I was enjoying a plate of spaghetti at the Pizza Villa restaurant in Spring Hill a couple of weeks ago, when I ran into Linda Hayward, who, as usual, was energetically, cheerfully — merrily, even — working to undermine our local government.
"We've got petitions in 31 businesses now," she told me, waving a stack of papers and smiling proudly.
It's probably no surprise that I don't see the work of her organization, Hernando County Taxpayers Alliance, as anything to smile about.
Her myopia about taxes led her to back County Commission candidates with lesser qualifications over more capable and experienced incumbents. She's thrown her bountiful enthusiasm behind a series of misguided plans to cut or limit taxes, including this latest one — petitions now supported by up to 101 businesses, she says.
This proposed constitutional amendment, which Tallahassee business groups hope to place on the ballot in 2010, would cap local tax revenues at the combined percentage of annual inflation and population growth.
This idea is not as bad as some; in a different time, in state with a history of oppressive taxation, it might even be justified.
But, without listing the many protections from excessive taxes Floridians already enjoy, let me sum up our situation this way:
We've historically been a state with rock-bottom taxes; as property values climbed during the real estate boom, we briefly drifted into the medium-low range; as these values drop, we are sinking back.
I'm sympathetic to the economic plight of small business owners, whom this cap is designed to help. I'm married to one. But this cap won't help in the short term. Commercial property values, which held up longer than home prices, have started to fall, said Property Appraiser Alvin Mazourek. Business owners' tax bills will follow. The county's overall revenue is also expected to keep dropping, meaning the cap won't come into play.
In the future, this revenue limit will hamper governments trying to keep up with costs, such as for medical insurance, that tend to rise faster than inflation. That's also true of the price of building roads and schools. At least it's true during periods of rapid growth, when this cap might provide real relief.
Finally, Hayward's underlying justification for this cap errs by considering taxes only.
"Business will come to Florida and provide good paying jobs as they will not see astronomical increases in their real estate taxes," the Alliance Web site states. Well, no, they won't come if the roads are clogged, the work force is poorly educated and business owners have to put their kids in schools with underpaid teachers.
But here's the strange thing about Hayward: I like and respect her. She's tireless and well-intentioned. From my experience (and I should know) she treats people with civility even when she can't stand their political views.
I think about all the organizations in Hernando actually doing what Hayward just believes she is doing: helping people hit hard by the economic collapse. And I think about how great it would be if Hayward joined up with one of these groups and put all that energy to better use.