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Friday April 18th 2014

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Mixed, weird bag of tricks in amendments


When somebody mentions this year’s list of amendments to the state constitution, my eyes tend to glaze over and I try to think of how to change the conversation. Nobody wants to read them, much less have to vote on them.

But what has set off the red lights and blaring horns is that all of 11 of the proposed amendments have been proposed by the state legislature. That’s never good.

So to save you time, I’ve read the various analysis of the amendments and tried to summarize them here.

Five of them –2, 4, 9, 10 and 11– have negative impacts on county, city and school board budgets by granting exemptions to low-income seniors, veterans not from Florida, widows of veterans and first responders and businesses. It’s amazing how willing the lawmaker are to fool around with someone else’s budget, particularly the budgets of commissioners and council members that may run against them one day.

Two amendments involved health care and the right to choose. Amendment 1 is meaningless but makes the anti-Obama crowd feel good. Amendment 6 eliminates a woman’s right to privacy when it comes to abortion. Rape or incest would no longer protect the privacy of minors.

Amendment 10 lets prison ministries like Pathway for Change get state funding and opens the door for school vouchers for church schools.

Amendment 5 gives the lawmakers control over judges. Amendment 12 practically dissolves Florida Student Association and creates a council of college student body presidents that will have represent on the state Board of Governors for education, instead of FSA.

Having read each of them, I can see why the League of Women Voters had recommended voting “no” on all of them. Each appears that it will do more harm than good.

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Amendment 1: Health Care Services
This amendment attempts to prohibit the government from requiring individuals to purchase health insurance, known as the “individual mandate” in the federal Affordable Care Act.

The “individual mandate” has been declared constitutional by U.S. Supreme Court which makes the passage or defeat of Amendment 1 nearly meaningless other than to send a message that a majority of Florida’s voters are either for or against the individual mandate.

Amendment 2: Veteran’s Property Tax Discount
This amendment allows certain disabled veterans, who were not Florida residents prior to entering military service, to qualify for a discount on their property taxes.

This expands the eligibility for discounts that are already available under the law. Supporters say the property tax discount can help with medical bills and may allow veterans to stay in their homes longer as they age. It might also stimulate the housing market by persuading veterans to move to Florida.

The state estimates that the school districts and local governments would lose about $15 million combined over the first three years, if it passes. Opponents say the loss would further hurt local governments dealing with budget shortfalls.

Amendment 3: State Revenue Limitation
This amendment sets a state revenue limit each year based on a formula that considers population growth and inflation instead of using the current method of calculating the revenue limit based on personal income.

Since 1995, Florida has set a cap for the amount of revenue from taxes and fees that it can spend every year. The cap, which is based on changes in Florida personal income, is a self-imposed restraint on government growth.

Amendment supporters believe the cap needs to be more restrictive to prevent too much government growth that they believe drains the economy. Opponents look to what such an amendment did to Colorado which found itself having difficulty paying for education and other key services during the recession.

Amendment 4: Property tax limitations; property value decline; reduction for non-homesteaded assessment increases; delay of scheduled repeal

This reduces the maximum annual increase in taxable value of non-homestead properties from 10 percent to 5 percent; provide an extra homestead exemption for first-time home buyers; allow lawmakers to prohibit assessment increases for properties with decreasing market values.

The amendment offers a cornucopia of tax breaks for commercial real estate and homeowners. Proponents say the tax breaks will stimulate the housing and commercial real estate markets. They also say it will help property owners in a down economy. Critics say the proposal will hurt cash-strapped school districts, cities and counties already forced to cut services. Total tax revenue losses over a three-year period have been estimated by the state at nearly $1 billion.

Amendment 5: State Courts
This measure provides for Senate confirmation of Supreme Court justices; give lawmakers control over changes to the rules governing the court system; and direct the Judicial Qualifications Commission, which investigates judicial misconduct complaints, to make its files available to the Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives.

The Republican-controlled legislature is tired of the judiciary blocking its initiatives. While the GOP can’t control the office of governor, it’s highly unlikely that the party will lose control of the state house and senate any time soon.

