After months of campaign ads from Gov. Rick Scott, Charlie Crist began rolling out his own commercials in this year’s gubernatorial race.
In the first, entitled "Sunshine," Crist hearkened back to his single term as governor, from 2007 to 2011. "We saved the jobs of 20,000 teachers," he said. "We cut property taxes for seniors and our middle class."
We’ve dealt with Crist’s track record with teachers' jobs before, but what about his history on property taxes? PolitiFact Florida decided to send you a notice a few months before your bill is due in November.
Break for seniors
Crist’s campaign pointed us to two events that happened during his term to prove its point. One was the 2007 legislation HB 333, a bill the Legislature passed that increased the homestead exemption for low-income seniors. It was the law that implemented Amendment 6, which voters had approved in 2006.
HB 333 increased the maximum homestead exemption from $25,000 to $50,000 for seniors whose income was less than $23,414, if local governments allowed it. Crist signed the bill during his first legislative session in April 2007. While running for governor, he had broadly campaigned on lowering the property tax burden on senior citizens, saying the state’s booming economy would make up the difference.
The exemption applied to cities and counties, not to school districts or special districts. By the time Crist approved the law, 53 counties and 158 cities had already approved an increased exemption, but the law allowed them to increase it up to $50,000 for 2007.
Break for middle class
The second item was the 2008 passage of Amendment 1, a constitutional change aimed at giving longtime Florida residents a break on ever-escalating property taxes. We should note that Crist says the break was for "our middle class," but doesn’t define the term. Most homeowners saw some benefit, no matter what their income level.
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). The amendment further created a new $25,000 exemption for some business properties and limited assessment increases for non-homesteaded properties to 10 percent annually.
Crist was a very vocal supporter of the measure, campaigning on the plan during the 2006 election. He frequently said taxes would "drop like a rock" under Amendment 1.
Opposition came from newer residents who wouldn’t enjoy the benefits in the same way as long-term owners. Florida TaxWatch said it was potentially unconstitutional, and even state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink worried about state fire-fighting agencies, among other departments, losing funding.
Despite this opposition, the amendment passed on Jan. 29, 2008, with 64 percent of the vote. The 2008 Legislature fully implemented it with SB 1588, which Crist signed on June 17.
We should note critics had reason to be wary of the change, especially because of the timing. The amendment made beneficiaries happy but wreaked havoc on state tax revenues, combined with the Great Recession’s crashing real estate market, which wiped out billions in taxable home values. Drastic budget cuts resulted in reduced services statewide.
The bill was originally projected to save homeowners $1.3 billion the first year, but it’s unlikely the tax benefits amounted to that much because of property values declining in 2008 and later years. Experts told us an analysis to find out how much less would have to go parcel by parcel, taking into account taxable values and changes in local millage rates.
The Republican Party of Florida has been saying that Crist actually raised taxes on the middle class $2.2 billion while in office. That actually came a year later, when he and the Republican-led Legislature raised taxes and fees, like $1 a pack tax on cigarettes, to close a budget hole in 2009. Other fees were increased on auto tags and fishing licenses.
Were the property tax cuts outweighed by the later tax increases of 2009? It’s nearly impossible to quantify the impact on an average taxpayer, because it would depend on if an individual owned property, smoked cigarettes, owned a car or fished.
Crist said, "we cut property taxes for seniors and our middle class."
Crist supported increased homestead exemptions for seniors, although only those considered low income. He also supported tax cuts for property owning residents, but not just an undefined middle class. Voters decided on both issues with constitutional amendments, and the state Legislature did its part by passing bills that Crist signed.
Crist’s claim doesn’t specify the nuances, but property tax cuts for groups falling under those umbrellas did happen during his term. We rate the statement Mostly True.