TALLAHASSEE — For the second time this year, Gov. Charlie Crist is urging Florida voters to approve a controversial property tax cut proposal.
Crist said Monday for the first time that he will work to help pass Amendment 5, which would eliminate most school property taxes, saving property owners at least 25 percent.
But the measure would also require the Legislature to find other funds to replace the lost revenue, including raising the sales tax and possibly closing tax exemptions — a prospect that has drawn opposition from business and education groups.
Before Monday, Crist had offered tepid support for the proposal. During an unusual news conference where reporters watched Crist get a haircut, he said Amendment 5 "could be a significant stimulant to Florida's economy." He plans to meet soon with the proposal's champion, former Senate President John McKay, to discuss his role in promoting its passage.
"If this Amendment 5 were to pass in November, which I hope it does, people will look at that as a lot more than a tweak," Crist said to a question about easing the tax burden on small business owners. "A 25 percent reduction in property taxes, wholesale, across the board … that's more than a tweak, I would think."
The so-called tax swap was placed on the ballot by the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission. McKay, a Bradenton real estate broker, is a Crist appointee to the panel.
McKay's plan has drawn fierce opposition from business groups worried that in addition to the higher sales tax, the proposal carries a future tax hike that could force legislators to tax their services to make up for the loss ($8-billion this year alone) in property taxes used for education.
Opponents have filed a lawsuit seeking to throw Amendment 5 off the ballot. A hearing is set for next week.
Realtors are the only major business group that supports the amendment. Opponents include not just big business groups but the PTA, the Florida School Boards Association, certified public accountants, the Florida Farm Bureau and AARP, among others.
Sen. Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, a leader of the opposition group Protect Florida's Future, said that if the amendment passes it won't provide any tax relief until 2011, the year it is scheduled to take effect.
"I just feel strongly that this would be a tax increase, and it would undercut our schools and it would not be an immediate stimulant," Haridopolos said. "I didn't come to Tallahassee to raise taxes."
Crist's high-profile support for a property tax cut amendment in January, including TV ads and billboards, was credited with helping pass the measure known as Amendment 1. On Monday, he said he has not decided how much time to put into trying to pass Amendment 5, because of his commitment to help Republican presidential candidate John McCain campaign in Florida.
"I hope to be able to be very helpful," Crist said.
Crist invited reporters to watch him get an $11 haircut at a neighborhood barbershop in Tallahassee, one in a series of events following a recent 12-day trade mission to Europe that he says "make sure that we're in touch with what's happening with people."
The Florida Democratic Party mocked the photo-op, calling Crist out of touch "because he doesn't get that Florida's families are suffering under the Republican recession."
Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.