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Crist aide had barred support for a tax hike

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Charlie Crist's newfound support for a property tax cut on the November ballot clashes with a pledge his office made to constituents just six months ago.

In February, Crist's chief economist sent letters to at least a dozen constituents on Crist's behalf, saying, "The governor is not supportive of increasing sales taxes, either by repealing exemptions, or by raising the rate, even if the revenues are used to lower property taxes."

But that is exactly what Amendment 5 would do. Crist for the first time Monday said he would work to help pass the measure.

The plan, if approved by 60 percent of voters, would slash property taxes for schools starting in 2011, saving property owners at least 25 percent. But it would require the Legislature to make up the difference — ranging from $9-billion to $11-billion a year — by raising the sales tax, closing sales tax exemptions, reducing state spending or finding unspecified "other revenues."

Nearly everyone involved believes passage of Amendment 5 would require at least a 1-cent increase in the state's 6 percent sales tax to raise roughly $4-billion a year.

The governor could not be reached for comment Tuesday after the St. Petersburg Times obtained a copy of the letter.

But Christian Weiss, his chief economist, said he wrote the Feb. 28 letter to constituents who had asked the governor's position on the repeal of sales tax exemptions. He said he was asked to do so by the Office of Citizen Services, which routinely sends constituent letters to the relevant office when the question is technical.

The letter came to light the same day that a new poll funded by opponents suggests even Crist's popularity may not be enough to pass Amendment 5, which was put on the ballot by the state Taxation and Budget Reform Commission.

A poll of 1,600 voters by Fabrizio McLaughlin and Associates shows 40 percent of voters support the tax change, 40 percent oppose and 20 percent are undecided. The Florida Chamber of Commerce, which opposes the amendment, underwrote the survey, conducted in late July.

It's not the first time Crist has backed a property tax cut via referendum, or "power to the people," as he calls it. He used that message repeatedly in January to help pass Amendment 1, a property tax cut that benefited home­owners by increasing the state's homestead exemption.

But Amendment 5 isn't as simple a message. Voters are being asked to approve a dramatic property tax cut, but the same vote also requires the Legislature to raise other taxes or revenue to make up the difference so school funding isn't affected.

If Crist is still the governor in 2011, he would have to decide whether to sign the legislation.

Opponents are capitalizing on the tax-cut-now, pay-later aspect of the plan by comparing it to the creation of the Florida Lottery more than two decades ago. While lawmakers promised to use lottery dollars to enhance education, it has been perceived as supplanting other state dollars to pay for basic school operations. Opponents' message: The Legislature can't be trusted to protect education spending now, either.

"We all want lower property taxes," chamber president Mark Wilson said. "But where are we going to make that up? The voters of Florida remember the lottery. Are we going to cut funding by $11-billion?"

Polls have repeatedly shown Crist is the most popular political figure in Florida. And his support for the so-called tax swap was termed "huge" by the president of the Florida Association of Realtors, Chuck Bonfig­lio, who was among the business owners invited to the Governor's Mansion on Tuesday to talk about the state's economy.

"It's kind of across the board tax reform for everyone," Bonfig­lio said. "We see it as one of the most far-reaching tax reform initiatives this state has ever seen."

Realtors, who also were big backers of Amendment 1, have pledged $1-million to a pro-Amendment 5 campaign. But they and Crist face formidable opposition.

Critics include the Florida Association of Broadcasters, whose president, Pat Roberts, has successfully battled previous efforts to broaden the state's tax base or repeal tax exemptions.

"It's not a tax cut. That's where I think the governor is wrong, and the Realtors are misleading people," Roberts said. "This will bring this state to a halt."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Crist aide had barred support for a tax hike 08/05/08 [Last modified: Saturday, August 9, 2008 9:38pm]
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