Oct. 25–Florida voters face a dizzying array of proposed amendments to the state constitution, a daunting dozen measures written in less-than-clear language and requiring voters to do their homework before casting their ballots.
Two proposed amendments address property taxes and the state’s increasingly complicated system of exemptions and valuation limits. Two measures address Florida’s byzantine gambling rules. One amendment would allow convicted criminals to vote without seeking clemency, while another would limit the state Legislature’s ability to raise taxes.
And one proposal is raising the ire of good-government activists by asking voters to vote yes or no to restrictions no two seemingly unrelated topics. Amendment 9 would both ban offshore drilling for oil in Florida waters and restrict vaping in offices and other indoor workplaces.
“What vaping and offshore drilling have to do with each other is a good question,” said Patricia Brigham, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida.
Amendment 9 is one of seven ballot proposals that appear at the suggestion of the state’s Constitution Revision Commission, which meets every 20 years. That body’s deliberations yielded proposals such as Amendment 12, which would extend a lobbying ban by former elected officials from two years to six years, Amendment 13, which would ban betting on greyhound racing.
While those two ballot measures are easy to grasp, Brigham said the “convoluted” proposals such as Amendment 9 reflect a Constitution Revision Commission that didn’t always make its proposed amendments easy to understand.
“It puts an unfair burden on the voter,” Brigham said.
Kevin Wagner, a political scientist at Florida Atlantic University, agreed that voters might need to engage in mental gymnastics to make sense of a few of the ballot proposals.
“Some of them are quite complex, even for people who study politics,” Wagner said.
Wagner said the sheer number ballot questions could increase the time voters need to fill out their ballots and therefore bog down the polling process. However, that concern seems to be mitigated by the large numbers of Florida voters turning out for early voting, which began Oct. 22, and voting by mail-in ballot.
The League of Women Voters embarked on a statewide campaign to educate voters about the amendments. Palm Beach County officials also have hosted workshops designed to demystify the amendments. Even so, they acknowledge that voting this year might feel like a slog.
“It takes a while just to read the amendment, let alone try to dig into it a little bit and figure out exactly what it’s asking,” said Todd Bonlarron, assistant county administrator. “Some people might, after a couple amendments, say, ‘Wow this is a lot to be asked in one time,’ and just throw their hands up.”
In addition to the seven ballot proposals created by the Constitution Revision Commission, there are three measures proposed by the state’s Republican-dominated Legislature. All three are related to cutting taxes or making it harder for politicians to raise taxes.
And two of the proposals are citizens’ initiatives.
Over the decades, Floridians have approved a variety of constitutional amendments, often veering back and forth across ideological lines. Voters approved a boost to the minimum wage in 2004, barred gay marriage in 2008 and legalized medical marijuana in 2016.
In one momentous measure, 54 percent of Floridians voted for Save Our Homes in 1992. Years after that vote, soaring real estate values across the state led neighbors in similar homes to pay wildly different property tax bills. That led to a flood of new amendments related to the state’s property tax system.
Under today’s rules, Save Our Homes wouldn’t have passed. Amendments no longer require a simple majority. Lawmakers, concerned that every amendment on the ballot sailed through no matter its merits, raised the threshold to 60 percent.
A rundown of the proposed amendments to the Florida Constitution on the Nov. 6 ballot:
Amendment 1: Increased Homestead Property Exemption
Cut through the circuitous arithmetic, and Amendment 1 boils down to a referendum on local property taxes. Do Florida homeowners want to give themselves a tax cut worth $688 million, or do they prefer to send that money to local governments?
First, a description of how taxes work now: Florida lets homesteaded property owners exempt from taxes the first $50,000 of value. So if you own a property with an assessed value of $150,000, you subtract $50,000 from that sum and pay taxes on just $100,000. In that scenario, a typical homeowner would pay about $2,000 a year in property taxes to cities, counties, school boards, water management districts and other local taxing bodies.
Amendment 1 exempts an additional $25,000 from taxes — but only the $25,000 of value from $100,000 to $125,000. So the owner of the $150,000 home would see the taxable value fall to $75,000, and the tax bill would drop to $1,500.
The Florida Legislature put this measure on the ballot. Lawmakers support Amendment 1 as a hefty tax cut for homeowners. But cities, counties and schools counter that Amendment 1 would force them to slash services and raise tax rates.
