The Business Observer dissects each amendment to the constitution on the ballot Election Day.
Longtime Business Observer readers know our litmus tests for amendments to the state constitution are these questions:
• Will the effect of the amendment increase and/or protect individual freedom fairly, or will it restrict or take away individual freedom? If it’s the former, we likely will recommend a “yes” vote; if it’s the latter, a “no” vote.
• Will the amendment limit the power and/or scope of government? If yes, we recommend a “yes” vote; if not, “no.”
There are exceptions, of course. This is why it helps to know some of the background and nuances of the questions. As we know, legislators and others sometimes create confusing questions that, on the surface, sound reasonable, but in practice are meant to favor special groups. In general, we reject government subsidies and special treatment to one group at the expense of everyone else. One exception to that in the past has included property-tax subsidies for military veterans.
In this and next week’s installments, we will present explanations and comments on the 12 state constitutional amendments. This week, we examine Amendments 1 through 6:
AMENDMENT 1: Increased Homestead Property Tax Exemption
Proposing an amendment to the State Constitution to increase the homestead exemption by exempting the assessed valuation of homestead property greater than $100,000 and up to $125,000 for all levies other than school district levies. The amendment shall take effect Jan. 1, 2019.
Virtually everyone embraces a cut in taxes. This amendment proposes to do that. But it proposes to do so only for a select group of Floridians: Homesteaded homeowners — Floridians who live in their homes year-round. Renters and commercial property owners get nothing.
This amendment is fraught with more negative effects than positive effects.
Sure, it would cut homeowners’ local property taxes (excluding school taxes) — by increasing the tax exemption on the first $125,000 in value on homesteaded properties. Lawmakers and others say this will incentivize homeownership.
But this brings up the old Milton Friedman truism: What you give to one you must take away from another. In this case, every increased tax break given to homesteaded homeowners results in an increased burden on second-home owners, renters and commercial property owners. Florida already has a serious problem with affordability, especially for the poor and renters; this will exacerbate that.
What’s more, this measure puts more restraints on local governments’ revenue and shifts more funding and taxing power to the state — a bad move.
We have argued for decades that the homestead exemption is anachronistic and should be abolished altogether. When it was adopted decades ago, it was intended to help attract people to move to Florida. We don’t need it. In fact, if the homestead exemption were eliminated altogether, every property owner could see his or her taxes fall.
It sounds counterintuitive to vote against a measure that lowers the tax burden, thus increasing freedom. But this is one of those double-edged amendments: It’s a subsidy for some at the expense of others. If lawmakers want to cut taxes, cut them for all.
We recommend: Vote no.
AMENDMENT 2: Limitations on Property Tax Assessments
Proposing an amendment to permanently retain provisions currently in effect, which limit property tax assessment increases on specified non-homestead real property, except for school district taxes, to 10% each year. If approved, the amendment removes the scheduled repeal of such provisions in 2019 and shall take effect Jan. 1, 2019.
This is one of the simplest, most straightforward and easiest to understand of the amendments. It proposes to make permanent a provision in the constitution that limits property-tax increases on all non-homesteaded properties to no more than 10% per year.
When originally adopted, the provision was set to expire next year.
As a point of reference, the maximum annual increase in tax assessments on homesteaded properties is limited to 3%. For all other properties: no more than 10%.
Here again, unequal taxation. But that’s another story.
In this instance, you can say the 10% limit helps renters and Florida’s economy. Imagine if local governments had no limit on increases in taxable values and assessments.
This amendment passes our litmus tests: It will permanently limit government taxing power, which concurrently increases individuals’ liberty.
We recommend: Vote yes.
AMENDMENT 3: Voter Control of Gambling in Florida
This amendment ensures that Florida voters shall have the exclusive right to decide whether to authorize casino gambling by requiring that in order for casino gambling to be authorized under Florida law, it must be approved by Florida voters pursuant to Article XI, Section 3 of the Florida Constitution. Affects articles X and XI. Defines casino gambling and clarifies that this amendment does not conflict with federal law regarding state/tribal compacts.
At first glance, it sounds democratic to have Florida voters decide whether to allow casino gambling in their cities or statewide. Yes, you say, take that power away from state legislators and the special interests that lobby them.
