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Observer recommends: State constitutional amendments

A key measure for voters to consider: do the amendments limit your freedom?


  • Longboat Key
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Every conversation you have with a Floridian for the first time since that horrible, fateful day always begins with: “How did you do? Is your family OK? Was your home damaged?”

And for the next five minutes or so, together you lament the destruction that Hurricane Ian inflicted on this great state and you pity with your heart the thousands of Floridians who lost so much.

All of us in Ian’s wake are still traumatized — PTSD, for sure — even if those of us in the Sarasota-Bradenton escaped as we did.

So it’s hard to shift your mindset and focus and get back to living the way we were living before Ian.

But we must — and will.

Which brings us to one of the next milestones Americans will be facing over the next few weeks: How to vote in the Nov. 8 general election.

To that end, as we do with each election, we will attempt over the next few weeks to help readers see why some incumbents deserve re-election or not, or why some challengers deserve election instead. We will explain some of the details, backgrounds, motivations, objectives and plusses and minuses of the state constitutional amendments and local charter amendments.

And, as we have traditionally done, we will continue to make recommendations — a practice most newspapers are abandoning. Too bad they are.

We continue to believe it’s worthwhile to offer a viewpoint that may help voters think more analytically about candidates and issues rather than making judgments merely based on TV and radio soundbites or on the negative campaign mailers stuffed into mailboxes.

In this week’s installment, we address the state constitutional amendments. And as we do with every proposed amendment, we will apply our litmus test: If passed, will the amendment increase or decrease individuals’ freedom? If it will increase freedom, we’ll likely recommend a yes. If it decreases freedom, no.

CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENTS

Thankfully, there are only three state constitutional amendments on the ballot this year. That’s a welcome relief from four years ago, when there were 12 state amendments on the ballot — all of which addressed multiple subjects that confused voters.

On top of that, in 2018, Sarasota County ballots contained another six bond and charter questions.

All of it was overwhelming for Florida voters.

That seemingly interminable and confusing list of amendments came to Floridians courtesy of the Florida Constitution Revision Commission, an appointed body of citizens that meets every 20 years and whose existence happens to be the subject of one of this year’s amendments.

Unlike then, this year’s three amendments are all courtesy of the Legislature. And thankfully, each of the amendments is limited to a single subject, making them easier to comprehend.

What’s more, unlike many citizen-initiated amendments, this year’s three amendments do not have nefarious interest groups working behind the scenes to pass or kill the amendments to gain special advantage.

Instead, you can say the intent of the amendments is to improve the lives of those the amendments are intended to affect. But you can be the judge of that once you know more about them.

AMENDMENT 1

Limitation on the assessment of real property used for residential purposes.

To authorize the Legislature, by general law, to prohibit the consideration of any change or improvement made to real property used for residential purposes to improve the property’s resistance to flood damage in determining the assessed value of such property for ad valorem taxation purposes.

In plain English, here’s what this means: If you own residential property in Florida and construct or install improvements designed to keep your property from being flooded (e.g. hurricanes, storms), county property appraisers cannot add the value of those improvements to the assessed value of your property.

Say the appraiser values your canal-front home at $700,000. Then you add $50,000 worth of anti-flood improvements. When the appraisers assesses the tax value of your home, he cannot include the $50,000 value.

State statutes already apply that methodology to wind damage improvements (stronger roofs, hurricane windows, etc.). This amendment would apply the same exemption to flood improvements.

In the wake of Ian, most people would say this amendment makes sense. This amendment is in every property owner and taxpayer’s interest and in the interest of helping the state create a more favorable insurance market.

It makes sense to give homeowners an incentive to take steps to avoid flood damage. Likewise, any measure that limits or reduces taxation is an increase in freedom.

We recommend: Yes

AMENDMENT 2

Abolishing the Constitution Revision Commission.

To abolish the  Constitution Revision Commission, which meets at 20-year intervals and is scheduled to next convene in 2037, as a method of submitting proposed amendments or revisions to the State Constitution to electors of the state for approval. This amendment does not affect the ability to revise or amend the State Constitution through citizen initiative, constitutional convention, the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission or legislative joint resolution.

