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OPINION

Your Public Trustee: A look at proposed constitutional amendments

By Marcia Johnson Special to the Times

Q. Can you provide some information on the proposed constitutional amendments that will be appearing on the November ballot?

A. Using resources provided by the Florida TaxWatch, The James Madison Institute, the BallotPedia, and The Sun-Sentinel, I will try to summarize the amendments with the purpose only to provide some information that might be helpful to encourage more informed votes. You should do your own research for more detailed information.

Amendments 1, 2, 3, and 4 are citizen initiatives. This is where a certain number of signatures are required of registered voters. Amendments 5 and 6 were placed on the ballot by our Legislature after 60 percent of both the House and the Senate agreed to do so.

Marcia Johnson

Amendment 1 on Citizen Requirement for Voting:

In brief, this would amend Section 2 of Article VI of the Constitution to state that only citizens of the United States who are 18 years old or older are qualified electors in Florida. It currently reads “Every citizen of the United States who is at least eighteen years of age and who is a permanent resident of the state, if registered as provided by law, shall be an elector of the county where registered.”

Under the ballot measure, it would say “Only a citizen of the United States who is at least eighteen years of age and who is a permanent resident of the state, if registered as provided by law, shall be an elector of the county where registered.”

Supporters say there needs to be language that clearly articulates who can and cannot vote in Florida elections. They feel the current language says who can vote but does not make a clear distinction about who cannot vote, and they want a standard set that makes it expressly clear that people living in the state without U.S. citizenship would not be able to vote in any election in Florida.

Opponents argue that neither the State of Florida nor any counties in the state currently allow non-citizens to vote, and this amendment would make no substantive change. They point out the constitution itself says you must be a citizen of the U.S. to vote, and the issue is not with the language but with voter registration by supervisors of election and feel the current language is clear enough. There has been a conclusion that this amendment is not expected to result in an increase or decrease in any revenues or costs to state and local government and its taxpayers.

Supporting this amendment is John Loudon and Florida Citizen Voters, a political group. Some opponents are Florida TaxWatch, The Sun Sentinel Editorial Board, and the League of Women Voters of Florida.

Amendment 2 on Raising Florida’s Minimum Wage

In brief, a yes vote means the current minimum wage of $8.56 per hour will increase to $10 per hour, effective Sept. 30, 2021; thereafter it will increase to $11 per hour on Sept. 30, 2022, $12 per hour on Sept. 30, 2023, $13 per hour on Sept. 30, 2024, $14 per hour on Sept. 30, 2025, and $15 per hour on Sept. 30, 2026. From that point forward, future increases shall revert to being adjusted annually for inflation starting Sept. 30, 2027. A no vote means the minimum wage of $8.56 per hour will remain through the end of 2020 and will be adjusted annually based on the federal consumer price index.

Supporters assert the incremental increase to a $15 minimum hourly wage will stimulate the economy and job growth and will reduce dependence on safety net programs such as Medicaid. They feel that by increasing in increments, employers will be better able to absorb the increase in business costs, and they feel increasing the wage may reduce employee turnover. Opponents maintain the higher labor costs will likely force layoffs, reduced employee hours, and/or increased prices to consumers. They feel small businesses are more likely to experience negative impacts because they are less likely to have the cash reserves or profit margins to absorb the increased costs. As to the fiscal impact, State and Local government costs will increase to comply with any new minimum wage levels. Some supporters are AFL-CIO, League of Women Voters of Florida, and John Morgan and Florida for a Fair Wage. Some opponents are Florida TaxWatch and the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association.

Amendment 3 that All Voters Vote in Primary Elections for State Legislature, Governor, and Cabinet:

This is an amendment that would allow all registered voters to vote in primary elections for state legislature, governor, and cabinet regardless of political party affiliation. Currently, our primaries are closed, meaning a voter must be registered with a political party in order to participate in that party’s primary election and winners of a partisan primary advance to the general election in November. This amendment would replace closed primaries with top-two primaries in which all candidates would be placed on one ballot regardless of political affiliation and the top two candidates with the most votes would advance to the general election. So, a yes vote means all registered voters could cast ballots in both elections, and a no vote means Florida would keep the current primary system in which each party nominates a candidate for the general election.

Those in support make the case that no one should be required to belong to a political party to vote in a primary election to elect legislators and the governor and Cabinet members. They say top-two primaries give independent and non-party affiliated voters an equal voice in primary elections and draw a wider band of voters and may be more representative of the electorate.

Opponents contend the amendment is misleading because it fails to detail how parties could internally select candidates to appear on the primary ballot, and candidates would be allowed to run under a preferred party affiliation which would not require approval from the party itself. They say it would limit voters’ options at the general election to only two candidates and eliminate any guarantee that voters will be provided a true choice between nominees representing different political parties. The possibility would exist that the top-two candidates advancing to the general election could be from the same political party.

