, who voted for the proposal but was openly critical of it, congratulated Crist yet signaled a desire for more.

"I look forward to partnering with (him) on the important work that remains to be done to further reform Florida's broken property tax system."

Times staff writers David Adams, Steve Bousquet and John Frank contributed to this report.

Amendment 1 Impact: