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Judge rejects proposed property tax-cutting amendment
SOURCE: Associated Press
September 25 2007

A tax-slashing amendment is off the Jan. 29 presidential primary ballot - at least temporarily - after a judge Monday ruled an accompanying explanation for voters is unconstitutionally misleading and inaccurate.

The ballot summary says the amendment would preserve existing property tax breaks although it actually would phase them out, wrote Circuit Judge Charles A. Francis of Tallahassee.

Francis, though, upheld a separate law the Legislature passed as a part of a two-pronged effort to cut property taxes.

The law, which does not need voter approval, requires cities and counties, but not school districts, to roll back and cap taxes for all types of property. Local governing bodies, though, can make exceptions to those tax limits by votes of more than a simple majority.

The proposed amendment was touted as offering even greater tax reductions - almost entirely to homeowners - through a "super exemption," and would have affected all local governments including school districts.

Gov. Charlie Crist and legislative leaders issued statements saying their efforts to cut taxes are not over. No decision, though, yet has been made on whether the ruling will be appealed, said Jill Chamberlin, spokeswoman for House Speaker Marco Rubio.

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

"One way or another, we will give Florida taxpayers the relief they deserve," said Rubio, R-West Miami.

Senate President Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, said, "We will explore our options after reviewing the judge's ruling."

Besides appealing, the options include rewriting the ballot summary to meet the judge's objections or deferring the issue to the constitutional Taxation and Budget Reform Commission.

A suburban South Florida mayor who challenged both measures said he hoped lawmakers will leave it to the commission, which can make recommendations to the Legislature and put amendments directly on the November 2008 ballot.

"I'm hoping that they will look at this as an opportunity to fix something," said Weston Mayor Eric Hersh. "Hopefully that's the tactic they will take instead of looking at this as a defeat."

Hersh said he has not yet decided whether to appeal the tax rollback decision. He said he would be more inclined to do so, though, if the state appeals the amendment ruling.

"Not only was it misleading, but it was terrible legislation," Hersh said.

The Republican-controlled Legislature approved both tax-cutting measures during as special session in June. The law passed with bipartisan support, but Democrats opposed the amendment.

That proposal is designed to eventually get rid of the existing Save Our Homes Amendment, which limits assessment increases on primary homes, known as homesteads, to no more than 3 percent a year.

While it protected existing homesteaders, it shifted tax burden to new buyers and owners of other properties including second homes and businesses. Rapidly rising real estate values in recent years made the discrepancy even greater leading to an outcry for tax cuts.

The amendment would have offered homesteaders the one-time choice of keeping their existing benefits or accepting the super exemption - 75 percent off first $200,000 of a home's value and 15 percent off the next $300,000.

Save Our Homes benefits, though, cannot be transferred to new owners, so they eventually would disappear as those properties change hands.

The ballot summary, though, refers to "preserving application of Save Our Homes provision."

"The summary is just not correct," Francis wrote. Nowhere in the ballot summary is the voter alerted to the elimination of these constitutional protections on homestead assessments. They are simply led to believe that they are preserved or revised."