Unions gamble members' $$ for property tax hike

With Realtors and business groups preparing to square off against labor unions over passage of Florida's property-tax reform proposal, the Jan. 29 vote looms as an early warm-up for powerful interests certain to play big roles in next year's presidential and state elections.

Florida Realtors have given $820,000 to the state Republican Party during the past three years, while labor unions have steered $929,873 to state Democrats during that span, making them among the biggest contributors to either side, state records show.

For both groups, the January vote is likely to be a testing ground for tactics and talking points that will be central to the 2008 elections, when many voters are expected to cast ballots based on who can best fix a faltering economy.

While there will be no statewide offices on the ballot, Democrats will be seeking to cut into GOP majorities in the Legislature and hang on to the two congressional seats the party took from the Republicans in 2006.

"Republicans are trying to placate voters with this property-tax amendment," said Jim Kitchens, an Orlando pollster who often works for Democrats. "But it really only gives the average homeowner $240 back. That's nothing, and people are going to figure that out fast."

The Democratic-allied unions are looking to defeat the tax-cut amendment because it will cost local governments and schools $12.4 billion in lost revenue during the next five years, potentially leading to public-employee job cuts.

But defeating the measure also could sharpen the focus of voters on Florida's sluggish economy and turn their wrath against Republicans, who control the White House and Florida Governor's Mansion as well as the Legislature, Kitchens said.

He told Florida Democrats at their convention at Walt Disney World last month that the party's candidates need to "hang this [economy] problem" around the necks of Republicans.

By contrast, if the plan is approved, it will allow the GOP to claim a measure of economic victory heading into the election year.

"Sure, the Democrats are going to try to make this fail and turn it into one more example of voter fatigue with Republicans," said state GOP chairman Jim Greer.

"But lower taxes are a Republican principle. I think Floridians think tax cuts are good. And the party will do everything it can to drive turnout," he added.

Senate Minority Leader Steve Geller, D-Cooper City, said Democrats aren't really looking to kill the tax cut, just to win partisan points, and suggests there could be broader issues at work.

"It seems the majority of the public is angry -- Democratic and Republican," he said.

Still, Geller said, if the property-tax measure is defeated, "it certainly keeps a general feeling of unhappiness with Republicans alive."


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