Get Ready to Vote on the Constitutional Amendments

There will be four proposed amendments on the November ballot. In this post, I’ll explain what they are, and tell you how I plan to vote and why.

For my explanations, I referred to the The League of Women Voters of Florida’s nonpartisan Voter Guide to the Amendments (LWVF Guide) and, in the case of the two Amendments sponsored by the Florida Legislature, to their staff’s Final Bill Analyses.

A YES vote by 60 percent of the voters is required for an amendment to pass.

Amendment 1 – Solar Energy
Sponsor: the Consumers for Smart Solar political action committee (PAC)

This ballot item has, in my opinion, a misleading title: “Rights of Electricity Consumers Regarding Solar Energy Choice.” Who wouldn’t want the right to choose solar? But there’s more to it than that.

From the LWVF Guide:

Amendment 1 is the utility-backed response to a third solar initiative that failed to make the 2016 ballot but would have allowed Floridians to buy power directly from third-party solar providers…. It essentially would enshrine in the state Constitution existing laws on solar energy” which ban “the third-party sale of electricity….

“In most other states companies are allowed to install solar panels on homes or businesses and then sell the power directly to the consumer, bypassing utilities altogether. Florida is one of only a handful of states that prohibit consumers from buying power directly from third-party solar providers.

The Consumers for Smart Solar PAC has raised over $21 million through September, largely from “fossil fuel and other monopoly utility-aligned groups” and spent almost $16 million.

Supporters say the amendment is needed to ensure state and local governments can pass regulations that protect solar-power consumers as well as utility customers. They say it guarantees consumers’ right to place solar panels on their home by “[placing] that right in Florida’s constitution, where politicians and special interests can’t tamper with it.” A key selling point is that it “makes sure that you are not forced to subsidize the energy choices of those who do.”

Opponents of the Amendment (functioning as a PAC called Floridians for Solar Choice, of which the LWVF is a member) say the Amendment would “enshrine in the Constitution existing laws that block solar growth in favor of existing utility companies like Duke Energy and Florida Power & Light by helping ensure their monopoly on the sale of power to Floridians.” As compared to the Amendment 1 sponsoring PAC’s $21 million, the Floridians for Solar Choice PAC has raised less than $2 million, largely through a grassroots effort.

My vote – I don’t want to see such a huge benefit to the big power companies enshrined in the Florida Constitution. With their enormous budgets and lobbying power, they have more than enough control over what happens in our state, and I don’t trust what they say is the intent of this Amendment.

I will VOTE NO on Amendment 1.

Amendment 2 – Medical Marijuana
Sponsor: the People United for Medical Marijuana PAC

From the LWVF Guide:

“Two years after a similar amendment narrowly failed, Amendment 2 is on the ballot to legalize the use of medical marijuana to relieve the symptoms of people afflicted with specific diseases and conditions.

“Amendment 2 differs from the 2014 amendment question by providing more specifics about which “debilitating medical conditions” would qualify for marijuana use by patients, with the approval of a physician. It also permits caregivers to assist patients in administering marijuana treatments and sets up a regulatory scheme, administered by the state Department of Health, that includes issuing ID cards to patients and caregivers. It does not provide legal cover to those who use marijuana outside the regulated use for medical conditions.

Current state law, passed in 2014, allows the use of non-euphoric cannabis for patients with medical conditions that cause seizures and severe muscle spasms. The Legislature also passed a law this spring that allows terminally ill patients to receive prescriptions for full-strength marijuana. As of mid-April, 24 states had laws permitting the use of marijuana for medical conditions….”

Supporters include Florida attorney John Morgan and the PAC People United for Medical Marijuana, which has spent $12 million since 2009. Supporters also include the ACLU of Florida, the Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood and the Florida Democratic Party. (See list of endorsements here.)

Opponents include Dr. Allen Weiss, president and CEO of Naples’ NCH Healthcare System and member of the Board of Trustees of the American Hospital Association. In a Guest Commentary in the Naples Daily News, Weiss wrote:

“Marijuana has yet to undergo clinical trials or even serious clinical research. Consequently, no comprehensive, clinical knowledge of so-called “medical marijuana” exists….

“While Amendment 2 claims to be about “medicine,” it actually ignores 21st-century medical standards and outsources the traditional role played by well-trained pharmacists in dispensing medicine…. [S]ince marijuana is illegal under federal law and since pharmacies are federally regulated, pharmacists wouldn’t be allowed to participate in the process. Instead of depending on reliable pharmacists, Amendment 2 would introduce thousands of pot shops in Florida. What kind of medical professional would be working in these pot shops? The short answer is: No medical professional of any type…. And what if these untrained individuals make a mistake? They will receive unprecedented immunity under Florida’s constitution….”

Also opposing the Amendment are the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the Florida Medical Association, the Palm Beach County Substance Awareness Coalition and the Drug Free Florida PAC. This latter group has raised $9.2 million since its formation in 2014, and operates as “Vote No On 2.”

My vote – Current law already makes several provisions for the medical use of cannabis, and I am persuaded by the concerns expressed by Dr. Weiss and the medical community that there is not enough clinical knowledge about the effects of marijuana on patients’ therapy. I also worry about the possible proliferation of “pot shops” that could easily be a result if this Amendment passed. While the extent of the potential problem is hard to estimate, a 2015 analysis by the Florida Department of Health estimated that 440,552 patients in Florida would qualify, leading to 1,965 registered treatment centers. I don’t want “pot shops” to become Florida’s next “pill mills.”

