Rewrite it, appeal it; or do both.
Such are the options for state leaders scrambling to react to a Leon County judge's decision to strike a proposed revamp of Florida's homestead exemption law from the Jan. 29 ballot.
State officials today are expected to decide whether to appeal Monday's ruling by Circuit Judge Charles A. Francis, who ordered the proposed constitutional amendment removed from the ballot because he found it unclear and misleading. The appeal could be filed directly with the Florida Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, many local governments in South Florida went into a wait-and-see mode. They've already grappled with this year's budget cuts ordered by the Legislature. Now, following Francis' decision, they must await the fate of the proposed super homestead exemption, which would reduce municipal tax collections next year by up to $15 billion statewide.
"Obviously we're concerned that a major loss in revenue will have impact on services," Fort Lauderdale City Manager George Gretsas said.
Next week, the Legislature is scheduled to start a 10-day special session to cut the state budget — and some legislators are urging that time be set aside to satisfy the Tallahassee judge's concerns by rewriting the suggested constitutional amendment establishing a "super-size" property tax exemption for permanent residents.
Gov. Charlie Crist characterized Monday's ruling in a lawsuit brought by Weston Mayor Eric Hersh as a "blessing in disguise" because it gives lawmakers a chance to extend what was already being touted as the largest tax break in Florida history to more people, including snowbirds, renters and business owners.
"I just want it to be on the ballot," Crist said. "The people want their property taxes cut and they ought to have the opportunity to vote on it."
House leaders were exploring the idea of rewriting the measure to broaden the tax breaks it would authorize.
"Right now, we're keeping all of our options on the table," said House Majority Leader Adam Hasner, R-Boca Raton. "This is certainly the No. 1 issue for Floridians and it's critical for getting Florida's economy on the move."
But Senate President Ken Pruitt, whose assent would be needed to add property tax relief to the special session's agenda, said he would rather continue the battle in court by appealing Francis' ruling.
"After weighing our options, I believe the best course of action for the Senate and for Florida taxpayers is to vigorously defend our work product," Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, said in a note sent to senators.
House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-West Miami, agreed the state should appeal, but said the Legislature also has been given an unexpected opportunity to reduce people's property taxes even more.
"Burdened by taxes that they cannot afford to pay, Floridians have waited long enough for relief," Rubio said.
The proposed amendment was challenged by Hersh, who argued that voters would have no idea that a vote in favor of the tax-relief plan would lead to the demise of Save Our Homes, a popular tax break for permanent residents that limits increases in home assessments to a maximum of 3 percent a year.
Judge Francis agreed. So did some in municipal government.
"I do this for a living and I had a hard time deciphering what the question was," quipped Boynton Beach City Manager Kurt Bressner.
Some city officials in South Florida voiced disappointment that the judge's ruling did not strike down the property tax rate rollbacks ordered by the Legislature this year, as well.
"These tax cuts that are being imposed at the state level are having direct implications on the quality of services that the city provides to residents," said Hallandale Beach Mayor Joy Cooper, whose city will lose $5.6 million in revenue.
Cities and counties had already been gearing up to campaign against changing the homestead exemption, which polls show may have already been in trouble with voters because of widespread confusion over its impact. It takes approval of 60 percent of those voting to change the state constitution.
Boca Raton Mayor Steven Abrams said the judge probably did legislators a favor by deleting the issue from the ballot because "it was too confusing to pass." He said that now gives the state an opportunity to work with local governments to write a proposal that everyone can support.
"The cities and state agree that there should be tax reform," Abrams said. "Let's work on a consensus package and get something passed without controversy."
Staff writers Susannah Bryan, Jennifer Gollan, Maria Herrera, Mark Hollis, Joel Hood, Stephanie Horvath, Lisa Huriash, Akilah Johnson, Joe Kollin, Thomas Monnay, Luis F. Perez, Erika Pesantes and Brittany Wallman contributed to this report.
Linda Kleindienst can be reached at email@example.com or 850-224-6214.
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