Florida. The Sunshine State. America's own tropical delight — beautiful people with even more beautiful homes. But if you look behind that postcard image, you may find real trouble brewing in paradise.
In Florida, a storm is gathering over the state's soaring property taxes.
"If you have a significant difference between how much your taxes are going up and how much your income is going up, that is going to create a crisis very fast," said Marco Rubio, the state's young and ambitious speaker of the house. Over lunch with constituents in Miami, Rubio received an earful of complaints.
"I'm going to be working, I figure, 'til I'm 75 to pay my taxes," said Carol Kahn, a retired teacher.
Another constituent, Ignacio Mendez, said, "My tax base has gone up three times. I used to pay $4,000 and now I'm paying $12,000 a year in taxes."
And that, in a nutshell, is the crisis that now dominates the conversation in Florida. And drives the political career of Rubio, a 35-year-old Republican.
"It's the biggest issue in the state," he explained. "Usually people come to Florida to run away from the hassles, the cost of living of where they were from. And now they're telling us, 'You know, this is starting to look like the place that I came here to get away from,' and that's not the kind of talk we want to hear."
This problem is not unique to the Sunshine State. Tax protests are popping up in Michigan, Minnesota and Virginia, and testimonials from agitated homeowners are flooding the Internet.
But property owners in Florida — a state with no income tax — have been particularly hard hit. Tax assessors base their judgments on real estate values, and in Florida, in just the last three years, property taxes have shot up about 50 percent statewide as home prices have jumped.
Lori Parrish, the Broward County property appraiser, said that she has never seen taxpayers so angry. "I think the citizens are about to revolt in a way that you've never seen," she said. "[They are] fed up. And I think fed up with government spending in general — you can't outspend the public's ability to pay."
Those higher tax bills have left thousands of middle-class families financially trapped in their current homes.
"We bought our house 11 years ago," said Evan Feldman, who would like to trade up for the sake of his growing family, "and it's usually your starter house, you never think it's the house you could be in for 25, 30 years."
"It's a three bedroom house and we'd like to have a second child," said Laurie Feldman, Evan's wife, "and with the taxes, it makes it almost impossible to move."
The Feldmans said they feel trapped because, like all permanent Florida residents, their home property tax bills are capped to avoid dramatic increases. But only if they stay put. "We're not asking to go from something that's 1,600 square feet to something that's 3, 4, 5,000 square feet," said Evan. "These are people like myself that are looking for a couple of hundred square feet more, and they do feel trapped."
In Florida, a new owner of a home could easily pay three times more in property taxes than the owner of an identical home next door, who has lived there for several years.
"Soon, the only people who are going to be living here are the millionaires because the middle class are being pushed out," said Feldman. "The first time home buyers, pushed out. Retirees that want to downsize can't."