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Pinellas County
Panel offers insight on amendments
Article published on Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2012
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Photo by BOB McCLURE
Leading the discussion Oct. 4 was moderator Frank Alcock, associate professor of political science at New College of Florida.
SEMINOLE – A group of four distinguished panelists offered insight into the meaning and potential ramifications of 11 proposed amendments to the Florida Constitution during a public forum Oct. 4 at St. Petersburg College.

While not committing or suggesting which way to vote on Nov. 6, the panelists discussed what they believe the end result would be if any of the measures pass.

The group consisted of Tony Carvajal, chief operations officer of the Collins Center for Public Policy; Judithanne Scourfield McLauchlan, associate professor of political science and associate director of the Bishop Center for Ethical Leadership and Civic Enagement, University of South Florida St. Petersburg; Tara Newsom, associate professor of social and behavioral science at St. Petersburg College; and Aaron Sharockman, deputy editor for government and politics at the Tampa Bay Times.

Leading the discussion was moderator Frank Alcock, associate professor of political science at New College of Florida.

Alcock explained that all 11 proposals are Legislative initiatives and will require 60 percent of the vote to pass.

A bulk of the early discussion centered around Amendments 2, 4, 9, 10 and 11, which deal with property tax law and, if passed, would have a major impact on revenue streams for county and municipal governments.

“There’s concern over our Swiss cheese style of property tax codes,” said Alcock. “One way of looking at changes is we’re continuing to change the size of the holes and take more divots out of the Swiss cheese.”

Taxing decisions

Amendment 2 would waive the Florida residency requirement for disabled veterans to qualify for a discount on property taxes. Disabled vets who sustained a combat related injury while residing in another state when injured currently do not qualify for the discount. Amendment 2 would change that. The State Revenue Commission estimates the first-year impact would be $2.5 million statewide, which would grow to $7.5 million after three years and level off.

Of the five related to tax, Amendment 4 would have the most dramatic effect. It would reduce the maximum annual

increase in taxable value of non-homestead properties from 10 percent to 5 percent, provide additional homestead exemption for first-time homebuyers, and prohibit assessment increases for properties with decreasing values.

It’s estimated that Amendment 4 would reduce revenue statewide to local governments the first year by $158 million and by the third year it would increase to $570 million statewide, or an average of $8.5 million per county.

“That would be a reduction of 5 to 8 percent of local government revenue,” said Alcock. “So it would have considerable fiscal impact.”

Amendment 9 would waive property tax for surviving spouses of military personnel and first responders killed in the line of duty. It would have a revenue impact of about $1 million the first year, Alcock said.

Amendment 10 would double the tangible tax personal property tax exemption.

“If you own tangible property that you use for income-generating purposes, there is a $25,000 deductible. This would increase the deductible from $25,000 to $50,000. The revenue estimation impact is $20 million per year.”

Amendment 11 would give an additional property tax exemption to low-income seniors who have lived in their home for more than 25 years. Seniors must be at least 65, make $27,000 per year or less, lived in a home valued at $250,000 or less for more than 25 years. Those qualifying would receive a full waiver of ad valorem taxes. County commissions must approve the waiver. The estimated statewide revenue impact is $10 million per year.

“This is an opportunity to tell future generations what you value,” said Carvajal. “Taxes are inequitably applied. These measures just measure how much you want them inequitably applied.”

“We the voters are going to get to decide what we want added to this document (Florida Constitution),” said McLauchlan. “You’ve got to consider what impact it’ll have on the budget process.”

“You’ve got to think about the impact,” said Newsom. “If there’s a revenue loss, some programs are going to be cut. This is a social contract and how they (local governments) are going to deliver services to you. You’ve got to think of the outcome and what it’s going to mean to you as a citizen.”

Sharockman said it’s a lot about politics. A change in one area, such as an additional exemption for seniors, could be made up by a mayor increasing the ad valorem millage rate to cover it.

“You have to remember, these are all Tallahassee-based ideas that in the long run will not affect Tallahassee lawmakers,” he said.

Amendment 1

Amendment 1 would prohibit the state from requiring individuals to buy health insurance, as outlined in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

Alcock pointed out that with the June 28 U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of the act, Amendment 1 would run afoul of the Supremacy Clause in the U.S. Constitution, which establishes the U.S. Constitution, federal statutes and U.S. treaties as “the supreme law of the land.” It mandates that state judges must follow federal law when a conflict arises between federal law and state law.

“If you vote yes on this, you’re saying no to federal healthcare reform,” said Newsom. “Ultimately, it’s symbolic. If passed this constitutional amendment probably will not be upheld. So are you entrusting your vote in something that will have a lengthy and expensive legal challenge?”

Amendment 3

Amendment 3 would set a state revenue limit each year based on a formula that considers population growth and inflation instead of using the current method of calculating the revenue limit based on personal income, which was put into the Florida Constitution in 1994.

“Interesting to point out the State Revenue Estimating Commission doesn’t believe it will effect or put constraints on state revenue spending until 2019 or 2020,” said Alcock. “At that time, based on a rebound, hopefully a rebound, in the Florida economy it may come into force.”

