Amendments may daunt local voters: 11 of them

By Steve Estes

About one-third of those eligible to vote In Monroe County in the general election that will be held Tuesday have already cast ballots either by absentee or through early voting.

And that may not be enough to alleviate what election officials are anticipating will be long wait times at polling stations throughout the county.

The reason: the state Legislature has sponsored 11 Constitutional Amendment questions on this year’s ballot, making the ballot in Monroe County eight pages in length, one of the longest ballots in recent memory.

The Constitutional questions will take up more than half the ballot. On the front pages are the federal, state and local position races such as President, Senator, Supervisor of Elections and then the judge retention questions. That will be followed by the amendments and finally, on the very last page (the back side of the fourth sheet) will be the local questions for unincorporated Monroe County voters, including the extension of the infrastructure sales tax and a straw vote on making the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority board elected rather than appointed by the Governor.

Many state organizations have just suggested that voters turn thumbs down to all the amendments since many of them will eventually cost local governments millions in lost tax revenues during a continuing sluggish economy in many areas of the state outside of Monroe County.

Amendment 1

This is an attempt by the state Legislature to get Constitutional authority to thumb its nose at the individual mandate contained in the federal health care overhaul. Since that mandate has been upheld by the federal Supreme Court, the amendment is little more than a straw vote to see if 60 percent of the voters in this state actually disapprove of the individual mandate.

Passage of the amendment would probably mean very little since the question has already been asked and answered by the Supreme Court.

Amendment 2

This is an additional property tax exemption for disabled veterans. Currently, disabled veterans can receive an additional homestead exemption equal to the percentage of the disability if they are residents of the state, over 65, disabled in combat and a resident at the time of entrance into the military.

This amendment would eliminate criteria four and allow those who moved here from elsewhere after military service to receive that same percentage exemption against the assessed value of the home. The Florida League of Women Voters estimates that exemption would cost local governments across the state a total of $15 million over the first three years of implementation.

Amendment 3

This proposal seeks to implement new calculations for the way state spending is capped. Now, the state uses a formula based on the growth, or decrease, of personal wages. This proposal would tie the formula to annual population growth and inflation and critics fear the new system would force deep spending cuts in non-discretionary areas such as Medicaid and public schools since that is the area Legislators have targeted for cuts in recent years.

Independent watchdog groups say the amendment could limit government spending to 75 percent of its current levels by 2025 and cause massive cuts in all areas of government services, including infrastructure maintenance.

Supporters say the change is necessary to curb government spending instead of leaving it to politicians in the long run.

Amendment 4

This amendment is supported heavily by the real estate industry. It bans a rise in homesteaded property assessments if the market value of the property declines, which would affect many newer homebuyers by eliminating the recapture provisions of the Save Our Homes legislation where increases are limited to three percent per year if the assessed value is lower than the market value. This proposal would also decrease the maximum assessment increase for non-homesteaded residential properties and commercial properties from 10 percent to five percent yearly. It also mandates that first-time homebuyers, or those who haven’t bought a home in three years, would get a 50 percent cap on the assessed value of the home that wouldn’t rise for five years.

Proponents say the measure would stimulate the local housing market by keeping property taxes low for new buyers and if retroactive aid financially strapped current homeowners who may have bought as the bubble was on the way down.

Opponents say that the measure would cost local taxing districts more than $1 billion in lost revenues over the next three years, forcing deep local cuts in education and service, including excess funds used for infrastructure repair and additions.

Amendment 5

This proposal would allow the elected bodies in Tallahassee to override a judicial rule by a simple majority vote (right now the state Legislature is decidedly Republican but not at the two-thirds level required under current laws), and give the Senate confirmation power over Gubernatorial appointments to judgeships. The amendment also gives the state House expanded access to confidential files involving judges accused of misconduct.

Proponents say that the move prevents a Governor from overloading the courts with strict conservatives or strict liberals. Opponents say it is a power grab that will lead to ways for the Legislature to remove judges who don’t rule the way they want.

Amendment 6

This is another attack on women’s abortion rights. The measure would place a prohibition in the Constitution against using federal funds to fund abortions, a prohibition that is already on the state law books by virtue of a federal ban against such practices anyway. But the measure also would weaken the state’s privacy rights afforded individuals by eliminating wording in the state Constitution that keeps the person free from unwanted intrusion into matter of a personal nature, such as women’s health care choices.

Supporters say that the amendment simply places the state’s privacy regulations on par with the federal government’s regulations, which are weaker.

Opponents say this is simply another pre-emptive strike on a woman’s right to make choices on her own health care decisions.

Amendment 7

This one has been removed from the ballot and replaced with:

Amendment 8

This proposal would allow state tax dollars to be given to groups with a decided religious affiliation, a practice currently banned. Church-supported institutions such as schools and hospitals would be eligible to receive state funding and run those schools and hospitals according to their private religious beliefs, free of state oversight.

Supporters say the proposal eliminates a discrimination against religious organizations in funding charitable work.

Opponents say this is just another attempt to open the door for school vouchers where public money for schools could be given instead to private religious-based schools allowing those who can afford to send children to private schools a scholarship on the taxpayer dime.

Amendment 9

This amendment gives full property tax exemptions to surviving spouses of military personnel and first-responders killed in the line of duty. State tax law already gives full property tax exemptions to surviving military spouses, this would enshrine the practice in the Constitution and require another vote to remove it in the future.

Supporters say this is the least the state can do for those who die in the line of duty. Opponents, however, maintain that the measure will cost local tax districts more than $600,000 in the first year.

Amendment 10

This proposal raises the exemption for tangible personal property taxes from $25,000 yearly to $50,000 yearly. Tangible taxes are those paid by landlords and businesses on equipment owned and accounts for about 7.6 percent of the yearly tax collections for local governments statewide.

Supporters maintain that the additional exemption will aid small businesses by cutting tax bills,

Opponents say that the measure will aid only larger companies with large inventory or equipment needs and not spur the small business to add workers or reinvest in equipment and facilities. They also contend that the measure would further deplete local tax revenues at a time when falling budgets have caused sharp cuts in essential services.

Amendment 11

This proposal grants a full homestead exemption to low income seniors who make less than $27,030 per year, are 65 or above, own a home with a market value less than $250,000 and have lived in the home for 25 years. Local governments must pass the exemption by supermajority vote before it can take effect.

State finance gurus estimate the exemptions, if enacted, would cost local governments $18.5 million over the first two years.

Amendment 12

This proposal would mandate that the state create a new university governing board made up of the student body presidents from the 11 state universities and that the chair of that body be given an automatic seat on the state Board of Governors. Currently only 10 universities participate in that council, with Florida State opting out.

The amendments each require a 60 percent majority to pass, leaving many feeling that most, if not all, will fail at the polls.

Opponents of all the measures say that these are all matters that can be taken up by the state lawmakers without Constitutional authority since many of them have roots already in state or federal law. They claim that the amendments are on the ballot simply so that lawmakers won’t have to deal with the issues, sometimes contentious, in open sessions in front of possible constituents.

The League of Women Voters have suggested a no vote an all the amendments for that reason and because of what they feel can be devastating losses in revenue to local governments for service provisions in the next three to five years.

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