Voters will revisit one of the Florida Legislature's pet pocketbook issues in November, with nearly half of the proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot addressing property tax breaks.
Five of the 11 amendments going before voters on Nov. 6 call for property tax exemptions that would give new breaks to first-time buyers, second-home owners, those whose homes' market values have dropped, certain individuals and small businesses.
In Florida, lowering their own taxes has been a no-brainer for voters. But cities and counties that have to provide services with dwindling revenues are urging voters to consider the consequences.
The most ambitious of the proposals, Amendment 4, would cut about $1.7 billion from local revenues statewide over the next four years. Counties alone already have cut spending by $3 billion since 2007, according to the Florida Association of Counties.
"The biggest issue is that it (Amendment 4) takes a very complex property tax system and makes it even more complicated," said Amber Hughes, a legislative advocate for the Florida League of Cities. "It picks winners and losers. We need a fair system, and this is not that."
Amendment 4 has the muscle of the Florida Association of Realtors behind it. The group has poured $3 million into a humorous "Tax Your Assets Off" ad campaign.
Current law caps annual assessment increases on non-homestead property — typically Floridians' second homes or those used by winter visitors from out of state — at 10 percent. The amendment would reduce that to 5 percent.
Amendment 4 also provides first-time homebuyers who now receive a $50,000 homestead exemption an additional exemption of half the appraised value of the new home, up to $150,000. That benefit is phased out over five years.
And it eliminates the "recapture rule" that has allowed taxes to rise on homes whose market value decreased.
Sen. Mike Fasano, a Republican from New Port Richey who was one of the sponsors of Amendment 4, said the proposal goes beyond a one-off property tax break.
"I'm a big believer in that the success of turning our economy around here in Florida will have a lot to do with our housing and real estate markets," Fasano said. "The building industry just contributes so much to our economy."
Florida TaxWatch, a Tallahassee watchdog group, estimated that Amendment 4 would create more than 19,000 jobs, increase gross domestic product by $1.1 billion, and boost personal income by $5.3 billion in 10 years.
But Florida Association of Counties spokeswoman Cragin Mosteller said her group is particularly troubled by the break for second-home owners, which makes up the biggest chunk of the amendment's budgetary impact. She called the amendment a cost-shift to year-round residents.
"We're being sold a tax cut, but it's just a tax shift," she said. "Year-round residents have a lower tax burden, so if you lower the tax burden of our snowbirds, think about that seesaw. Year-round residents' taxes have nowhere to go but up."
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C., concluded that the "deeply flawed set of property tax changes" included in Amendment 4 would lead to tax increases for large numbers of Floridians, a competitive disadvantage for new and emerging businesses, and significant cuts in local services "while producing little if any economic benefit."
Amendment 4 would likely cut $6.8 million to $8.8 million from Hillsborough County coffers next year, according to a county estimate.
That might not necessarily mean a tax increase — an unpalatable move for elected officials — but it would most likely bring another round of cutbacks. The county faced a $15 million shortfall this year, and $65 million last year. It has laid off 1,600 employees since 2007.
"We would look at other potential reductions," said Tom Fesler, the county's budget director, noting that the county's parks and social service agencies have been particularly hard-hit.
Also appearing on the Nov. 6 ballot are Amendment 2, which would provide property tax relief to disabled veterans; Amendment 9, offering a break for surviving spouses of veterans or first responders killed in the line of duty; Amendment 10, which boosts the exemption on tangible personal property from $25,000 to $50,000; and Amendment 11, providing property tax relief for low-income senior citizens.
There were two amendments calling for homestead or other property tax exemptions in 2006, one in 2008, three more by a state budget commission that same year, and one more in 2010 — and voters passed every one.
"For the last few election cycles, voters have voted in favor of their pockets," said Tony Carvajal, chief operations officer at the Collins Center for Public Policy, a neutral group that is educating voters about the amendments. "I think voters look at homestead exemptions as something that is about reducing their taxes. I don't think they fully consider the consequences to local government."