It is probable that the proposed amendment will result in additional state and local government costs to conduct elections, and with that being said, it would be below the threshold that would produce a statewide economic impact. Some supporters are All Voters Vote, Inc., Immigration Partnership and Coalition (IMPAC), Florida Fair and Open Primaries, Florida TaxWatch, and League of Women Voters of Florida. Some opponents are the Democratic Party of Florida, the Republican Party of Florida, Green Party of Florida, Florida AFL-CIO, Florida Chamber of Commerce, NAACP of Florida, Florida Conservation Voters and Organize Florida.

Amendment 4 on Voter Approval of Constitutional Amendments:

In brief, this amendment requires all proposed amendments or revisions to the state constitution to be approved by the voters in two elections, instead of one, in order to take effect. The proposal applies the current thresholds for passage to each of the two elections. A yes vote would require proposed amendments to be approved by 60 percent or more of the voters at a second general election to become effective while a no vote leaves the current system in place; requiring approval once by 60 percent or more of the voters to become effective.

Supporters believe amending the constitution should be hard and should require careful thought and deliberation of the electorate. They believe the current process is too easy and that many measures could either be handled legislatively or do not have a place in the constitution. Supporters cite the amendment would limit the amount of frivolous amendments that get brought forth.

Opponents argue this proposal will make it more difficult to amend the Florida constitution. They feel that the change will just slow down the process and keep important measures that a large portion of Floridians agree with from being implemented in a timely fashion, and they cite a good track record of the voters enacting responsible amendments when the will of the people is ignored by the Legislature.

The financial impact is estimated to result in additional state and local government costs to conduct elections, but no impact on government taxes or fees and below the threshold that would produce a statewide economic impact. Supporters include Keep Our Constitution Clean PC and Florida TaxWatch. Opponents include League of Women Voters of Florida, the Editorial Board of the Sun Sentinel and the Orlando Sentinel, and Fair Districts Florida.

Amendment 5 to Extend “Save Our Homes” Portability Period:

This proposal from our legislature would be effective Jan. 1, 2021 and would increase, from two to three years, the period of time during which accrued Save-Our-Homes benefits may be transferred from a prior homestead to a new homestead. This amendment has to do with homestead exemption on property taxes. A prior amendment was passed years ago that limited increases to the assessed (taxable) value of homestead property to a maximum of 3 percent (or the increase in the consumer price index, whichever is less) annually, no matter how much the market value of the property increased and it stayed on the property as long as there were no changes in ownership or improvements to the property. Currently, a homeowner may be able to transfer or “port” all or part of the assessment difference, up to a maximum of $500,000 to a new Florida homestead if they had the homestead exemption on the prior house in either of the two preceding years. If passed, Amendment 5 would extend the period for establishing a new homestead exemption by an additional year.

Supporters cite the current language where residents must have received homestead exemption as of Jan. 1 of the previous two years and point out this could cause an issue for some homeowners if they sell their house towards the end of one calendar year and their new home is not built by Jan. 1 of the year after the next. They don’t think this was the original intent of the voters and think the three years would give ample time.

Opponents argue that it would decrease local property taxes when they are needed right now and shifts the tax burden from homestead owners to non-homestead owners. They say property tax revenue that supports funding for local schools and other services like police, fire, and infrastructure would decrease. For the fiscal impact, the State Revenue Estimating Conference has estimated the proposed change would trim local property taxes by $1.8 million next fiscal year, growing to $10.2 million in five years statewide.

Some supporters are our Legislature, the Editorial Board for the Tampa Bay Times and Florida TaxWatch. The League of Women Voters of Florida are opposed to this amendment.

Amendment 6 on Homestead Property Tax Discount for Surviving Spouses of Deceased Veterans:

This amendment is from our legislature and would take effect on Jan. 1, 2021. It provides that the homestead property tax discount for certain veterans with permanent combat-related disabilities carries over to such veteran’s surviving spouse who holds legal or beneficial title to, and who permanently resides on, the homestead property. The discount may be transferred to a new homestead property of the surviving spouse under certain conditions. The tax discount was extended to disabled veterans in 2012, and supporters say this is another step to show appreciation to veterans and their family members for their service and sacrifices.

Opponents may claim this amendment would result in less property tax revenue during a time when it is needed in local communities throughout the state, and have a position that no tax sources or revenue should be specified, limited, exempted, or prohibited in the Constitution. For the fiscal impact, the State Revenue Estimating Conference has estimated the amendment to have a negative impact on tax revenues. Supporting this is our Legislature and Florida TaxWatch, and in opposition is The League of Women Voters of Florida.

If you have any questions or comments about this column, please forward them to: Marcia Johnson, Clerk of the Court, 33 Market Street, Ste. 203, Apalachicola, FL, or by email to: mmjohnson@franklinclerk.com. Visit the Clerk’s website at www.franklinclerk.com.