But now lift what is behind the wording: For one, the groups supporting this measure tell you a lot. Of the $37,614,082 contributed in support of the passage of this measure, Disney Worldwide Services has contributed $19,655,000, and the Seminole Indian Tribe, the state’s only licensed operator of casino gambling, has contributed $16,775,000.
They want this measure to pass because they know it will help protect them from future competition. Here’s why that is: Any vote to approve more casino gambling in Florida would require 60% approval — a high, difficult threshold to meet.
We’re not proponents of casino gambling. But we also believe it’s wrong for the state to provide government-sanctioned monopolies to any business, e.g. the Seminole Indians.
The Legislature should legalize casinos, regulate them and allow local governments to create the zoning that suits their communities. Let the marketplace create more competition.
While this measure sounds like it will limit government power, which it will, and increase individual freedom (the freedom to approve casinos), in reality, it will restrict Floridians’ access and freedom to gamble. Follow the money.
We recommend: Vote no.
AMENDMENT 4: Voting Restoration Amendment
This amendment restores the voting rights of Floridians with felony convictions after they complete all terms of their sentence, including parole or probation. The amendment would not apply to those convicted of murder or sexual offenses, who would continue to be permanently barred from voting unless the Governor and Cabinet vote to restore their voting rights on a case by case basis.
This is another of the straightforward amendments. There are no hidden agendas behind the wording.
Florida’s system for restoring felons’ rights is outdated and unreasonable. This amendment would expand liberty for more than 1.5 million Floridians who have paid their debt to society. We recommend: Vote yes.
Some opponents of this amendment believe each case of restoring a felon’s voting rights should undergo the scrutiny of the state’s clemency board because of the varying degrees of felons’ crimes.
But fairness and forgiveness have been two fundamental Judeo-Christian principles at the core of the United States since its founding. To that end, once an individual has paid his or her debt to society, that individual should have the rights restored that were enjoyed prior to the crime, conviction and punishment.
Florida’s system for restoring felons’ rights is outdated and unreasonable. This amendment would expand liberty for more than 1.5 million Floridians who have paid their debt to society.
We recommend: Vote yes.
AMENDMENT 5: Supermajority vote required to impose, authorize or raise state taxes or fees
Prohibits the legislature from imposing, authorizing or raising a state tax or fee except through legislation approved by a two-thirds vote of each house of the legislature in a bill containing no other subject. This proposal does not authorize a state tax or fee otherwise prohibited by the Constitution and does not apply to fees or taxes imposed or authorized to be imposed by a county, municipality, school board or special district.
This amendment passes both of our tests: It will limit government power, which means it also will increase individual liberty.
Nothing more needs to be said. Except …
You’re likely to hear opponents to this measure say state lawmakers should be afforded flexibility — especially in times of financial crises, such as economic recessions.
Don’t buy it. This measure won’t prohibit the Legislature from spending. Indeed, over the past five years, while the Legislature cut taxes, it also increased spending 31%, almost twice the national state average of 18%.
Here’s a proven fact: States with falling tax burdens always show faster economic growth and higher per-capita income growth than states with rising tax burdens. As long as Florida remains a low-tax state, the economy will continue to grow, generating more and more revenue for the government, negating the need for tax increases.
We recommend: Vote yes.
AMENDMENT 6: Rights of Crime Victims; Judges
Creates constitutional rights for victims of crime; requires courts to facilitate victims’ rights; authorizes victims to enforce their rights throughout criminal and juvenile justice processes. Requires judges and hearing officers to independently interpret statutes and rules rather than deferring to government agency’s interpretation. Raises mandatory retirement age of state justices and judges from 70 to 75; deletes authorization to complete judicial term if one-half of term has been served by retirement age.
This proposed amendment is a product of the Constitutional Revision Commission. If approved it would set a bad precedent.
Heretofore, when citizens initiate petition drives to place a proposed amendment on the ballot, such amendments are limited to one subject matter — to avoid voter confusion.
This ballot measure addresses three disparate, unconnected items. And while all three issues appear logical and sensible, they should not be contained in the same ballot question.
Regardless of the merits of the proposals, we oppose allowing one group (the Constitutional Revision Commission) to have special privileges that individuals and others groups do not have.
We recommend: Vote no.