On first thought, an initial reaction to reading this proposed amendment would be to vote no. It appears the Legislature wants to eliminate one of the avenues  voters and taxpayers have to change state government. It appears to be an effort to take away some of your freedom and your ability to control your government.

But as with most issues, there are two sides to every story.

Florida Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, makes a persuasive case for eliminating the commission — persuasive enough that more than three-fifths of the Legislature voted in 2021 to put this measure on the ballot.

Brandes likens the commission to the movie “Jumanji” — a game with no rules.

“There are no rules,” he says. “Good things can pop out, and bad things can pop out.”

All of that is true of the revision commission, in particular the part about no rules.

When Florida voters approved the creation of the commission in 1968, the provisions specifying its job and how to do that job were vague and open-ended. According to a legislative analysis in 2021, all that is required of the commission is that it “must convene at the call of its chair, adopt rules of procedure and ‘hold public hearings.’” That’s it.

Its job is “to examine the State Constitution and decide which, if any, amendments to propose to the voters.”

Brandes argues the open-ended nature of the commission results in what occurred in 2018 — a dozen amendments, most of them addressing different subjects; and many of them items that should not be in the constitution, but rather dealt with as state statutes.

What’s more, Brandes argues, the members of the commission are not really a wide cross-section of Florida’s populace. Of its 37 members, the governor appoints 15; the House speaker and Senate president each appoint nine; the chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court appoints three; and the attorney general is a member.

The result tends to be friends and donors of the state’s elected leaders. In the most recent commission, Republicans overwhelmingly dominated. “It’s a construct of unelected individuals,” Brandes says, deciding what to present to voters to change Florida’s most sacred, governing document.

For all those reasons, Brandes says, the best way to fix all that is wrong with the commission is to eliminate it.

Or, as Adrian Moore, Observer columnist and vice president of the Reason Foundation, wrote in a Sept. 8 column: “It would make much more sense to reform the CRC and the citizen initiative process than to eliminate it.”

Moore presented five doable and reasonable steps that would reform and fix the commission and preserve this avenue to amending Florida’s Constitution. It’s worth a try.

We recommend: No.

AMENDMENT 3

Additional homestead property tax exemption for specified critical public services workforce.

To authorize the Legislature, by general law, to grant an additional homestead tax exemption for non-school levies of up to $50,000 of the assessed value of homestead property owned by classroom teachers, law enforcement officers, correctional officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians, paramedics, child welfare services professionals, active duty members of the United States armed forces and Florida National Guard members. This amendment shall take effect Jan. 1, 2023.

This proposed amendment reeks of political pandering.

It also is rife with reasons to be critical of the 115 Florida House members (all of them at the time) and the 37 out of 38 senators who voted to put this measure on the ballot in the most recent legislative session.

First, to the good: If approved, the amendment would codify a property tax cut — and thus more individual freedom — for nine groups of Floridians. It would be a nice way to express the public’s perpetual appreciation for these indispensable and highly valued public servants; to let them know Floridians have their backs.

It would not be a precedent by any means.

Since 2010, Florida voters have approved six constitutional amendments giving property-tax exemptions and college-tuition waivers to combat-wounded military veterans, disabled first responders and the surviving spouses of these deceased veterans and first responders. In the process, Florida has become one of the most welcoming states in the country for veterans and first responders.

Now, state lawmakers want to broaden that net.

But wait. While we admire and respect the people who choose to serve in those crucial occupations and understand their risks and challenges and while we have supported the six previous amendments intended to help those wounded, disabled or killed in the line of duty, this amendment smacks of the policy making that lawmakers should always avoid: picking one group over another and bestowing benefits on one group at the expense of others.

This amendment is the classic example of the Milton Friedman rule of lawmaking: What you give to one you must take away from another. If you lower taxes for the people in these nine groups, others must make up the difference.

Florida lawmakers should quit pandering so they can say they voted to cut taxes. If there are to be tax cuts, give them to everyone.

We recommend: No.

Next week: Proposed charter amendments and questions for Manatee and Sarasota counties and the city of Sarasota.

 

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