Gov. Charlie Crist got it right in vetoing the tax break for phony farmers that the Legislature passed this year. The bill would have enabled huge landowners and developers to avoid paying their fair share of property taxes by hiding behind an exemption meant to protect working farms. The measure was an abuse that could have robbed state and local governments of tens of millions of dollars.
Florida law gives huge tax breaks to landowners who use their property to raise cattle or grow crops. The exemption can knock 90 percent off the property tax liability. The break is meant to recognize the public benefit of agriculture, and lessening the financial pressure on farmers to sell to developers is a legitimate trade-off for keeping the land in agricultural production.
The law already is abused by landowners who park a few head of cattle on their property to secure the tax break. To stop the worst abuses, existing law presumes that land sold for more than three times its agricultural value is no longer bona fide farmland and thus no longer entitled to the agricultural exemption. But a bill passed this year at the behest of Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, the Senate budget chief, would have enabled landowners to skirt the price threshold and keep the property tax break even if their land sold for a huge price and was clearly destined for development. The bill also would have changed the law retroactively, saving a North Florida timber land owner now fighting the state over more than $5 million in property taxes.
Crist was right to see through the ridiculous argument that this bill (HB 981) had something legitimate to do with protecting agriculture or that it merely allowed For Sale signs by legitimate agriculture interests. To the contrary, this change would only increase the pressure on farmers to sell out to commercial development. Legislative analysts could not even predict how many millions of dollars the government would lose. The scheme was a rush job that would have put speculative real estate trading on the backs of taxpayers. Crist's veto is a victory for fairness.