AMENDMENT 7: First responder and military member survivor benefits; public colleges and universities.
Grants mandatory payment of death benefits and waiver of certain educational expenses to qualifying survivors of certain first responders and military members who die performing official duties. Requires supermajority votes by university trustees and state university system board of governors to raise or impose all legislatively authorized fees if law requires approval by those bodies. Establishes existing state college system as constitutional entity; provides governance structure.
In past years, we have supported property tax breaks for military veterans and first responders. This proposed amendment falls into that category — bestowing a privilege on the families of those who are killed in the line of duty.
Unfortunately, the proposal is vague. It doesn’t specify amounts for death benefits and educational expenses. It says the state “shall waive certain educational expenses.” Voters have no idea to what they are being committed.
The second part of this amendment, in effect, restricts government’s ability to tax. State universities’ governing bodies are notorious for raising tuition and imposing new fees. Indeed, we all know the cost of college has risen far faster than cost of most consumer goods and services. Any measure that limits or restricts the power of government is always a plus for liberty.
This amendment is a mish-mash of good intentions, vaguely worded. We recommend: Vote no.
The third part of this measure attempts to codify in the constitution for Florida’s state colleges, formerly the community colleges, the same governing structure that oversees the state’s university system. You can make the case that this makes sense. Both systems should be governed similarly.
But another way to look at this is that approving this cements in the constitution another governing bureaucracy. Keep this in mind: Once this is in the constitution, it would take 60% of Florida voters to remove it, which is highly unlikely.
What if one day it makes sense for all of Florida’s public universities and colleges to be governed by one set of trustees and a board of governors? If this amendment passes, that option is virtually eliminated. The governance of state colleges can be addressed through statutes; it doesn’t need to be in the constitution.
This amendment is a mish-mash of good intentions, vaguely worded.
We recommend: Vote no.
AMENDMENT 9: Prohibits offshore oil and gas drilling; prohibits vaping in enclosed indoor workplaces
Prohibits drilling for the exploration or extraction of oil and natural gas beneath all state-owned waters between the mean high water line and the state’s outermost territorial boundaries. Adds use of vapor-generating electronic devices to current prohibition of tobacco smoking in enclosed indoor workplaces with exceptions; permits more restrictive local vapor ordinances.
Most Floridians instinctively would say these two measures are the proverbial “slam dunks.” By all means, make clean water and clean air constitutional!
But for starters, it was wrong to bundle these two proposals. They should be separate.
Nevertheless, the merits and consequences:
Vaping: Why is it OK to create smoking rooms in public airports, but not OK to let private citizens operate a workplace of smokers who choose that environment? To put a constitutional ban on smoking and vaping in the workplace is discrimination and government intrusion into individual freedom.
What’s more, why is it not discrimination when you ban an employer from allowing smoking and vaping in the workplace, and yet if an employer declines to hire smokers and vapers, he would be sued for discrimination? In both cases, the employer loses: his freedom to manage his property and his freedom to decide whom to employ.
Offshore drilling: We all know the environmental arguments against drilling. They’re all about the environment and tourism.
But at what price? Imagine another energy crisis — prices skyrocketing, the poor unable to afford electricity, transportation costs crippling the economy. Then it turns out there is a huge supply of natural gas 11 miles off Florida’s coast. Tapping that supply could reverse the crisis. Alas, a constitutional ban would prevent any drilling.
You never know.
Both of these measures should be addressed legislatively, not in the constitution.
We recommend: Vote no.
AMENDMENT 10: State and local government structure and operation
Requires Legislature to retain Department of Veterans’ Affairs. Ensures election of sheriffs, property appraisers, supervisors of elections, tax collectors and clerks of court in all counties; removes county charters’ ability to abolish, change term, transfer duties or eliminate election of these offices. Changes annual legislative session commencement date in even-numbered years from March to January; removes legislature’s authorization to fix another date. Creates office of domestic security and counterterrorism within department of law enforcement.
Another bad case of bundling — four issues in one amendment.
Florida government has a Department of Veterans Affairs; it’s just not mandated in the state constitution. The Legislature and governor could abolish it, but c’mon, they wouldn’t dare — not with nearly 1.6 million active duty, reservists and veterans living in the state.
