This November, our Florida ballot will include eleven – count ‘em, eleven – proposed amendments to the Florida Constitution. Each one is on the ballot because it was sponsored by the State House or State Senate. I recommend voting “no” to each of the eleven amendments for both procedural and substantive reasons.
Procedurally, the practice of legislating by constitutional amendment is unwieldy and unwise. The Florida Constitution is designed to serve as a “bare bones” document, providing general guiding principles. It is through the process of legislation that details are added – or, in some cases subtracted. A law may make perfect sense when it is passed, but may over time either become unnecessary or require fine-tuning. The legislature can make appropriate adjustments with additional legislation. However, once an idea is written into the Florida Constitution, then the ability to make adjustments is substantially limited and the process is cumbersome.
The Founding Fathers set up a difficult process for amending the United States Constitution for a reason: ratification by three-fourths of the states. In Florida, 60% voter approval can turn any idea, big or little, good or bad, into a constitutional amendment (and before 2006, only 50% approval was required). For this system to work, somebody needs to provide a filter to make sure that only larger, broader policy questions are addressed by constitutional amendment.
It seems that the legislature has done little in the way of filtering this year. There are several possible explanations for the large number of proposed amendments. Republican politicians who control the House and Senate may have wanted to put things into the Constitution precisely because they will be harder to undo if the balance of power shifts back to Democrats. The legislators may have sought to avoid passing controversial bills themselves; letting voters make these decisions can provide political cover. And, in some cases, it appears that amendments were placed on the ballot specifically to encourage voter turnout in November.
Whatever the reason(s), the result is that it will be up to the electorate to provide the proper filter. We must decide, not only whether a proposed constitutional amendment looks like a good idea, but whether it is an idea that should be implemented by changing the Constitution rather than passing a law. In my opinion, most of the subjects addressed by the proposed amendments, such as additional homestead exemptions (many of which have already been granted through legislation), property tax rates, and the composition of school governing bodies, do not belong in the Florida Constitution.
Substantively, most, if not all, of the proposed amendments should be objectionable as well. I will list each amendment by number and official title, then discuss the merit, or lack thereof.
Amendment 1, Health Care Services: would prohibit laws that require any person to purchase health insurance. In light of the recent United Supreme Court decision upholding the Affordable Care Act (a/k/a Obamacare), and specifically the individual mandate, this amendment is unenforceable under the Supremacy Clause, which provides that federal law takes precedence over conflicting state law. This amendment is a wholly symbolic gesture, and was almost certainly designed to drive “single-issue” voters to the polls.
Amendment 2, Veterans Disabled Due to Combat Injury; Homestead Property Tax Discount: would provide a property tax discount on the homesteads of disabled veterans. While the general goal of helping our wounded vets is noble, a constitutional amendment to change their property taxes is not the way to accomplish that goal.
Amendment 3, State Government Revenue Limitation: would limit state revenue based on inflation and population changes. This amendment places an inflexible and strict limitation on budget growth, regardless of the state’s specific needs at a given time in the future. A similar amendment was passed by Colorado in 1992, then repealed three years later, after the limitation caused a financial crisis in that state. Managing the budget is a role and responsibility of the legislative and executive branches that they want to saddle citizens with through a constitutional amendment.
Amendment 4, Property Tax Limitations; Property Value Decline; Reduction for Nonhomestead Assessment Increases; Delay of Scheduled Repeal: would cut the annual cap on the rate at which the tax assessment on non-homestead real property can increase from 10% to 5%. It also gives additional homestead protection to “first-time home buyers,” which is defined as anyone who has not owned homestead property in Florida for three years. Florida Trend estimates that Amendment 4 would cost local governments up to $600 million per year. This means either enormous cuts in government services, or a new revenue source to plug the $600 million annual hole in our budget. Can you say “state income tax?”
Amendment 5, State Courts: would give the Senate the power to confirm or reject Florida Supreme Court appointees, would give the legislature the power to repeal court rules by a simple majority instead of two-thirds vote, and would prevent the court from re-adopting a rule that had been twice rejected. The net effect of this amendment is to shift the balance of power in our state government away from the judicial and toward the legislative branch. This attack on our judiciary goes hand-in-hand with the Tea Party-backed effort to defeat Justices Pariente, Quince, and Lewis in their merit retention elections.
Amendment 6, Prohibition on Public Funding of Abortions; Construction of Abortion Rights: would prohibit that which is already prohibited (public funding of abortions), and would exempt abortion from the Florida Constitution’s privacy clause, allowing the legislature to pass a parental consent law. This is clearly part of an effort to energize “single issue” voters.
(Amendment 7 did not make it onto the ballot)
Amendment 8, Religious Freedom: would delete a 126-year-old provision in the Florida Constitution prohibiting state funding of religious institutions. This amendment is not about “religious freedom” at all. It is about tearing down the wall of separation between church and state and gutting our public school system.
Amendment 9, Homestead Property Tax Exemption for Surviving Spouse of Military Veteran or First Responder: would again attempt to help people who need help through the improper vehicle of a constitutional amendment to change the tax rules. This should be proposed in the legislature as a law and not an amendment.
Amendment 10, Tangible Personal Property Tax Exemption: would increase, from $25,000 to $50,000, the exemption for equipment or furniture used in a business. This amendment will cost local governments $61 million over the first three years. Can you say “increased sales tax?”
Amendment 11, Additional Homestead Exemption; Low-Income Seniors Who Maintain Long-Term Residency on Property; Equal to Assessed Value: see comments on Amendments 2 and 9.
Amendment 12, Appointment of Student Body President to Board of Governors of the State University System: this is a great example of what happens when things that should be handled by legislation are placed into the Constitution. The governing bodies of the state university system were initially created by statute. But the Board of Governors was created and empowered through a 2002 constitutional amendment. In order to revise the current system, sponsors in the Florida House are seeking another amendment. Under the banner of “two wrongs don’t make a right,” I would oppose proposed Amendment 12 and support returning the details of the state university system to the statute books.
I am not alone in opposing the amendments. The League of Women Voters recommends a “no” vote on all eleven amendments. The Democratic Progressive Caucus opposes seven of the eleven amendments, supports only the state university system revision (Amendment 12), and is “neutral” on the substance of the three homestead exemptions (Amendments 2, 9, and 11), though with the observation that “the Constitution is not the place to make tax policy.” Agreed.
On November 6, I suggest that you reject the process of legislation by constitutional amendment, reject legislators’ side-stepping their job responsibilities, and reject the particularly bad ideas proposed this year, by voting “no” on all eleven proposed amendments.