With the housing market stalled and the economy flirting with a recession, Florida voters decided Tuesday they could not afford to take the long view on tax reform. They overwhelmingly approved Amendment 1, unable to resist an increased homestead exemption and the opportunity to take Save Our Homes tax savings with them if they move. Self-preservation in a difficult time trumped any concerns over unfairness or a reduction in government services.
The approval of the constitutional amendment was a big win for Gov. Charlie Crist. He fulfilled his 2006 campaign pledges to increase the homestead exemption and make Save Our Homes benefits portable. He led the campaign for the amendment as legislators who voted for it hung back. Now we will see if he can make good on his pledge to protect public schools from any Amendment 1-related cuts.
If there is a silver lining, it is that this should slow down House Speaker Marco Rubio and other antitax zealots who are far from satisfied. It is hard to imagine the governor and a pragmatic state Senate pursuing deeper tax cuts when they will be consumed by cutting the state budget.
Yet Tuesday's vote is not the last word. The best hope for fair reform still rests with the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission, which can put proposals directly on the November ballot. One intriguing idea calls for extending the sales tax to some goods and services that are not taxed now and using the money to virtually eliminate school property taxes. That could produce a property tax cut of roughly 40 percent for all property owners.
It is unlikely the stalled real estate market will miraculously recover by allowing homeowners to take up to $500,000 in tax savings with them when they move. It could be of some help - but it also may not last. The Legislature's own lawyers have warned that this change in Save Our Homes is susceptible to a constitutional challenge because it discriminates against first-time home buyers.
In the long run, Florida homeowners will find making Save Our Homes more flexible will make tax bills for similar houses on the same street even more inequitable. But Amendment 1 was the only option Tuesday for voters seeking relief, and they decided they could not wait any longer on Tallahassee for something better.