The politics of owning a home in Florida

Is there a solution to the mortage lending and insurance crisis?

At the risk of sounding like a much older fart than I really am, I have to ask: When did the simple act of buying and owning a home become such a political pain in the ass?

Our current subprime mortgage lending crisis and homeowners' insurance crisis and any of a variety of other enjoyable crises have turned the American dream of home ownership into a political football.

Almost every important campaign issue in Florida right now revolves around your home and whether you can afford to keep it. There are no easy, clear solutions. Some proposals, like the ones that voters are being asked to approve on the November ballot, are downright bewildering.

There's Amendment 5, which would cut your share of property taxes that go to local schools (accounting for about one-quarter of your property tax bill). Amendment 5 would not cut all your school property taxes, just the one called the Required Local Effort that the state mandates. In exchange, the constitutional amendment promises, state legislators will somehow come up with that exact amount of money for the schools. They could raise sales taxes by as much as 1 percent, the amendment reads. They could find the money by cutting budgets further. Or they could find a shiny oil lamp half-buried in the sand on the beach, rub it and ask the genie inside for an estimated $11 billion.

Don't confuse Amendment 5 with Amendment 9, which also deals with how your property taxes fund schools. This one, however, doesn't necessarily lower your taxes. It pledges that 65 percent of the money the state collects for school taxes will be spent on classroom instruction and not administration. It also overturns court rulings that prohibited Jeb Bush's voucher program, which gave some students at failing schools tax dollars to attend private schools.

Other amendments deal with how the elected county property appraisers set the value of your home, which in turn affects how much tax you pay. Amendment 3 tells appraisers that they can't increase your home's value simply because you install anti-hurricane improvements or energy-efficient systems. Amendment 4 allows you to get a huge property tax exemption if you agree to conserve your land and not build on it.

It's enough to make you long for the good old days when political campaigns were just about abortion.

Perhaps most vexing to homeowners is the insurance crisis, now held over in its fifth year. The Legislature has made dithering about insurance reform an annual sport; they meet for two months, yak about how bad the mess is, diddle around with some bills and pass very few. The last big fix was to have the state taxpayers shoulder more of the risk of a catastrophic storm (in the hope that it would help private insurers write more policies) and allow the taxpayer-owned Citizens Insurance to write more kinds of policies (in the hope that competition would bring more private insurers back to the state).

And more than a year later, how has that reform worked? Well, State Farm earlier this year dropped all of its homeowner policies where the property is within two miles of the coast (affecting 50,000 properties, including mine) and this month asked regulators for a 47 percent increase in its rates.

Now that is success!

OK, I'll be fair: Insurance rates in Florida have dropped an average of 12 percent since the 2007 reforms. But more would be nice, since they still aren't at pre-2004 (Hurricanes Charley, Frances and Jeanne) levels. So will we hear any new election-year ideas about how to fix the state's rising property insurance rates? Don't hold your breath. I did a little surfing on Tampa Bay candidates' websites to see what they had to say about the issue of insurance reform. Here's a very unscientific sample: In District 57 (South Tampa) for the Legislature, Republican incumbent Faye Culp doesn't list insurance among her four priority issues; her opponent, Yvonne Yolie Capin, lists it second on her issues page but doesn't give a commentary or solution. Ed Homan, the Republican incumbent in District 60 covering New Tampa, USF and Temple Terrace, doesn't list insurance reform among his top four issues; his opponent, E.J. Ford, has it atop his list, writing, "I will bring REAL insurance and property tax reform to all hard-working Floridians!"

You get the drift? Republicans, as the party in power, are running away from the insurance mess, and Democrats are tacking it to the end of a sharp stick and chasing them with it. The state Republican Party doesn't list insurance reform among its "GOP Principles," opting to highlight gun ownership, faith and values.

So where does that leave confused and angry voters? Writing really big checks.

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