TALLAHASSEE -- City and county governments warn that if Amendment 4 passes next week, shuttered libraries, fired police officers and gutted social services will litter the public landscape.
It’s a grim scenario local officials say will result from the $1.7 billion in tax relief the amendment offers primarily to businesses, first-time homebuyers and second-homeowners.
“We’ve tightened our belt as far as we could tighten,” said Broward County Administrator Bertha Henry, spelling out $400 million in spending cuts the county has made to avoid raising taxes during the recession. “If Amendment 4 passes, we would have to raise taxes or we would have to cut services again.”
But since local officials are barred from political advertising, getting their warnings across to voters has been difficult. Many have resorted to passing resolutions at sparsely attended commission meetings.
Meanwhile, a $4-million “Yes on 4” campaign is being funded by the Florida Realtors, who have touted the amendment in mailers and flashy web ads.
The Realtors say the amendment will help revive the state’s weary housing market, create thousands of jobs and ensure that homeowners don’t see higher property tax bills when their home values fall.
Funded by dues money from the state’s 115,000 real estate agents and additional support from the National Association of Realtors, the Yes on 4 campaign is a well-funded operation with a catchy seven-word slogan for the complex 700-word amendment: “Tired of getting your assets taxed off?”
“It’s not a [tax] cut, it’s a cap on future increases,” said John Sebree, vice president of public policy for the Florida Realtors. Sebree said that local governments would actually benefit from more home sales and a larger number of people paying property taxes.
Advocacy groups for local governments are pitching a different message as they try to convince voters that most of Amendment 4’s tax relief will go to businesses, new homeowners and snowbirds — not permanent residents.
Though they are barred from using taxpayer money for political advertising, some local officials are beginning to use the bully pulpit to point out the potential consequences of Amendment 4.
Broward County officials have launched a website to point out the “hidden consequences of Amendment 4.” A flyer on the website says “Broward can’t afford Amendment 4,” and claims that its passage would force up to $41 million in cuts to an already lean budget. A 10-minute video entitled “No Free Lunch” indicates that the tax cuts could lead to deep service cuts to programs for the poor, elderly and children.
There’s also a “No on 4” campaign being funded by the Florida Association of Counties, an advocacy group for county governments.
Critics charge that flyers and ads from local governments run afoul of state law that prohibits taxpayer-funded political advertising.
“That’s our taxpayer money that they’re using to fight tax relief for us,” said Sebree.
Henry said the county is acting within the legal parameters to help educate voters and “fill in any gaps” created by the Realtors’ pro-Amendment 4 campaign.
“The state of the law today, allows us to educate, so we’re going to do that,” said Henry. “Could we do more if the law allowed? Absolutely. But right now, we’re going to work within the confines of the law.”