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Crist's vetoes of agriculture bills widen divide with GOP leaders

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Charlie Crist on Saturday shot down two bills sent to him by state lawmakers, a move that could strain an already tense relationship with the GOP-controlled Legislature.

He also signed one, giving final approval to Florida Atlantic University's medical school. The inaugural class is expected to begin in the fall of 2011.

Crist vetoed measures being pushed by the state's agriculture industry, including a bill that would have made it harder to take away tax breaks enjoyed by farmers and other large land owners across the state.

One of the prime sponsors of the bill was Sen. JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, the powerful Senate budget chairman.

But the bill had come under fire from some of the state's property appraisers, especially since the legislation would have applied to ongoing legal disputes affecting millions of dollars in property taxes.

In his veto message, Crist said he had "concerns about making it easier for developers to take advantage of a program intended to protect Florida farmers from facing financial pressures to sell their land."

Liz Compton, a spokeswoman for Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson, said that Bronson was disappointed in both vetoes and that Crist may have been confused over what the property tax bill did.

The vetoes Saturday mark the third time in recent weeks in which Crist, who is now running as an independent for the U.S. Senate, has scuttled bills pushed by top Republicans. He also vetoed earlier this year a campaign finance law change sought by legislative leaders and a controversial bill that would have stripped job protections from the state's teachers.

This could be the start of a series of vetoes in the next few weeks, as Crist has already said he plans to veto spending items in the state budget and has suggested he will veto a health care bill that requires women seeking abortions in the first trimester of pregnancy to get an ultrasound.

Yet the vetoes could make it harder for Crist to win any concessions from legislators if he calls them back in a special session to consider a constitutional ban on oil drilling in Florida waters.

Crist could also risk getting his veto overturned by the Legislature because both bills he vetoed Saturday passed with overwhelming Democratic and Republican support.

It takes a two-thirds vote to override a veto.

There has not been a veto override since 1998, when the late Gov. Lawton Chiles was in office.

The property tax bill, HB 981, dealt primarily with Florida's greenbelt law.

Florida first passed the law in 1959 as a way to help farmers so they would not be pressured to sell off their land for development.

Property appraisers are required to value the property based on the agricultural value of the land, not its potential for development.

State law says that whenever agricultural land is sold for three times its value, it automatically creates a "presumption" that it not be used for "bona fide agricultural" purposes and that the landowner has to prove that the tax break should be kept.

That is what happened to a large timber company, Rayonier, when it sold land in Bradford County to a real estate subsidiary for 12 times the value.

The subsidiary lost the tax break and unsuccessfully challenged it in both circuit court and appeals court.

The bill Crist vetoed spelled out that offering property for sale does not constitute a primary use of land if the land continues to be used for agriculture while it is on the market.

The bill would have applied not only to future land sales, but, through a retroactive clause, to all land for which a court order had not yet been entered.

Supporters of the bill said the measure was an effort to clarify the law and protect farmers from losing their tax breaks even if they were still farming.

But one of the critics of the bill said the retroactive clause could have wiped out $5.2 million worth of tax bills being challenged in court.

Crist in his veto message said he was concerned the bill could "subsidize private real estate speculation at the expense of the taxpayer."

The push for the bill came initially from the state's citrus growers concerned about the impact of the Rayonier case.

They approached Alexander, a grandson of citrus baron Ben Hill Griffin Jr. and the top executive at two companies that own as much as 200,000 acres in the state.

Mike Sparks, executive vice president and CEO of Florida Citrus Mutual, said his organization was disappointed in the veto because the bill also included a provision meant to bolster research for the citrus industry.

The other bill, HB 7103, vetoed by Crist on Saturday would have blocked local governments from regulating land used for farming if there was already a state law in place.

It also would have forced developers to sign a form and acknowledge when they were building next to a farm.

The bill stemmed from a Polk County dispute between a developer and the owner of a blueberry farm.

Information from Times wires was used in this report.

Crist's vetoes of agriculture bills widen divide with GOP leaders 05/16/10 [Last modified: Sunday, May 16, 2010 11:09pm]
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