Judge's ruling throws 'super size' property tax exemption off ballot
Language for vote on 'super size' exemption deemed unclear and misleading
By Linda Kleindienst
Tallahassee Bureau Chief
September 25, 2007
A proposed constitutional amendment touted by state leaders as the largest tax break in Florida history was ordered off the Jan. 29 statewide ballot by a Leon County judge on Monday.
In a ruling issued late Monday afternoon, Leon Chief Circuit Judge Charles A. Francis declared the ballot language to establish a "super size" homestead exemption unclear and misleading to voters.
"Having read, reread, examined and studied the ballot summary under review, the court cannot find that the language is clear, concise, unambiguous and fair," Francis wrote in his order. "The language at issue is misleading and confusing, and does not provide fair notice to the voter, educated or otherwise, of the purpose and effect."
The lawsuit was filed by Weston Mayor Eric Hersh, who argued that most voters would have no idea a vote in favor of the new property tax relief plan would lead to the ultimate demise of Save Our Homes, a popular tax break for homeowners.
"This gives the Legislature another chance to do things right," Hersh said. "Let's get something meaningful on the ballot."
Although he agreed with Hersh on the ballot language, Francis disagreed with the mayor's contention that the Legislature overstepped its boundaries in mandating tax rollbacks for local governments this year.
The lawsuit was filed against Secretary of State Kurt Browning, who is in charge of the statewide ballot, and the Florida Department of Revenue. Sterling Ivey, a spokesman for Browning, said an appeal might be considered or the Legislature could rewrite the ballot language when it convenes in special session next week.
Legislative leaders said late Monday they would review the ruling and explore their options.
The revamped homestead exemption was part of a package lawmakers approved in a June special session in hopes of reviving Florida's sluggish real estate market by easing the tax burden on home and business owners.
The proposed amendment was designed to provide varying tax breaks that depend on a home's value.
Current law gives most homeowners a maximum $25,000 exemption, but the change would provide a minimum $50,000 exemption for most of those opting for the new plan – allowing a 75 percent exemption on the first $200,000 and 15 percent of the next $300,000, or up to a $195,000 exemption on a $500,000 home. (Low income elderly people would receive a minimum $100,000 exemption.)
The amendment, however, did not make clear that anyone opting for the new exemption would lose Save Our Homes, which keeps property taxes low for residents who stay in their homes a long time by limiting increases in home assessments to 3 percent a year. Homeowners are not allowed to take Save Our Homes with them if they move.
Francis said the constitutional amendment implied it would preserve existing protections, which it did not.
"The constitution is the bedrock of our government and can only be changed by a vote of the people, but if the ballot language is unclear and misleading, that right becomes meaningless," said Jamie Cole, Hersh's attorney.
An attempt to clarify the amendment to explain its impact was made by House Democrats, but voted down by Republicans who control the chamber.
"You can't criticize the court for pointing out defects previously pointed out on the House floor," said Rep. Jack Seiler, D-Wilton Manors. "I can't support any proposal that abolishes Save Our Homes, but we ought to at least clean the language up so that people understand what the ballot language does."
The judge's ruling was greeted with swift applause from county government officials and some tax reform advocates in South Florida.
"There's five different things in that initiative, and it's confusing. The public is not well educated on it at all ... and they don't understand the implications," said Palm Beach County Commissioner Burt Aaronson.
Broward County Commissioner Illene Lieberman was even more direct.
"It wasn't just misleading; what it said wasn't true," she said.
Although anger has raged over higher property assessments and higher tax bills, some tax reform advocates called on the Legislature to now come up with a better amendment that would benefit not just permanent residents, but also snowbirds, landlords, real estate investors and businesses.
"I think it gives people the leverage to tell the Legislature to go back and do something more comprehensive, something that addresses snowbirds and businesses and that includes portability," said Joe Roberto, president of the Roberto & Associates title agency in Fort Lauderdale.
Sherry Lee, a Jupiter woman who owns several rental properties in the West Palm Beach area and who leads a tax reform group, is seeking voter signatures to get on the ballot a host of alternatives to the amendment that legislators crafted.
"I'm excited," she said of the ruling. "It's an absolutely confusing issue, and the amendment doesn't do anything, really, to help homesteaded property owners. I'd really like to see this super confusing, super exemption just go away. It was a super scam that wasn't going to work for most people."
House Majority Whip Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, voiced frustration at the judge's ruling, adding "we have time to fix it" but wondered if the issue may have lost some votes.
A three-fifths vote of both the House and Senate are required to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot. It passed the Senate by a 25-12 vote — just one more than needed. It passed the House 74-43, with two more than needed.