November 05, 2007

Florida: Violating the "Right to Travel"

It's never easy to design an effective ballot proposal on tax issues. You've got to explain inherently complicated tax concepts in simple, easy-to-understand language, and you've got to do it in a way that doesn't misrepresent the proposal's actual impact.

In their effort to achieve these goals, the legislative architects of Florida's January 2008 ballot measure on property tax cuts may have forgotten a third important goal: don't violate the US Constitution.

As the Palm Beach Post describes it, the hallowed (since 1999, anyway) principle at issue here is "the right to travel:"
The "right to travel," established by a 1999 Supreme Court decision, gives Americans the right to move from one state to another without being treated less favorably than those who established a home earlier.
The January ballot measure falls afoul of this provision by treating current Florida homeowners much better than, say, someone who currently owns a home in Alabama. Under the legislature's latest plan, a Florida homeowner who is currently getting, say, a $50,000 reduction in his home's value from the "Save our Homes" assessed value cap would be allowed to transfer this tax break to a new (Florida) house when he moves. Someone moving from Alabama would get nothing, and would pay much higher property taxes on the very same home than would the Floridian.

Even if it wasn't unconstitutional, this would be patently unfair. It's hard to defend a tax break that's based not on your ability to pay but on your bona fides as a long-term resident. But now Florida lawmakers have to worry about whether their latest property tax bill violates the highest law in the land.

The fundamental miscalculation lawmakers are making here is that, faced with an unfair tax break that gives too much to some and not enough to others, they've decided the only way to fix it is to give more to everyone. If the US constitutional problem turns out to be legit, "everyone" just expanded to include folks who don't currently live in Florida.

When you're in a hole, the old saying goes, stop digging. Florida lawmakers are in a tax policy hole of their own making, and appear to think they can dig their way out. But a more sensible first step would be to repeal "Save our Homes" and enact property tax breaks targeted to those most in need.


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