To be an informed voter this year will require effort.
In the city of Sarasota, voters will make choices on 39 ballot items; in Sarasota County, 38 ballot items; and in Manatee County, 28 ballot items.
On more than half of everyone’s ballot, it won’t be a matter of voting the political party line. Voters will make choices on issues affecting taxes, rights, the environment and recreational options.
To navigate these questions, we are devoting the next three Opinion pages to analyzing their meaning and effects and providing our recommendations.
Longtime Observer readers know our litmus tests for amendments to the state constitution and county and city charters are these questions:
n 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.
n 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.
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.
Next: Amendments 7 and 9 through 13.
Also: Local amendments