For much of the property tax debate that has consumed Tallahassee over the past year, city and county governments have been used as punching bags for lawmakers pandering on taxes. But in the wake of an overwhelming defeat at the polls, local elected officials need to look beyond the legislative politics and the $7.7-billion impact to their budgets and face themselves in the mirror.
Why is it that voters didn't believe them?
To be sure, a $4-million campaign led by a popular governor and the lure of tax breaks are a powerful combination. But too many city and county officials, particularly those represented by the Florida League of Cities, hurt their own cause with a campaign of distortions. They exaggerated the impact of the tax breaks and, in the case of some League of Cities mailings, simply misrepresented the facts. In so doing, they devalued their own credibility.
Leaving aside the question of whether the new homestead exemptions are fair or constitutional, the salient argument for cities and counties is one of home rule. Amendment 1 is yet another encroachment, along with the 2007 law mandating property tax rollbacks, on the authority of mayors and commissions to set priorities for their own communities.
Maybe, as Gov. Charlie Crist insisted, the first cutback or the second cutback can be made without undermining police or fire protection. But why should state lawmakers be the ones who determine whether cities can afford to offer quality libraries or active recreation centers? Why should Crist be the one to decide whether St. Petersburg should provide fenced-in dog parks (he has criticized such expenses)?
By attempting to scare voters on public safety, local officials squandered their credibility. Whether the amendment's staggering margins of approval in some urban counties indicate greater mistrust or simply higher housing values is not clear. But Tuesday's round of voter-directed tax cuts may be only the beginning if all local government leaders can't make a more persuasive case to the people they serve.
Already, House Speaker Marco Rubio is pushing for an amendment that would cap all property taxes at 1.35 percent of taxable value - a measure that would strangle cities and counties. He is not likely to get the Legislature to go along, but the group that is gathering petitions with his support already has a running start for the 2010 ballot.
City and county leaders have taken plenty of unwarranted and unfair political attacks from a Legislature that morphed tax inequity into a crusade against local taxes. But those same local leaders need to do some soul-searching of their own. Their best defense with voters is a clearly stated, publicly scrutinized annual budget whose spending goals enjoy broad community support. If voters embrace and understand the way their local government spends taxes, they won't be so eager to cut them.