Senate Candidates Questioned on Property Tax Breaks

Tampa Tribune senior political writer William March.
TAMPA (2012-2-22) -

The race for the U.S. Senate in Florida appears to be heating up. Incumbent Democrat Sen. Bill Nelson is up for re-election. His leading Republican opponent, Congressman Connie Mack, recently criticized Nelson for taking an agricultural tax exemption on his land.

But, Mack has some questionable property tax exemptions too according to the Tampa Tribune's senior political writer William March who spoke with WUSF's Bobbie O'Brien:

BOBBIE O’BRIEN: So what is the main issue with Cong. Connie Mack’s property tax exemption?

WILLIAM MARCH: Rep. Mack is married to Rep. Mary Bono a fellow Republican congressman from Palm Springs, CA. They both own houses, my understanding is that they both owned them before they got married and they both take homestead exemptions in their respective states on those houses.

Under Florida law, generally speaking, a married couple cannot take two separate homestead exemptions regardless what states they’re in. There are certain circumstances under which it is allowed, but those circumstances in general require that the couple not be functioning as a family unit.

Rep. Mack’s lawyer has contended that the couple is entitled to the homestead exemptions because they are financially separate.

O’BRIEN: But your article today looked into that issue and found it to be something different.

MARCH: What my story today said is that there are suggestions but not really conclusive proof one way or the other. There are property records that show the two of them bought a ski resort condo together in Colorado. Mack’s lawyer responds that in fact Mack did not have any financial part of that transaction even though he’s a partner in the ownership company that was set up to own the condo.

There are some other potential financial links between the two of them and Mack’s lawyer denies that there is in fact any substantial financial link. The story also reported that the property records concerning the Colorado condo refer to Mack and Bono both as California residents. And, Mack’s lawyer responded to me that’s merely a matter of form.

His contention is that the two of them are both permanent residents of their separate states and that their finances are separate therefore they are entitled to a dual homestead exemption.

O’BRIEN: This seems to penalize though anyone who might move to Congress and fall in love with another member of Congress.

MARCH: It’s hard for me to see how two members of Congress could be married to each other and get the homestead exemption that they might otherwise be entitled to in their home states. Of course, either of them could easily solve the problem by giving up his or her homestead exemption. And, the amount of money involved is not that great.

The problem is more political. If you don’t have a homestead exemption in Florida, people sometimes tend to question whether you’re a true Floridian. So, it could raise political problems for either of them to give up a homestead exemption in the state that they represent.

O’BRIEN: Did all of this get started because Cong. Mack was critical of U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson because Nelson had taken exemptions that he felt was unfair?

MARCH: That’s one reason that we considered it newsworthy enough to write something about it in the Tampa Tribune. And the situation there is this, Bill Nelson owns a 50-some acre tract along the Indian River in Brevard County and it’s pasture land. Now, this land has been in his family for decades. It was also the family homestead for years. It was where Nelson grew up.

It’s no longer his homestead. He actually lives and has a homestead in Orange County, but he has kept what is called a “green belt” exemption or agricultural exemption on the land. He leased this land to a cattle company which has a small herd a half-dozen or so cattle and that justifies its remaining as agricultural land and getting a green belt exemption.

When a story came out about it last week, Mack responded with pretty harsh criticism saying this was appalling and loathsome on Nelson’s part to take advantage of this green belt exemption.

It seemed significant when he was taking this stance toward Nelson’s property tax exemption that Mack himself also had a property tax exemption about which legal questions could be raised.

O’BRIEN: What kind of impact will all of this have on the race?

MARCH: It seems likely that this will have some impact on the race. Now this weekend, there was a candidates’ forum for the three leading senate candidates, Mack, George LeMieux, and Mike McCalister. They took a straw vote afterwards and LeMieux won the straw vote. This is the first suggestion that I have seen that LeMieux could be gaining ground on Mack. Whether that’s an indication that stories like this are having an impact on the race, I can’t really say.

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