1/20/08

Out-of-state union cash fuels property-tax war

The TV and billboard battle pits grim-faced firefighters, teachers and paramedics against a cheerfully determined governor standing tall for tax-weary homeowners.

But the shadow war over Amendment 1, and its promise of a five-year, $9.3 billion property tax reduction, is populated by combatants as diverse as Donald Trump, Reddy Kilowatt, Mickey Mouse and the head of the national AFL-CIO, John J. Sweeney.

When Floridians go to the polls Jan. 29, visions of laid-off firefighters, or a $240 tax windfall, will fill most minds. But the various special-interest groups paying millions of dollars to plant those images will be far from sight.

Crist and Amendment 1 supporters want voters' minds fixed on the image of Leonard and Donna Foster, the retired Edgewater couple who have struggled for the past three months to sell their $250,000 home so they can move into a smaller home. The couple would save $1,000 in taxes if Amendment 1 passes.

"You get to make the call. This is your decision. It's your future. It's your family's future," Crist told supporters gathered on the Fosters' front yard in a campaign swing last week.

"Yes on 1," the political action committee behind Crist's bus and airplane tour, is backed by big business. The single-largest contributor is the Florida Association of Realtors, a group that claims 150,000 members and 17,000 real estate firms.

The group kicked in $1 million of the $3.8 million Yes on 1 has reported collecting so far.

Other large contributors include the largest investor-owned utility in the state, Florida Power & Light, which gave $500,000. St. Joe Company, the largest private landowner and developer in Florida, kicked in $25,000, as did Disney World Services. Wal-Mart stores rang up a $10,000 donation.

Donald Trump, the Palm Beach millionaire, donated $1,000 in-kind through a Manhattan restaurant for a fundraiser.

Trey Price, a veteran Tallahassee lobbyist for the Florida Association of Realtors, said the group wants to be a good citizen and support Crist's efforts to give taxpayers relief and spur the economy. The group also wants to revive a comatose housing market, he said.

The group is so determined, it's willing to put up money on a proposal even Price acknowledged may not do enough to lift the economy. But don't underestimate the value of an average $240 to the individual homeowner, he said.

"Amendment 1 won't solve all of our problems, but we believe it's a step in the right direction," Price said. "I kind of compare it to a winning lottery ticket. Am I going to tear it up and throw it away?"

FPL could see comparatively modest savings from a provision that extends a new $25,000 tangible personal property tax exemption to businesses.

Brian Ballard, a veteran Tallahassee lobbyist who represents the company, said investing in a proposal designed to spur home sales makes sense for a company that relies on an expanding power grid for its economic security.

But Ballard also acknowledged the donation is an important peace offering to a governor whose popularity ratings remain stellar. And there's fence mending to do.

FPL gave generously to Crist's 2006 GOP primary rival, Tom Gallagher, who was defeated.

Crist responded with an endorsement of the Public Service Commission's decision last summer to pull the plug on FPL's proposed, $5.6 billion coal-fired power plant on the edge of the Everglades. Now the two stand as one on Amendment 1.

"The governor asked them to get involved and they wanted a relationship with him that was improved," Ballard said.

If supporters of Amendment 1 claim Leonard and Donna Foster as their public face, opponents want voters focused on Tuffy Dixon.

The veteran Destin fire chief commands a 50-member, two-station force. Its $7 million budget relies on taxes from property owners living in a special district in Okaloosa County. The projected $500,000 hit from Amendment 1 won't be a knock-out punch, but it will be stunning, Dixon said.

"If people vote for this, mark my words, it will come back to haunt them," Dixon said.

Should the issue pass, local governments will take a revenue hit. That would be in addition to lower revenue expected from a sinking real estate market. Lee County Commissioners have taken no stand on Amendment 1, choosing instead to leave it to voters.

The county contracts a lobbying firm to follow the Legislature, but the lobbyist is not advocating either way for the board, said Assistant County Manager Pete Winton.

Firefighters, teachers, law enforcement and social service organizations such as the League of Women Voters have formed their own opposition coalition and accompanying PAC, Florida is Our Home Inc.

The group has raised more than $900,000, and spent much of it on rallies and an ominously worded flier. Florida Professional Firefighters, the firefighter and paramedic union, gave $100,000.

Behind the uniformed army of public servants fighting Amendment 1 are lesser-known but powerful labor organizations, such as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the national and state chapters of the AFL-CIO.

AFSCME donated $100,000 and the group claims 1.4 million members nationwide. The state chapter claims more than 110,000 active members, with seven regional offices and a professional staff of 33.

Another labor group, the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, claims 1.9 million members in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico. It gave $200,000. Teachers unions, through either the Florida Education Association or the Florida Public Education Defense Fund, gave more than $400,000.

The AFL-CIO, both the state and national, gave about $2,000 in in-kind donations.

The Florida League of Cities is one of Amendment 1's largest opponents. The League is not a financial contributor to Florida is Our Home, but it is sponsoring forums and sending out word to its members about potential problems.

Amendment 1 won't force every local government to lay off police and firefighters and first responders, acknowledged the league's executive director, Mike Sittig.

"Not exactly," he said.

But voters should oppose the measure because of the uncertainty it represents. It's impossible to predict how much homeowners will save because it's unclear how many may take advantage of a portability feature that allows them to keep their Save Our Homes accumulate tax savings when they move, Sittig said.

And voters shouldn't believe all the claims of economic revival, he said.

"The first casualty in any war is the truth," he said.

(news-press.com)

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