On Monday, a Florida court derailed (for the moment) a legislative effort to put an expensive local property tax cut on a special January 2008 ballot. The property tax proposal, which was referred to the ballot by the state legislature earlier this year, would create an optional "super-exemption" of as much as $195,000 of a home's value from the property tax. But the proposal would also gradually phase out an existing tax break, the so-called "Save Our Homes" cap, that restricts the annual growth of a home's assessed value to 3 percent. The court argued that the wording of the ballot measure was misleading, partly because the language says that "everyone" will get a bigger exemption (which isn't true because the plan is optional), and says that the proposal would "preserve" and "revise" the existing Save Our Homes tax cap (when a less Orwellian wording would be "phase out").
If the wording is confusing, it's certainly not because the legislature didn't have enough space to explain itself properly (the 255-word ballot description can be found here), but more likely because lawmakers wanted to perpetuate the "free lunch" worldview that has characterized the state's fiscal policy over the past decade. But the court's decision does reflect the harsh reality that the ballot is simply the wrong place, in general, to make fiscal policy decisions. The combination of political pressures and the complexity of tax language makes it very unlikely that voters will ever be given a full and accurate description of the proposals they're being asked to evaluate.
Opponents of the January property tax vote may have won the battle, but the war continues. State lawmakers are now debating whether to appeal the court decision or to take time in a scheduled special legislative session next week to fix the wording of the ballot proposal in a way that would keep it on the January ballot. But as one editorial board notes, a better solution would be to put this complicated decision back in the hands of officials who have both the time and expertise to design property tax reform properly.