I will VOTE NO on Amendment 2.

Amendment 3 – Tax Exemption for Disabled First Responders
Sponsor: The Florida Legislature (House Bill 1009)

From the LWVF Guide:

“Florida’s Constitution already grants a property-tax exemption to the spouses of first responders who die in the line of duty. Amendment 3 authorizes the Legislature to extend that exemption to first responders who are “totally and permanently disabled” from injuries they received in the line of duty. First responders are defined under existing law as police and correctional officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians and paramedics.

The Senate and House voted unanimously to place this amendment on the ballot. State officials did not estimate how much the new exemption might cost local governments from lost property tax revenue….”

If approved, the Legislature would have to decide whether to provide full or partial relief from property taxes and how to determine that a disability was caused by the first responder’s service in the line of duty. Presumably at that time, they would come up with an estimate of the Amendment’s cost.

According to the LWVF, there does not appear to be any organized support or opposition to this amendment.

My vote – I have a problem in general with enshrining tax exemptions in the state constitution. Once there, they are difficult to change, and they limit legislators’ options each year when they have to balance the state budget. Preferably, all tax-related provisions would be made by statute, rather than amending the Constitution.

But putting tax exemptions in the Constitution is something Florida has long done. The prohibition of a state personal income tax is in the Constitution. The Homestead Exemption from property tax and the Save Our Homes Assessment Limitation are in the Constitution, as are Property Tax Benefits for Persons 65 or Older, Property Tax Benefits for Active Duty Military and Veterans and more.

Unfortunately, while Florida voters can amend the Constitution by referendum, they can’t make laws that way, bizarre as that seems. So my opposition to granting tax breaks by Constitutional amendment is not absolute as long as the breaks encourage what I consider to be a valid public policy and are fiscally responsible.

So, for example, I voted in August for Amendment 4, which provided property tax breaks for people who install solar panels on their home. I did so because I support the encouragement of solar energy as a matter of public policy and because the economic impact had been considered and seems appropriate (see Final Bill Analysis here).

In the case of Amendment 3, the fact that the Legislature did not require an estimate of the cost of this exemption before unanimously sending it on to the voters is galling. By way of explanation, the Final Bill analysis said:

“The Revenue Estimating Conference has not reviewed the joint resolution. However, if approved by the electorate the joint resolution alone will have a zero impact on local government revenue due to the need for further implementation at the option of the Legislature.”

Not a single legislator wanted to take the politically poisonous chance of voting against this benefit to disabled first responders, so they punted. They said, “Let the voters decide.” Once the amendment passes, I have no doubt they will implement it, regardless of cost. I find this troubling.

As a matter of public policy, Florida has already decided that active duty military and veterans who were honorably discharged with a service-related total and permanent disability may be eligible for a total exemption from property taxes. Amendment 3 would extend the same benefit to first-responders who die in the line of duty.

With great reservations about continuing down a slippery slope with no idea of cost or where or how to draw the line in terms of extending this same benefit to others (What about elected officials and other public servants?), I will VOTE YES on Amendment 3. I hope that when Florida’s Constitutional Revision Commission meets in in 2017–18, they seriously reconsider whether such exemptions belong in the Constitution.

Amendment 5 – Homestead exemption for low-income seniors

Sponsor: The Florida Legislature (House Bill 275)

From the LWVF Guide:

“Amendment 5 would ensure that low-income seniors who qualify for an additional homestead exemption as longtime residents do not lose that exemption if the value of their property rises. The exemption to the state Constitution was originally approved by voters in 2012. The law currently allows cities and counties to grant a full exemption from property taxes to people with the same age and income limits if: 1) the homeowner is 65 or older, 2) annual household income didn’t exceed $28,448 in 2015 (income limits are adjusted annually for inflation), 3) the just (market) value of their property is less than $250,000 and, 4) the homeowner has lived there for at least 25 years. The original intent was to ensure that long-time, low-income seniors don’t lose their homes because they can’t pay the tax bill. But seniors who now get the exemption would lose it if their home value tops $250,000.

“Amendment 5, which passed the House and Senate unanimously, would lock in the exemption permanently once a senior qualifies, regardless of how much the property increases in value. The amendment would take effect on Jan. 1, 2017, but is retroactive to 2013, which means a senior who qualified for the exemption in 2013, but lost it, would regain the exemption….”

Regarding the Amendment’s fiscal impact, the Final Bill Analysis said:

“The Revenue Estimating Conference determined the proposed constitutional amendment has either a zero or negative indeterminate revenue impact on counties and municipalities, reflecting the need first for approval by the voters, then the ability of local governments to choose whether or not to allow the exemption in their jurisdiction….”

As a matter of public policy, Florida voters approve granting tax-exemptions to low-income seniors who are long-time residents. It makes no sense to require a senior who still meets the income and all other requirements to start paying taxes simply because her property value rises above $250,000.

I will vote YES on Amendment 5.

Summary of how I’ll vote

  • Amendment 1 – NO
  • Amendment 2 – NO
  • Amendment 3 – YES
  • Amendment 5 – YES

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