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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Judge seems skeptical of Amendment 5



UPDATE 2:53 p.m.: Cooper said he intends to issue an opinion later today or in theCooper morning.

A Tallahassee circuit judge seems sympathetic to the argument that the Amendment 5 proposal is misleading, possibly signaling trouble for the "tax swap" to remain on the November ballot.

In the opening moments of a hearing now under way, Judge John C. Cooper has agreed that the ballot summary implies that the loss of property taxes for schools would be wholly replaced -- or "held harmless."

"You take a quarter from over here and you replace it from a quarter over here," Cooper said, illustrating the concept of an even revenue trade.

But lawyers defending the measure countered that the summary refers to only the first year of implementation, 2010-2011, and thereafter the Legislature would have to come up with a plan. The proposal would eliminate at least $9-billion in school funding, to be replaced with other revenue sources including a higher sales tax.

The lawyers said it should be left to the public to decide. Replied Cooper: "In the court of public opinion, doesn't the public ultimately have to be told what it's being asked to decide?"

"This is a listing of what is in the amendment," Mark Herron, a lawyer for the defendants, said of the summary. "Does it specifically list every nuance and every detail? I would agree with everyone in the courtroom that it doesn't."

Cooper also honed in on a provision that would limit annual nonhomestead property assessments to 5 percent, down from the 10 percent adopted under Amendment 1 in January. Voters, he said, could think that had to do with the school property taxes at the heart of Amendment 5 and the ballot summary.

"I don't know if I'm the average voter," Cooper said, "but I had to read two or three hours to figure out what that meant."

Despite his probing questions, Cooper has also noted that backers of the plan could seek a court order forcing the Legislature to fully replace the money. That, of course, raises a host of other questions about separation of power.

[Last modified: Wednesday, September 15, 2010 10:07am]


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