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Florida tax protesters tramp into Crist's office

Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio stands before more than 300 tax activists who were bused in from across the state to demand property tax relief.

ALEX LEARY | Times

Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio stands before more than 300 tax activists who were bused in from across the state to demand property tax relief.

TALLAHASSEE — Their anger was etched on weary faces, carried in chants and scrawled across signs mocking Gov. Charlie Crist's promise to drop property taxes "like a rock."

The property tax debate erupted anew in the state Capitol on Tuesday — a vivid reminder of how heated the issue remains even after voters approved Amendment 1 two months ago.

More than 300 protesters, most making a 10-hour bus ride from South Florida, staged a rally with House Speaker Marco Rubio, and even moved into the House chamber as his guests, to demand additional tax and spending cuts.

"It's not over, and we're going to win," the West Miami Republican pledged to wild applause.

About two dozen protesters eventually flooded Crist's first-floor office demanding answers. Crist was working at the Governor's Mansion, so Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp fielded their questions. They left dissatisfied.

"If we need to come next time and sleep out here in our camping gear, we will do it," said Angelo Garcia Jr., 45, of Miami.

But the public spectacle — choreographed by a handful of anti-tax groups — was only one level of the property tax battle being waged Tuesday in Tallahassee. Two months after voters approved Amendment 1, saving the average homeowner $240, the push to lower property taxes continues unabated with a host of competing ideas about how best to change the system.

Amid Tuesday's commotion, members of the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission were being intensely lobbied on a proposal to be discussed today that would amount to the strictest cap on taxes ever in Florida. The 25-member panel has the power to place items on the November ballot.

Late Tuesday, the commissioner sponsoring the measure said it would be a workshop only because of a flurry of last-minute changes. A vote will come at a later time. "Sometimes the worst thing is the law of unintended consequences," said Mike Hogan, who is also the Duval County tax collector.

The plan, similar to "taxpayer bill of rights" legislation enacted in other states, would limit revenue collection at all levels of government to no more than population growth plus inflation plus 1 percent.

New fees or taxes would need voter approval, while exceeding the cap would require two-thirds approval by a city council or other governing body.

"This is the most substantial tax reform legislation in the history of the Sunshine State," said Adam Guillette, Florida director for the tax group Americans for Prosperity, which has been involved in crafting the proposal.

"It ensures fiscal responsibility from both state and local government," Guillette said. "And most importantly, it puts an end to boom-and-bust budgeting."

Rubio, who appointed some of the members to the commission, was actively pursuing support for the plan Tuesday.

But local governments, already facing billions in cuts under last year's property tax rollback and Amendment 1, unleashed their own lobbyists in hopes of killing the plan before it makes the ballot.

"It's just dangerous policy," said Mac Stipanovich, a prominent Republican who has been hired by the Florida League of Cities. "Why do this? What is so wrong now and so different from any crisis in the past?

"And whatever happened to our regard for representative government? If you don't like the way the Pinellas County Commission acts, throw them out."

That philosophical argument is having an effect on some of the tax commission members.

"There may be a good reason to have some revenue and spending cap," said former Sen. John McKay of Bradenton. "But our country was founded as a representative democracy."

McKay has bigger worries.

Last week, the tax commission approved his plan to greatly reduce school property taxes in favor of a 1 cent sales tax increase and other revenue sources, including ending sales tax exemptions on items like luxury boxes at sports arenas.

But the proposal must come up for a second and final vote. And major businesses groups, including the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Florida, are trying to persuade commission members to reconsider. That, however, is a long-shot.

Rubio used the lobbyists' effort as a rallying cry Tuesday, urging his doting audience — at one point he was asked if he was going to run for Miami-Dade mayor — to unite behind the plan but to also fight for another proposal, which would cap property taxes at 1.35 percent of taxable value. More than 150,000 citizen petitions have been collected with the aim of putting it on the November 2010 ballot.

Today's focus, however, is on the revenue cap.

Critics often point to Colorado as an example of why the restrictions do not work. In 2005, voters there suspended part of the law for five years because the state was running out of money.

Advocates, however, say Florida's plan differs in various ways. For one, the Florida proposal allows local governments to override the cap by a two-thirds vote, whereas the Colorado version required a public referendum.

Florida's limit is also more generous with the extra 1 percent allowance each year.

"I think it's the best tax and spending limit ever designed," said Barry Poulson, a University of Colorado economics professor who is aligned with Americans for Prosperity and will be in Tallahassee today to pitch the plan. "It takes advantage of everything we've learned about these."

Florida tax protesters tramp into Crist's office 03/25/08 [Last modified: Thursday, March 27, 2008 5:36pm]
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