Tuesday, October 23, 2018

The Buzz

on Florida Politics

The Constitutional amendments on Florida’s ballot, explained

When Floridians head to the ballot box in November, they will encounter a list of candidates asking for their vote for seats in the state House to the U.S. Senate. Among the choices they must make will also be one of the longest lists of proposed constitutional changes in decades, from betting on dog racing to implementing a ban on public officials lobbying for six years after they leave office.

The 12 constitutional amendments on this year's ballot are the most since 1998, when the state's Constitution Revision Commission — which meets once every 20 years — put nine of 13 amendments on the ballot. The Constitution Revision Commission convened this year and placed eight amendments on the ballot.

In some cases, measures have been grouped together, meaning voters will have to choose to approve or reject disparate proposals that have been linked in one amendment. Floridians will have to decide whether they want to ban both vaping indoors and offshore oil and gas drilling, and if they want to require Miami-Dade to elect its sheriff and create a state counter-terrorism office and add an existing veterans affairs department to the constitution.

To be approved, any constitutional amendment requires 60 percent of the vote. Here's what this year's amendments do:

Amendment 1, Increased Homestead Property Tax Exemption would raise the portion of a home’s value that can be exempted from non-school property taxes. The Legislature voted to refer the exemption to the ballot, and the proposed changes would apply to the assessed value of a homestead property between $100,000 and $125,000, raising the maximum exemption to $75,000.

The shift could save homeowners a couple hundred dollars, but a legislative staff analysis estimated local governments — which rely on property taxes for revenue — would lose about $645 million in the first year if the exemption, effective Jan. 1, is approved.

Amendment 2, Limitations on Property Tax Assessments, another property tax proposal referred by the Legislature, would cement an existing cap on non-homestead property assessments. Such property tax assessment increases have been limited to 10 percent of the previous year's assessed value since 2008, when another constitutional amendment that capped the increases passed.

Amendment 3, Voter Control of Gambling in Florida, a citizen-initiated amendment, would give voters the exclusive right to decide to authorize expansions of casino gambling in Florida. That authority currently rests with both the Legislature and voters, through constitutional amendment.

Card games, casino games and slot machines are limited to tribal facilities in most of Florida, though some slot machines are allowed at certain pari-mutuel facilities in Broward and Miami-Dade counties. Though the Legislature has tried in recent years to pass gambling bills that would address the state's agreement with the Seminole Tribe and allow for some expansion of casinos, negotiations have repeatedly broken down as the House, which is more opposed to gambling, rejected the Senate's proposals.

Amendment 4, Voting Restoration Amendment, another petition-drive amendment, would restore voting rights to former felons if they have served their time, with the exception of those who have committed crimes like murder or sex offenses. For the past seven years, the state has required that felons wait at least five years after their sentences are complete to apply to regain voting rights. The current process can take a decade or more under the Scott administration's requirement that a state clemency board consider each request during its four meetings a year.

In addition to the challenge posed by the amendment, the system is the subject of an ongoing, protracted legal battle. U.S. District Judge Mark Walker in March struck down the vote restoration system for felons as so arbitrary as to be unconstitutional, but the state won a stay of his injunction as an appeal goes to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.

Arguments in the legal case were heard in July, but the case is unlikely to be resolved before voters cast their ballots in November. If passed, about 1.5 million people in Florida could be affected.

Amendment 5, Super-majority Vote Required to Impose, Authorize, or Raise State Taxes or Fees, another proposal from lawmakers this year, would require a two-thirds super-majority vote in the Legislature to impose, approve or raise state taxes and fees. The higher threshold means it would take only a third of members in either the state House or Senate to block any future tax increases or repeal existing exemptions. The idea, floated by Gov. Rick Scott last year, would also stop any provisions to raise taxes or fees from being tacked onto other state bills, and does not apply to any fees or taxes that would be levied by local governments or agencies, such as school districts.

The last seven amendments on this year's ballot come from the Constitution Revision Commission. The commission chose about 20 proposals for this year's ballot but decided to "group" distinct proposals together into eight amendments, meaning that in some cases voters must approve or reject multiple proposals in batches. One of the eight was removed from the ballot by the state Supreme Court's ruling on Sept. 7.

