Here we are again: Another election cycle and another round of proposed constitutional amendments that sound appealing, but typically are vague, often confusing and chock-full of unintended consequences about which voters have no clue.
Long-time readers of this page know we typically have a dim view of these amendments. Most of them — such as this year’s proposed amendments — are issues that should not clutter Florida’s Constitution. They should be addressed statutorily in the Legislature. But these measures often are born out of citizens’ frustrations with a Legislature that refuses to act.
Equally disappointing: Rarely do the amendments meet our desired threshold of bestowing on Floridians more freedom. Far more common are amendments that restrict liberty or that are proposed by special interests seeking special benefits and having them embedded in perpetuity in Florida’s constitution. Remember the 2002 pregnant pig-cage amendment?
This year is no different.
Each of the four amendments is intended to benefit specific groups. Three of them — Amendments 2, 3 and 5, medical marijuana and tax exemptions for first responders and others — would increase individuals’ liberty, but only for a select few. What’s more, the medical marijuana measure has a minefield of explosive unintended consequences.
The following is a synopsis to help you evaluate your decision:
Rights of Electricity Consumers Regarding Solar Energy Choice
When you read this amendment on your ballot, you instinctively will think this is a good idea. Here is what it says:
“This amendment establishes a right under Florida’s constitution for consumers to own or lease solar equipment installed on their property to generate electricity for their own use. State and local governments shall retain their abilities to protect consumer rights and public health, safety and welfare, and to ensure that consumers who do not choose to install solar are not required to subsidize the costs of backup power and electric grid access to those who do.”
All of that sounds like good sense.
Don’t buy any of it.
You probably have seen or heard an increasing number of commentaries that have exposed this measure for what it is. As Adrian Moore, vice president of the Reason Foundation, told us: “100% protectionism” for the big utilities. (In fact: We recommend you read Moore’s recent commentary in the Sarasota Observer and Business Observer: yourobserver.com/article/amendment-1-bad-future.)
Floridians already have the right to own or lease solar equipment on their properties to generate electricity. We don’t need this amendment to do that.
And when you read that this amendment will ensure that you will not subsidize people who have solar power if you don’t have it, this wording disguises the true unintended consequence of this amendment. Big utility companies don’t want individual property owners to install solar systems.
A 2007 Department of Energy study summarized this issue this way: “The incentives for customer-owned, [mini-power sources] are often far greater than those for utility-owned [mini-power sources]. This has led to the current situation where standard business models for electric utilities to invest profitably in [mini-power sources] have not emerged.”
Here’s another analogy: Power generation is on verge of massive, disruptive innovation. It’s like the big monopoly telephone companies and cell-phone providers when everyone began switching from land-lines to cell lines. The Bells hated that.
Florida’s utilities are trying to put the brakes on innovation.
Final proof: Florida’s big utilities have contributed $16.3 million of the $21 million raised (75%) to fund the campaign supporting the amendment. Meanwhile, Florida’s solar manufacturers and providers all oppose the measure.
We recommend: Vote no
Use of Marijuana for Debilitating Medical Conditions
We support legalizing medical marijuana at a greater level than what the Legislature adopted through the statutory, lawmaking process. Yes, increase Floridians’ liberty.
What’s more, the legislative process is how this issue best be addressed — not as a constitutional matter. Once a measure is adopted in the constitution, changing and adjusting it requires 60% voter approval — a high, high threshold.
With that in mind, it’s important to note medical marijuana and its soon-to-follow corollary — legalizing recreational marijuana —are still volatile works in progress around the nation.
Just look at Colorado.
Colorado legalized medical marijuana in 2000 and recreational marijuana in 2012. But Colorado’s news media have been teeming this year with marijuana news. The state’s police chiefs and sheriffs begged lawmakers this summer for a moratorium on changes to the state’s marijuana laws. Law enforcers are overwhelmed at trying to keep up as lawmakers and Colorado citizens, municipalities and counties try to figure out how best to regulate and manage the proliferation of grow houses and retail outlets and sale and usage of pot.
Colorado news media this summer also had weekly stories of medical marijuana “care givers” being busted for exceeding the number of pot plants they could grow. After one bust, the Colorado Springs Gazette reported officials’ concerns “that people are moving from Florida and Cuba to start illegal grow operations … Growers are altering homes, burdening electrical systems, polluting the septic system and smuggling drugs out of state.” And physicians have violated prescription laws, allowing medical marijuana users to grow more plants than permitted.
All of the above illustrates the complexities and consequences that inevitably will come with medical and recreational marijuana legalization.
While Florida lawyer John Morgan (whose firm has contributed $6.5 million to the cause) and his supporters have attempted to fix the flaws in their 2014 medical marijuana amendment — and they have improved it, the proposed amendment is still written in a way that, if passed, will lead to too many unintended consequences. To wit:
- The debilitating conditions include those “for which a physician believes that the medical use of marijuana would likely outweigh the potential health risks for a patient.” That’s wide open for abuse.
- The amendment doesn’t address where the marijuana can be grown or where dispensaries can be located.
- It says “caregivers” would be prohibited from consuming marijuana obtained for medical use. But what happens when they inevitably do?
We could go on.
When we think of how regulated the state’s beer brewers are compared to what this amendment proposes, the issue is so complex it begs for legislative attention, not a vague, loose constitutional amendment.
Buck up, lawmakers. Do your job. But on this …
We recommend: Vote no
Amendments 3 & 5
- Tax Exemption for Totally and Permanently Disabled First Responders
- Homestead Tax Exemption for Certain Senior, Low-Income, Long-Term Residents; Determination of Just Value
These two amendments are similar in intent. They would allow counties and municipalities to provide property-tax breaks to special classes of Floridians:
- Disabled first-responders;
- Floridians 65 or older who are homeowners whose home value does not exceed $250,000; whose annual household income does not exceed $20,000; and who have lived in their same home 25 or more years.
Both amendments fail the litmus test of treating everyone equally under the law. But they pass the test of increasing the affected individuals’ freedom, in this case their financial freedom.
With these amendments, Floridians once again would show their heart. These two amendments would be extensions of similar tax breaks Florida voters previously approved for certain military veterans. These amendments are a way of recognizing the sacrifices our first responders have made in the line of duty and providing relief for those seniors who struggle through their twilight.
We recommend: Vote yes
- Half-cent Sales Surtax for Public Infrastructure
- Extending the Existing School One-Half-Cent Sales Surtax for Capital Outlay of Educational Facilities
No one wants to pay more in taxes. But these two measures are taxes of necessity — especially if Manatee residents want to maintain, perhaps even improve, their quality of life going forward. Roads wear out; they need repair. The county will need more capacity. Schools wear out; they need repair. More will be needed.
There is one way to look at these half-cent taxes as a bargain. As Florida economist Hank Fishkind told us once: Floridians automatically get a 20% discount on what they pay. Tourists will pay 20% of the cost.
We recommend: Vote yes