Codify an office of counterterrorism in the constitution? How the state’s law enforcement officers manage their resources should be up to them and the needs of the times, not cemented in constitutional concrete.
Who cares, other than lawmakers, about the start date of the Legislature on even-numbered years? Whatever.
But the most crucial part of this amendment would take away voters’ home-rule powers. While uniformity in the elected offices of Florida’s 67 counties makes sense, most people also know that government is best when decisions are made locally and not dictated by the state. The crux of this amendment would reduce voters’ freedom to govern themselves.
We recommend: Vote no.
AMENDMENT 11: Property rights; removal of obsolete provision; criminal statutes
Removes discriminatory language related to real property rights. Removes obsolete language repealed by voters. Deletes provision that amendment of a criminal statute will not affect prosecution or penalties for a crime committed before the amendment; retains current provision allowing prosecution of a crime committed before the repeal of a criminal statute.
It’ll be a wonder if Floridians understand this amendment. You need to know the background.
But first, a telling factoid: Of all the proposed amendments the Constitutional Revision Commission approved, this one received the widest margin of approval: 36-1.
Commission members justify the bundling of these three disparate measures as removing three outdated provisions in the state constitution.
Property rights: In 1926, Florida added a provision to the constitution that prohibits foreign-born people not eligible for citizenship from owning, disposing or inheriting property. Historical accounts say this was intended to stop Asian farmers from coming into Florida.
Other states have had similar provisions ruled unconstitutional and repealed the law. Florida has not enforced this provision. So members of the CRC overwhelmingly believe it’s time to remove it. Indeed.
“Obsolete language”: In 2000, Florida voters approved an amendment to create a high-speed rail system. Four years later, voters repealed the amendment. But the language creating the rail is still in the constitution. This amendment would remove the obsolete language.
Criminal statute: This is the most important part of Amendment 11. In 1885, Florida adopted a constitutional provision that said whatever the sentence is at the time a crime occurs, that’s the sentence, even if future Legislatures reduce the sentence for the same crime. This is known as the “Savings Clause.” Florida is the only state with this law.
Amendment 11’s language would remove the ban of changing sentences retroactively and give the Legislature the authority to do so.
It comes down to fairness: If a criminal is sentenced at the time according to what the law prescribed, is that the price the criminal should pay — even if the law is later changed? Or should he be afforded an opportunity for a lesser sentence if a new law reduces the crime’s sentence?
It’s not as if there will be wholesale releases of felons. This provision will give the Legislature the flexibility to change sentences retroactively.
We oppose bundled amendments. But this one leans in the direction of expanding freedom.
We recommend: Vote yes.
AMENDMENT 12: Lobbying and abuse of office by public officers
Expands current restrictions on lobbying for compensation by former public officers; creates restrictions on lobbying for compensation by serving public officers and former justices and judges; provides exceptions; prohibits abuse of a public position by public officers and employees to obtain a personal benefit.
Few things irritate voters more than former elected and public officials becoming rich, fat-cat lobbyists.
Amendment 12 would triple the amount of time former public officials would be barred from lobbying their former colleagues.
But consider: Information, experience and wisdom are all forms of currency. Then there is this: The older the colder. The longer you are out of the game, the less your value.
Sure, intuition says: “Ban the bums!” But this proposed six-year ban can also be construed as government overreach into individuals’ free speech and pursuit of happiness. It would limit individual freedom.
Truth is, no one would need lobbyists if lawmakers had the gumption to quit creating laws that favor one group at the expense of another.
Six years is too long.
We recommend: Vote no.
AMENDMENT 13: Ends Dog Racing
Phases out commercial dog racing in connection with wagering by 2020. Other gaming activities are not affected.
This one brings to mind the 2002 amendment that banned confining pregnant pigs in certain types of enclosures.
The matter should have been addressed legislatively.
But like the pigs issue, banning dog racing will play on people’s emotions.
Just a thought: If we’re going ban dog racing in the constitution because of the perception that racing is bad for dogs, perhaps Floridians should consider banning high school, college and pro football. It’s bad for brains.
Dog racing is waning. Rather than clutter Florida’s constitution with provisions on dogs and pigs, let the marketplace determine the future of the sport. Its declining economics most likely will bring it to an end.
We recommend: Vote no