“Is this necessary? Republicans in the Legislature say it is,” said Sharockman. “I see a vote for this as more money for schools but the counties already shoulder about 60 percent of that burden. It also says don’t collect more than you need, which is a great principle. But the problem is how this is measured, which is GDP growth and population growth. Today it wouldn’t be a small number so it would really cap how much revenue you can increase year after year. Why is that a problem? It has nothing do with the cost of things. Cost of things can fluctuate. Healthcare has gone up.

“Another huge thing,” Sharockman added, “a lot of social service providers feel very threatened by this. They say revenue limitations would force the state to make further cuts. And what we’ve seen in the last five years, the cuts predominantly fall on the wants versus the needs.”

Amendment 5

Amendment 5 would give the Legislature sweeping power over the judiciary that it does not currently have. The amendment would provide for Senate confirmation of Supreme Court justices, give lawmakers control over changes to the rules governing the state court system and would direct the Judicial Qualifications Commission to make its files available to the Speaker of the House.

“Currently the governor makes the selections to the State Supreme Court,” said Alcock. “Under this amendment, the governor would make his choice and it would have to be confirmed by the Senate.”

The second element, Alcock said, would allow the Legislature immediate access to a file on a judge under investigation by the Judicial Qualifications Commission prior to an indictment being issued. Under the current system, the Legislature must wait until an indictment is handed down.

Also, the Amendment would allow the Legislature to overturn an administrative court decision with a simple majority, as opposed to a two-thirds vote as it stands now.

“This is a balancing of power from their (Legislature’s) perspective,” said Carvajal. “Some of this is reasonable. The House now has the authority to impeach judges, but it can’t see the files from the JQC president to find out what the charges are until much later.

“Do you want your Legislature to be more flexible and your courts to be more responsive to them or do you want your courts to be more independent? That’s basically the context question that’s going on behind this one.”

Amendment 6

Amendment 6 would make the existing federal ban on public funding for most abortions part of the Florida Constitution and would narrow the scope of a state privacy law that is sometimes used in the state to challenge abortion laws.

“With respect to public funding for abortion, the Supreme Court has ruled on this saying states do not have to provide funding for non-therapeutic abortions and in a follow-up case it ruled the federal government doesn’t have to provide funds for non-therapeutic abortion,” McLauchlan said. “So this is already settled.

“The second part, for the first time we’ll be voting to take away rights we have right now. They specifically contrast the federal Constitution, which is interesting because the U.S. Constitution doesn’t include a specific right to privacy. But here in Florida we voted in 1980 that this right to privacy is something important enough that it should be in the (state) Constitution. It’s not just about abortion. It’s about all privacy. It’s a very far-reaching amendment.”

“If we have (the right to privacy) here in Florida in our state Constitution, why would we want to get rid of it?” asked Newsom. “A lot of opponents to abortion want to take it away in this sort of an open door to create state legislation to create obstacles to women seeking abortions. That’s true. But there’s more to it than that. That’s only one part to the right to privacy. The right to privacy is also your right to privacy in your bedroom. These are all fundamental freedoms and I would hate to have it taken away after we’ve worked so hard to get it.”

Amendment 8

Amendment 8 would remove the prohibition in the Florida Constitution that prevents religious institutions from receiving state public funding.

If passed, Alcock explained, the amendment would make it illegal to use religion as a reason for an organization not to secure public funding, whether it be for a new church sanctuary or any purpose it determines necessary.

Newsome said it’s interesting that Florida already has the Voluntary Prekindergarten Education Program (VPK), which utilizes federal Head Start funding to help 4 year olds prepare better for kindergarten. Newsom noted many VPK schools are not public schools, which would be in violation to the failed 1875 Blaine Amendment, which would have allowed public funding for Catholic schools.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush signed VPK legislation into law in early 2005.

“This is not about vouchers specifically,” said McLauchlan. “It says funding from the public treasury for sectarian organizations, period. Which means we could build a cathedral in St. Petersburg. We could do all kinds of things to fund religious organizations under this amendment.”

Amendment 12

Amendment 12 would change how the state elects the student representative on the State University System’s Board of Governors, which oversees the university system.

Alcock explained that the Florida Student Association is comprised of the 11 presidents of the state university system. The group elects its own president who has a seat on the Florida Board of Governors.

Florida State University, he said, determined its lobbying efforts would be more effective directly rather than going through the Florida Student Association and not wanting to pay dues as part of the Florida Student Association.

By virtue of dropping out, Florida State University was no longer eligible to get the seat.

“So this amendment was kind of about that, setting up something new called the Florida Student Council,” Alcock said. “The composition would be about the same but it would bring Florida State University back into the full house. While this was happening, the Florida Student Association went back to Florida State University and said you don’t have to pay dues and will still be eligible for the seat. Nevertheless, we have this amendment on the ballot.”

The president of the Florida Student Association would no longer occupy the seat. It would be the president of the Florida Student Council.
Article published on Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2012
Copyright © Tampa Bay Newspapers: All rights reserved.
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