TALLAHASSEE — Property taxes in Florida have not dropped "like a rock" as Gov. Charlie Crist said they would, but he's going to keep trying to make good on a promise made two years ago.
The Republican governor's goals for the spring lawmaking session include four separate tax proposals that would go before voters on the 2010 ballot, when Crist himself would be seeking voters' favor as a candidate for re-election as governor or election to the U.S. Senate.
The total taxpayer savings — or cost to all local governments and schools statewide — could weigh in at roughly $600 million, according to preliminary staff estimates and prior analyses of similar proposals to help homeowners and cap and limit local-government taxation.
"You want as much relief as possible," said Crist, who would not confirm details of the proposals. "People have been complaining about property tax increases for a long time. We're all aware of that."
The tax package, to be unveiled this week, is still evolving. But Crist's aides have explained them to key lawmakers, who shared details of the following four proposed constitutional amendments with the Times/Herald:
• Cap government spending by limiting cities' and counties' tax collections. Any taxes collected above the rate of inflation and population growth would be kept in a "stabilization fund" in case of emergencies. Legislative Republicans want the cap to apply to the state government as well.
• Limit growth in the assessed value of businesses, vacation homes and other nonhomesteaded properties to 5 percent annually. Those assessment increases are now capped at 10 percent a year due to the passage of Amendment 1 in Jan. 2008.
• Aid first-time home buyers by increasing the homestead exemption to 50 percent of the market value of the home. The exemption's value would decrease back to zero over five years. Maximum exemption: $500,000.
• Prohibit tax-assessment increases on homesteaded properties whose market values decline — a quirk in the current Save Our Homes system known as "the recapture rule."
Crist said it makes no sense. "There's some frustration among homeowners who have to pay more taxes when their homes lost value," said Crist. He's also tentatively proposing a statutory plan to make it easier for businesses to challenge property-tax assessments.
That proposal is the only tax plan that requires a straight up-or-down vote.
The constitutional amendments will need to pass by a three-fifths vote in each house: 24 in the Senate and 72 in the House. In each chamber, the proposals can pass without any Democratic votes.
Voters must approve the final amendments with a 60 percent vote.
Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, who has not been briefed on the proposals, voiced skepticism, saying Crist's plans might perpetuate the imbalance in Florida's property tax system in which longtime property owners receive greater benefits than newcomers.
"The problem with Florida's tax code is its inequities," Gelber said. "You can't deliver relief until you deliver reform."
For example, he said, a 5 percent tax cap for businesses would result in two gas stations on the same intersection paying wildly different tax bills over time, with the older gas outlet enjoying a locked-in benefit, and the newer station paying much higher taxes.
"This isn't the time to be doing that," said lawyer-lobbyist Ron Meyer, who represents the Florida Education Association.
"While he's to be applauded for using the word 'revenue,' he should be talking about how to increase it … not decrease it at a time when schools are suffering like never before."
Meyer said the union might also oppose another Crist priority that would require up to 70 percent of school money to be spent "in the classroom" because it's unclear how "classroom" is defined.
Said Gelber: "That's a gimmick. It sounds really good, but it's not a policy anybody can truly gauge, because 'the classroom' can be defined differently. And 70 percent of diddly is still diddly."
Opponents of property-tax cuts also question some of the conventional wisdom pushed by Republicans, who said the economy would improve after they passed a property tax cut in 2007 and persuaded voters to approve another in 2008. Since then, the economy has only worsened.
Echoing other Republicans, Sen. Mike Fasano of New Port Richey said Florida would have been in worse shape without the tax cuts. He said people need more.
"People are hurting, and it's just unfair to increase their property taxes when their property values fall," said Fasano, a sponsor of the tax-cut measure.
Marc Caputo can be reached at [email protected]