The bundling, a technique that has been used before, is controversial. Critics have charged that the way ideas were linked was politically motivated, to "log-roll" less popular ideas to more favorable ones to succeed. But the chair of the commission's powerful Style and Drafting Committee, Brecht Heuchan, a Scott appointee, has contended that the groupings will make it easier for voters to read and save time.

Amendment 6, Rights of Crime Victims; Judges, the first of the CRC items, links three proposals that would create a bill of rights for crime victims and set new requirements for judges. The bill of rights, modeled after Marsy's Law in California, has the support of major Republican and Democratic lawmakers but has drawn criticism that the way victims' rights are drawn might flood the justice system with additional responsibilities.

The latter two proposals increase the mandatory retirement age for judges to 75 from 70, effective July 1, 2019, and would bar judges from deferring to administrative agencies' interpretations of a rule or statute when ruling in cases involving those laws. (A Leon County judge ruled in favor of two sets of plaintiffs challenging this amendment on the ballot in August, saying its title and summary did not meet the required standard. Those two cases were merged and heard by the state Supreme Court, which ruled to retain this amendment on the ballot.)

Amendment 7, First Responder and Military Member Survivor Benefits; Public Colleges and Universities, would pull together three proposals, providing college tuition for the survivors of first responders and military members killed on duty, requiring university trustees to agree by a two-thirds super-majority to raise college fees (not including tuition) and establishing the state college system in the Florida Constitution. Universities are in the state Constitution, but state colleges (also known as community colleges) are not.

(A Leon County circuit court judge ruled in early September that this amendment and two others be struck from the ballot because of its bundled status — that decision is currently being appealed by the state.)

Amendment 8 was struck from the ballot by the state Supreme Court Sept. 7. Read more about how that happened here.

Amendment 9, Prohibits Offshore Oil and Gas Drilling; Prohibits Vaping in Enclosed Indoor Workplaces, would tether a ban on oil and gas drilling in state-owned waters with a proposal to add vaping to the ban on smoking indoors.

(A Leon County circuit court judge ruled in early September that this amendment and two others be struck from the ballot because of its bundled status — that decision is currently being appealed by the state.)

Amendment 10, State and Local Government Structure and Operation, would link four proposals: one to have the state's legislative session start in January rather than March in even-numbered years (the legislature currently changes its dates by statute), two that would create a counter-terrorism office and make the state veterans affairs department constitutionally required, and a proposal that would require five county-level offices to be elected.

All of the county positions — including tax collectors, property appraisers, supervisors of elections and clerks of circuit court — are already elected in many counties. But the office of sheriff singles out Miami-Dade, which is the only county that does not elect a sheriff and instead has an appointed police director.

(A case seeking to remove this amendment — including affected counties like Miami-Dade, Broward and Volusia— was taken up by the state Supreme Court, which ruled Sept. 7 that the amendment remain on the ballot.)

Amendment 11, Property Rights; Removal of Obsolete Provision; Criminal Statutes, would revise the Constitution to remove some language, including a provision that stops "aliens ineligible for citizenship" from owning property and wording approving a high-speed rail system. It would also remove the state's Savings Clause, which prohibits retroactively applying the amendment of a criminal statute to sentencing for a crime committed before the change, and clarify that repealing a criminal statute would not necessarily affect the prosecution of that crime committed previously.

(A Leon County circuit court judge ruled in early September that this amendment and two others be struck from the ballot because of its bundled status — that decision is currently being appealed by the state.)

Amendment 12, Lobbying and Abuse of Office by Public Officers, a stand-alone proposal, would bar public officials from lobbying both during their terms and for six years following, and restrict current public officers from using their office for personal gain.

Amendment 13, Ends Dog Racing, is also a single proposal. It would end commercial dog racing involving wagering by 2020. There are about a dozen tracks in Florida, and the practice has drawn criticism from animal rights advocates who assert that the practice is inhumane. The Florida Greyhound Association has sued seeking to remove the amendment from the ballot.

(A Leon County judge ruled Aug. 1 that this amendment should be removed from the ballot, saying that the measure misleads voters. The state appealed the decision to the state Supreme Court, which reversed that ruling and ordered the amendment remain on the ballot.)

For information, visit the state Division of Elections website at http://dos.myflorida.com/elections/.

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