Judge pulls property tax amendment off ballot
Judge pulls property tax amendment off ballot

By LLOYD DUNKELBERGER and JOE FOLLICK


H-T CAPITAL BUREAU



jfollick@earthlink.net

TALLAHASSEE -- Florida voters may not get to decide on Jan. 29 the fate of a complicated property tax amendment that supporters say represents the largest tax cut in state history and critics say would undermine schools and local governments.

On Monday, Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Francis struck the amendment from the presidential primary ballot, saying the wording of the summary for the super homestead exemption, which had been hastily crafted by the Legislature in a special session in June, was inaccurate.

"The language at issue is misleading and confusing and does not provide fair notice to the voter, educated or otherwise, of the purpose and effect of the proposed amendments to the Florida Constitution," wrote the judge.

Responding to a lawsuit filed by Weston Mayor Eric Hersh, Francis ruled that the ballot language obscured the overall intent of the amendment, which would replace the existing Save Our Homes property tax cap and $25,000 homestead exemption with a tax break worth 75 percent of the first $200,000 in the assessed value of a home and 15 percent of the next $300,000.

"The summary is just not correct," the judge wrote. "In fact, it is misleading."

But in the same ruling, the judge upheld a new state law that required local governments to cut their property tax collections by up to 9 percent and capped future revenue growth. Hersh had argued the Legislature did not have the power to restrict local governments' ability to raise taxes up to their constitutional limit.

With the ruling, lawmakers have several options to keep the Jan. 29 vote in play. They can appeal the Circuit Court decision, which is likely to result in a judicial stay that would keep the amendment temporarily alive while either the 1st District Court of Appeal or the Supreme Court decides the proposal's ultimate fate.

Another option would be to try to fix the ballot language flaws by passing a revised property-tax amendment in their 10-day special session that begins next week.

Under the state constitution, lawmakers have until 90 days before an election to add an amendment to the ballot -- which gives them an Oct. 31 deadline for the Jan. 29 ballot.

Another option would be to revise the amendment and place it on the November 2008 general election ballot -- which would give lawmakers more time to work on the measure but would be criticized by some as delaying the effort to provide tax relief to property owners.

State political leaders were noncommittal in their initial response to the judge's ruling. In a slew of carefully prepared statements, none of them sounded too upset by the judge's decision, nor did they indicate a rush to give voters another option in January.

"The Legislature smartly put the power to cut property taxes into the hands of the people," said Gov. Charlie Crist in a statement. "We will continue to work to ensure Florida's homeowners get the relief they need and deserve."

Senate President Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, praised the judge's ruling on upholding the law that forced local governments to roll back their tax collections, saying it provided immediate relief. As for the Jan. 29 amendment, Pruitt said Senate leaders would "explore our options after reviewing the judge's ruling."

Democratic leaders, who had opposed the amendment arguing it could devastate funding for schools and local governments, said they agreed with the court's ruling.

"I thought all along the ballot language was misleading," said Senate Democratic leader Steve Geller of Hallandale Beach. "This is what happens when you slap things together" without a more measured debate in the Legislature, said Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, the House Democratic leader. "We raised this precise issue during the session. This shouldn't be a surprise to anybody."

The amendment also included a new $25,000 exemption for businesses' "tangible property," a move that would have eliminated the tax for nearly 1 million small businesses.

Whether lawmakers will try to fix the amendment for the Jan. 29 presidential primary vote was not clear Monday.

Sen. Mike Fasano, a New Port Richey Republican who is leading the "Yes On 1" group to pass the measure, said late Monday that he expects lawmakers to get it back on the January ballot.

"This is the No. 1 issue right now," said Fasano, who added that the slumping real estate market needs the help from a tax cut.

But Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said the court's decision may provide lawmakers the chance to "catch our breath and refocus" on a plan that provides deeper relief in a way that residents understand.

"I think that putting the (effort) on a fast track so it goes back up on in January is a difficult, if not unreasonable, request," said Galvano.