Scott, Crist TV ads contradict on tax claims

Charlie Crist's first campaign commercial, "Sunshine," was released July 7, 2014.

The attacks in this 2014 campaign for Florida governor have been tit for tat.

Gov. Rick Scott says he boosted education funding, Democrat Charlie Crist says no — he did.

Crist says the economic "turnaround started at the end of my term." Scott says Florida hemorrhaged jobs under Crist and Scott's the reason behind brightening skies.

One uneven playing field is TV, into which Scott and his allies have poured millions to run campaign advertisements. Now, Crist is out with his first TV ad, featuring upbeat music and Crist standing on a Florida beach.

In "Sunshine," Crist hearkens back to his term as governor, from 2007 to 2011, reciting a list of accomplishments, including this one: "We cut property taxes for seniors and our middle class."

No sooner did we see it than the Republican Party of Florida offered an ad of its own as a rebuttal. "Fact: Crist raised taxes by $2.2 billion," it claims. "Nice try, Charlie; Crist raised taxes on the middle class by billions of dollars."

Could the miles-apart messaging be right?

Could Crist have both cut and raised taxes?

The answer, as PolitiFact Florida found out, is largely yes.

Property taxes cut

While running for governor as a Republican in 2006, Crist campaigned on lowering the property tax burden, saying the state's booming economy would make up the difference. Voters seemed to agree, approving Amendment 6 that year to lower the tax burden for low-income seniors.

The measure ended up increasing the maximum homestead exemption from $25,000 to $50,000 for seniors whose income was less than $23,414, if local governments allowed it. The exemption applied to cities and counties, not to school districts or special districts.

In 2007, the Florida Legislature passed House Bill 333 to enact the amendment, and Crist signed the bill in April 2007.

Crist continued pushing for more tax cuts, this time for Amendment 1, aimed at giving longtime Florida residents a break on ever-escalating property taxes. Crist frequently said taxes would "drop like a rock" if it passed.

The amendment increased the homestead exemption, saving homeowners an average of $240 on property taxes annually. It also allowed homeowners to transfer their tax benefits to a new residence (including benefits from the 1992 Save Our Homes tax provisions), and it created a new $25,000 exemption for some business properties and limited assessment increases for non-homesteaded properties to 10 percent annually.

Despite some opposition — critics worried it would drain money for needed services — voters approved the amendment on Jan. 29, 2008, with 64 percent of the vote. The 2008 Legislature fully implemented it with Senate Bill 1588, which Crist signed June 17, 2008.

The measure was originally projected to save homeowners $1.3 billion the first year. But it's unlikely the tax benefits amounted to that much. By the end of 2008, the Great Recession had arrived, sending property values plunging.

Still, Crist's ad said he cut property taxes for "seniors and our middle class." It would be more accurate to say he cut taxes for low-income seniors and home­owners. Voters and the Legislature also had a role in the cuts. We rated his statement Mostly True.

Crist's tax increases

By 2009, because of the Great Recession and falling home values, Florida faced a $6 billion budget gap.

The Legislature's answer: implementing $2.2 billion in new taxes and fees.

The hikes included a $1 per pack cigarette tax, increased court costs and fees on things like fishing at the beach or off bridges, plus the increase in auto tag fees the Legislature repealed in 2014.

The jumps in taxes and fees was a necessary evil, lawmakers said, to deal with holes in the budget. The Republican-led Legislature tied the various increases to funding for schools and Medicaid to make sure Crist wouldn't take them out of the budget with a line-item veto. Crist signed the budget on May 29, 2009.

The Republican Party's commercial says these were increases on the middle class, but more than just middle-class Floridians were affected by the moves. Also, many Republicans in the Legislature approved the increases as well. Overall, we rated the statement Mostly True.

We'll probably hear these claims, and others, plenty between now and November. PolitiFact Florida will be there to help separate fact from fiction.

In case you were wondering, it's 112 days until Election Day.