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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Crist: 'Seize the moment' on property taxes



With the main players in general agreement over property taxes, a deal could be formalized in the next few days and lawmakers may begin deliberations by the weekend, Gov. Charlie Crist said Monday night.

"If you have consensus," he told the Times, "??why not seize the moment?"

Lawmakers will wrap up work on the budget Friday morning and the hope is the special session could be simply extended rather than taking a break and reconvening later this month.

That would save travel expenses and build on the goodwill and momentum of an easier-than-expected budget-cutting session.

"Things have moved very very well, and if we can keep that going we may be able to be done sooner than later. Which I know the people want,"?? Crist said.

Crist offered a host of caveats, but his comments -- based on detailed talks with top Republicans and Democrats -- represent the strongest sign that lawmakers will be able to refashion a deal to put before voters on Jan. 29.

A judge recently threw out the Legislature'??s "? so-called super?? homestead exemption plan, saying it was misleading because people might not know Save Our Homes would be phased out.

Lawmakers now agree that Save Our Homes, an annual 3 percent assessment cap, will be preserved even if it has shifted more tax burden to commercial and nonhomestead property owners.

The new deal could look something list this: Homeowners could carry the accrued Save Our Homes benefit when they move, a concept known as ?"portability."?? The current $25,000 homestead exemption would be doubled and there would be help for first-time home buyers.

Businesses would get a break on taxes paid on equipment and lawmakers want to end an assessment practice called "highest and best,"?? which can make a used car lot (or similar lower end property) pay a lot more simply because the land has more lucrative potential. Harder revenue caps on local government are also a possibility.

"??It'??s really starting to come together nicely," said Crist, a Republican. "There'??s a very strong consensus and sentiment that we need to keep it simple."

Working in the Legislature'??s favor is the lack of divisiveness that marred negotiations over property taxes last spring as the House and Senate battled over the depth of cuts while the governor largely stayed out of the debate.

This time, Crist is asserting himself, meeting privately with the players and calling them on the phone. Failure to put something before voters during the January presidential primary could hurt Crist as much as the Legislature, if not more.

Another advantage: The concepts are not new. Crist campaigned on portability and doubling the homestead exemption.

"??He'??s the ultimate optimist,"?? said Rep. Jack Seiler, a leading Democrat from Broward County, who has been talking with the governor. ?"When the governor is working with both parties and both chambers there's a lot of reasons for optimism."

Plus, Seiler said, lawmakers would be eager to resolve the problem rather than going into another special
session. "I would love to get back to work Friday,"?? he said.

[Last modified: Wednesday, September 15, 2010 11:19am]


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