Florida primaries put taxes, delegates on the line

TALLAHASSEE—When Florida voters go to the polls here on Jan. 29 they will be asked to do more than vote for their choices among the Democratic or GOP contenders for the White House. They’ll also be asked to vote on a controversial constitutional amendment on property taxes that has pitted Florida’s teacher and public service unions against Florida’s governor and some wealthy allies such as real estate mogul and television celebrity Donald Trump.

In an election season that has seen the race for the Democratic nomination evolve into a neck-and-neck contest between Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, and with no clear front-runner on the Republican side, the issues at hand are already compelling. But there’s more.

When Florida Democrats go to the polls they will be acting in open defiance of the Democratic National Committee which has threatened not to recognize any of the state’s delegates to the Democratic National Convention. This is an internal Democratic Party battle that has pitted DNC National Chair Howard Dean against Senator Bill Nelson, with the Florida Democratic Party lining up solidly against the national organization.

For some, the DNC threat not to recognize the results of the primary vote harkens back to the disenfranchisement of broad segments of the Florida vote in 2000 at the hands of Florida’s then governor John Ellis “Jeb” Bush, the brother of the current president, and his then Secretary of State Katherine Harris; an election that brought the term “pregnant chad” into the political lexicon.

The move has angered Florida’s Democrats, still smarting from the lessons of eight years ago, and resulted in all the major contenders for the Democratic nomination honoring a DNC-instigated ban against campaigning in the state. In the minds of most experienced political observers here, in the last analysis, the DNC will be compelled to accept Florida’s delegates in the interests of winning this November.

On the GOP side, most of the strenuous campaigning has been done by former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. Republican strategists, like their Democratic counterparts, have identified Florida as a “must win” state. In contrast to the Democrats, however, GOP contenders have campaigned with impunity—another factor making local Democrats irate. Giuliani hopes Florida Republicans will jump-start his sagging campaign fortunes and revive him as a force to be reckoned with in a race with no clear front-runner.

Floridians will also be drawn to the polls by a controversial constitutional amendment that proposes an increase in the state’s homestead exemption for homeowners from $25,000 to $50,000 along with a provision giving second home owners future tax breaks by ensuring the assessments on their homes would increase by no more than 10 percent a year. The average Florida taxpayer would realize savings of $240 per year.

The amendment was hastily put together by Florida’s GOP-dominated state legislature and Governor Charlie Crist, a Republican who has wasted no time in distancing himself from some of the policies of his predecessor. The Florida Association of Realtors has donated $1 million to the pro-amendment drive; the Florida Medical Association has donated $50,000; and real estate mogul Donald Trump hosted a $1,000 a plate dinner in early December to support the initiative. Trump paid about $1 million in taxes last year on his $56 million Palm Beach estate, according to a report appearing last month in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

The amendment is opposed by numerous forces, anchored by the Florida AFL-CIO, Florida Teachers Association, the Firefighters union, and the Florida PTA. These forces point out that the “portability” provision in the amendment will result in decreased funding for a variety of public services, including the police and fire departments, and see a loss of $1.5 billion in revenue for public schools over the next five years.

Most of Florida’s major newspapers, including most recently the Miami Herald, have opposed the amendment. “[I]n exchange for a small measure of relief, residents are guaranteed deeper cuts in local services,” said the Herald in its Jan. 21 editorial. Meanwhile, the state’s creaky, inefficient and archaic tax system will remain in place. “They say that it is bad manners to look a gift horse in the mouth, but this is an exception to the rule. Give this nag back to the Legislature and tell lawmakers that voters want something better.”