Judge: Amendment 5 too confusing for ballot

08/14/08 Mitch E. Perry
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A judge in Tallahassee today struck the so-called tax swap from the Nov. 4 ballot, saying the language was "misleading" and didn't give voters "fair notice of the content and sweep of the proposal."

The amendment asked voters to eliminate the state-set school property tax forever and directed the Legislature to replace the education money with $9 billion to $11 billion gained from other taxes and budget cuts. But the replacement money, called the "education hold harmless amount," was only guaranteed for one budget year, in 2010-2011. Yet the ballot language didn't list this crucial restriction.

Leon Circuit Judge John C. Cooper ruled that voters might not realize that nothing prohibited the Legislature from cutting education money to less than the "hold harmless" amount, starting in 2011-12.

Democratic state Sen. Charlie Justice represents parts of Tampa and St. Peterburg in the Florida Legislature. He agrees with Dan Gelber, the former House Minority Leader, that there is a lack of trust that the Legislature will do the right thing in finding a way to make up the funding that would evaporate if the amendment were to pass.

WMNF attempted to speak with the Florida Association of Realtors, who strongly supports Amendment 5. We were unable to make contact, but the organization’s president, Chuck Bonfiglio, has said, "Homeownership is a fundamental right, and Floridians deserve a say on how their property is taxed ... We are shocked that the court decided to deny property owners’ the ability to dramatically lower their property tax rates."

Amendment 5 is the brainchild of the Florida Taxation and Budget Reform Commission, a 26-member committee headed this year by former GOP House Speaker Allen Bense.

The group was charged with examining the appropriateness of the tax structure of the state. Meeting for the first time in two decades, and theoretically insulated from political pressures, there was great expectations about what that group might produce in these fiscally challenging times for Florida.

But to many, the Commission dropped the ball.

GOP State Representative Frank Atkinsson supports Amendment 5. He says nobody should be concerned about whether the Legislature will continue to fund education if the measure passes.

Meanwhile, state economists plan to meet Friday to determine just how deep Florida’s dwindling state budget is. The Legislature’s chief economist, Amy Baker, recently said the deficit could be as much as $1.2 billion due to record high fuel prices and the tanking housing market.

Justice says all of this information is a reminder of how Florida is simply too dependent on sales taxes to fund its operations.

State officials have already said they will appeal today’s decision.

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