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Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and Republican U.S. Rep. Connie Mack IV sparred over personal tax breaks during their only U.S. Senate debate at Nova Southeastern University in Davie.
Mack cried moo early on during the Oct. 17, 2012, match, hitting Nelson for taking a greenbelt assessment on a family pasture because he allows a half-dozen cows to graze there.
Nelson’s retort came a bit later, when a reporter-panelist asked if he supported amnesty for illegal immigrants.
"I’m going to answer that in detail," Nelson said, "but I’m first going to say not only has it been a cow pasture for 60 years, (but) why don’t we ask him why he takes two homestead exemptions, which is directly contrary to Florida’s Constitution that says that a husband and wife can only take one homestead exemption?"
Mack has faced heat over his homestead exemption since the primary, when former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux claimed he was a California resident who lives with his wife, U.S. Rep. Mary Bono Mack. We rated that Mostly False.
Nelson spokesman Dan McLaughlin elaborated on Nelson’s comments after the debate, saying what Nelson meant is that "Mack is part of a family unit that has two homestead exemptions." He pointed to Florida’s Constitution, which says, "Not more than one exemption shall be allowed any individual or family unit or with respect to any residential unit."
Some quick background: Mack was first elected to Congress in 2004; he filed for divorce from his wife Ann in 2005; and two years later, he married U.S. Rep. Mary Bono, R-Calif., the widow of singer and U.S. Rep. Sonny Bono.
When Mack announced his candidacy for U.S. Senate in 2011, the Tampa Bay Times wrote that he had been criticized for not spending time in Florida. According to the story, "Mack said he and his wife spend time together in Washington and then usually go separate ways on the weekend — the opposite situation from other lawmakers. Another incentive to be in Florida, he said: an 11-year-old daughter and an 8-year-old son from his first marriage are in the state."
The U.S. Constitution requires Senate candidates to be a citizen of the U.S. for at least nine years and a resident of the state when elected. Florida’s election code doesn’t define residency, but the courts have defined legal residence to mean a permanent residence, according to a 1993 advisory opinion by the state Division of Elections.
Mack gets a homestead exemption for a 3-bedroom, 2-bathroom condo in Fort Myers, Lee County property records show. His time at the home has been questioned by political opponents and also by his ex-wife, who said in a 2005 divorce court filing that Mack bought it to "solely to assist his political career" when he was running in the congressional district for the area. The Mack campaign has disputed her account.
The Tampa Tribune raised more questions in February 2012, reporting that Mack’s current wife gets an exemption on her California home on top of Mack’s homestead break for his condo. The Tribune quoted William D. Shepherd, general counsel for the Hillsborough County property appraiser’s office, as saying the Macks should not collect two homestead exemptions because they are operating as a "family unit," and Florida law says one homestead exemption per unit.
Under Florida law, Mack is entitled to the exemption if he can prove his finances aren’t co-mingled with those of his wife.
Mack campaign spokesman David James told the Miami Herald in February that Mack meets that criteria: "They file separate returns, do not have joint accounts, and Connie’s name is not on Mary’s home in California, and Mary’s is not on Connie’s home in Fort Myers," James said.
Lee County Property Appraiser Ken Wilkinson looked into the legality of Mack’s homestead after the media attention about it. His verdict: "Connie is entitled to the homestead here."
"He provided the documentation, and our attorneys looked at it, and it is proper," Wilkinson told PolitiFact Florida in an interview.
Wilkinson said he could not get into specifics about Mack’s case, but he emphasized that Mack had to clear "very stringent hoops" to get the homestead after the review "or I would not have agreed."
Further, he said he does not think the intent of homestead laws is to prevent members of Congress from getting married. If Connie Mack or Mary Bono Mack had to give up their homesteads, they may be at risk of losing the residency requirement for Congress.
James said Nelson can’t back up his debate claim.
"The Lee County assessor has approved Connie Mack's one and only homestead in Fort Myers, the only home he owns," James wrote in a statement after the debate.
Shepherd said he still disagrees with Mack receiving the exemption. Shepherd told PolitiFact Florida that case law has changed on this even within the past year. "In Hillsborough, they would have to give up one of those homesteads," he said.
Nelson tried to whack accusations about his lower tax bill for a family pasture with a claim that Mack takes tax breaks of his own in the form of "two homestead exemptions."
Mack and his wife both serve in Congress, representing two different states on opposite coasts, and that’s clearly an unusual situation. They each own their own homes in their respective states.
While it’s true Mack and his wife have two homestead exemptions between them, it is not accurate for Nelson to say Mack himself has two homestead exemptions. That would not be lawful, and Mack’s county property appraiser has vetted his case and determined it proper.
We rate the statement Mostly False.
Interview with Ken Wilkinson, Lee County property appraiser, Oct. 17, 2012
Interview with David James, Connie Mack spokesman, Oct. 17, 2012
Interview with Dan McLaughlin, Bill Nelson spokesman, Oct. 17, 2012
Interview with Will Shepherd, Hillsborough County property appraiser, Oct. 17, 2012
PolitiFact, "George LeMieux says Connie Mack is a California resident," May 14, 2012
Florida Division of Elections website, Frequently asked questions, Accessed May 8, 2012
Lee County Property Appraiser, Data about Connie Mack’s condo, Accessed May 8, 2012
Lee County Circuit Court, Ann McGillicuddy’s motion in divorce proceeding, Sept. 16, 2005
Riverside County California Assessor-County Clerk-Recorder, Information on Palm Springs house, Accessed May 9, 2012
Office of the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. Rep. Connie Mack’s 2011 disclosure and U.S. Rep. Mary Bono Mack’s 2011 Disclosure, Filed May 13, 2011
Florida Division of Elections, Residency advisory opinion, June 23, 1993
La Plata County Colorado, Property information on condo, account sale history, warranty deed listing and documents from October 2010 and November 2010, Accessed May 8, 2012
Durango Mountain Realty, Peregrine Point photo, Accessed May 8, 2012
Arlington Virginia Department of Real Estate Assessments, Property information on Mary Bono’s condo, Accessed May 9, 2012
Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times, "Connie Mack preaches penny-pinching on campaign trail, but has past of debt and liens;" Feb. 17, 2012
Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times, "Senate race turns testy between Mack and LeMieux," Feb. 22, 2012
Tampa Bay Times’ The Buzz blog, "Mack calls questions about his living arrangements a ‘cheap political shot,’" May 7, 2012
Tampa Bay Times, "Analysis: Why Connie Mack’s Senate candidacy may be game-changer, not game-ender," Oct. 28, 2011
Tampa Tribune’s Fresh Squeezed Politics blog,"LeMieux hits Mack where he lives," May 8, 2012
Tampa Tribune, "LeMieux lobs unsubstantiated claims at Mack," May 9, 2012
Tampa Tribune, "Homestead exemption could be an issue for Mack," Feb. 21, 2012
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