Currently, the governor fills openings on the court by appointing a nominee from a list presented by a judicial nominating commission. If passed, this amendment would allow the Senate to reject or approve nominees.

It would also give members of the state House of Representatives access to confidential files involving judges accused of misconduct, and would give lawmakers the right to repeal procedural court rules with a simple majority vote rather than a two-thirds majority vote, as currently required.

Supporters say the measure would make the appellate court system run more efficiently and add a layer of accountability before Supreme Court justices are appointed. Opponents say the measure is a dangerous attempt to exert political influence over the judicial branch by giving legislators more authority.

Amendment 6: Prohibition on Public Funding of Abortions; Construction of Abortion Rights

This amendment makes the existing federal ban on public funding for most abortions part of the state constitution. It would narrow the scope of a state privacy law that is sometimes used in Florida to challenge abortion laws.

Having the state constitution reflect the existing federal prohibitions on the public funding of abortions has no impact current abortion funding practices in Florida. However, this amendment would eliminate the state’s privacy right with respect to a woman’s right to choose.


Amendment 8: Religious Freedom

This amendment removes the prohibition in Florida’s Constitution that prevents religious institutions from receiving taxpayer funding.

Supporters say the amendment would allow the state to fund programs that provide a valuable public service but are currently denied that funding because they are affiliated with religious organizations. They also argue that it offers support to groups with religious affiliations that provide services like prison ministries or church-run after-school programs.

Opponents say the amendment would eliminate a long-established component of the separation of church and state that prevents the government from funding groups that espouse religious beliefs. The amendment, they argue, would open the door to school vouchers that could be used to fund religious schools.

Amendment 9: Homestead Property Tax Exemption for Surviving Spouse of Military Veteran or First Responder
This grants a full property tax exemption to the surviving spouses of military veterans who die while on active duty and to the surviving spouses of first responders who die in the line of duty.

For a spouse to be eligible, the deceased veteran or first responder must have been a permanent resident of Florida as of Jan. 1 of the year they died. First responders are defined as law enforcement officers, correctional officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians and paramedics. The proposed amendment covers full-time, part-time and volunteer first responders.

The state estimates that this amendment, if passed, would reduce local school and government tax revenues by about $600,000 statewide in the first year it is in effect.

Amendment 10: Tangible Personal Property Tax Exemption
This amendment doubles the tangible personal property tax exemption and allow local governments to increase the exemption.

Supporters say this amendment will give tax relief to small businesses and help stimulate the economy. They say it provides a way for local governments to offer further reductions in the business tax.

Statewide, the additional exemption (from $25,000 to $50,000) proposed iwould reduce property tax collections across the state by a combined $61 million over its first three years. Opponents say it will strip millions in tax revenue from local governments struggling to provide basic services.

Amendment 11: Additional Homestead Exemption; Low-Income Seniors Who Maintain Long-Term Residency on Property; Equal to Assessed Value
This amendment allows an additional property tax exemption to low-income seniors who have lived in their home for more than 25 years.

Counties and municipalities will be able to grant an additional homestead tax exemption equal to the assessed value of homestead property if the property has a just value less than $250,000 to an owner who has maintained permanent residency on the property for not less than 25 years, who has attained age 65, and who has a low household income as defined by general law.

If every city and county in the state were to approve the exemption,the loss in revenue would be a combined $18.5 million over the first two years it was offered.

Supporters say this amendment will benefit elderly residents on fixed incomes. Opponents say it further erodes the tax base as county and cities try to meet budget shortfalls.


Amendment 12: Appointment of Student Body President to Board of Governors of the State University System

This amendment changes the way the state selects the student representative on the state university system’s Board of Governors by replacing the president of the Florida Student Association with the chair of a council of state university student body presidents as the student member.

Such a council does not exist and will have to be created by the Board of Governors.

Student body presidents from the state’s 12 universities comprise the FSA. Over the years, several universities chose not pay the dues and participate in the FSA, which meant they could not be the student representative on the Board of Governors.

This amendment bypasses FSA.

Supporters say this amendment guarantees every university has a chance to have their student body president be named as a representative of the Board of Governors. Opponents say this amendment is unnecessary.