Amendment 2: Limitations on Property Tax Assessments
“Son of Save Our Homes” might be a catchier slogan. The landmark 1992 amendment limited assessment increases on homesteaded properties to 3 percent a year. But second homes, investment properties, office buildings, malls and other non-homesteaded properties could soar in assessed value — and that’s exactly what happened when the Florida real estate bubble inflated.
Seeking to address the unfairness created by Save Our Homes, Florida voters in 2008 agreed to limit tax assessment increases on non-homesteaded properties to 10 percent a year. However, that cap was limited to 10 years.
This time around, voters will decide whether to make the 10 percent cap permanent. State lawmakers also put this amendment on the ballot. While the Florida Realtors, the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Florida TaxWatch support the measure, the League of Women Voters opposes it.
Amendment 3: Voter Control of Gambling
This proposal would take authority to expand casino gambling away from the Legislature and give it to voters.
Amendment 3 would give voters the “exclusive right to decide whether to authorize casino gambling” in the state. The change would require voter approval of casino-style games, such as slots, in the future.
The amendment — bankrolled by a Disney subsidiary and the Seminole Tribe of Florida — pits the state’s gambling industry and many lawmakers against anti-gambling advocates.
Lawmakers would continue to make decisions about non-casino gambling, including poker rooms, bingo, lotteries and fantasy sports.
The constitutional amendment comes after the Legislature has failed time and again to agree on sweeping changes to gambling rules. In one example, Gov. Rick Scott in 2015 proposed allowing 750 slot machines and 750 video-gaming machines at Palm Beach Kennel Club, a plan that fizzled. Palm Beach County is one of eight counties voters have approved slot machines by referendums.
Amendment 4: Restoration of Voting Rights
Some 1.4 million Floridians have lost the right to vote after being convicted of felonies. Regaining their voting rights requires ex-convicts to wait five years and then seek clemency, a lengthy process.
Amendment 4, which has backers as varied as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Koch Brothers, automatically would restore the right to vote for people who were convicted of felonies and who have completed their sentences, paid restitution and fulfilled parole or probation requirements. Murderers and sex offenders would be excluded.
After taking office in 2011, Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi effectively make it harder for felons to have their voting rights restored. The number of applications for restoration has plunged under Scott and the all-Republican Cabinet, which acts as the state’s Board of Executive Clemency.
Since the changes went into effect, Scott — whose support is required for any type of clemency to be granted — and the board have restored the rights of 3,005 of the more than 30,000 convicted felons who’ve applied, according to the Florida Commission on Offender Review. As of Oct. 1, there was a backlog of 10,275 pending applications, according to the commission.
Amendment 5: Supermajority Vote Required to Impose, Authorize or Raise State Taxes or Fees
Florida taxpayers pay one of the lowest tax burdens in the nation, and the Florida Legislature wants to keep it that way. The body proposed an amendment that would require a two-thirds vote by the state House and Senate to raise existing taxes and fees or to impose new ones.
Now, tax increases require a simple majority — although such a vote is rare given the Republican majority in Tallahassee — and the approval of the governor.
Florida TaxWatch and the Florida Chamber of Commerce support Amendment 5. Opponents, including the League of Women Voters of Florida and the Florida Education Association, say the measure would hamstring the state’s ability to respond to another financial crises or to adapt to shifting priorities.
Amendment 6: Rights of Crime Victims; Judges
This amendment — the subject of an advertising blitz that includes a spot featuring Cheers actor Kelsey Grammer — would expand the rights of crime victims, making certain that they’re kept apprised of court dates and appeals filed by the accused. The measure also would limit timeframes for filing appeals and would guarantee victims the right to have standing in court.
It’s one of the “bundled” amendments proposed by the Constitution Review Committee. Amendment 6 also raises the mandatory retirement age for judges and Supreme Court justices from 70 to 75.
Supporters of Amendment 6 include 37 of Florida’s 67 sheriffs. Opponents include the Florida Public Defender Association and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Amendment 7: First Responder and Military Member Survivor Benefits; Public Colleges and Universities
The ballot proposal would require a supermajority vote by university boards of trustees and the university system’s Board of Governors when raising or creating student fees. The amendment would not affect decisions about tuition.
Another ballot question combining unrelated issues, this one also would require the payment of death benefits when law enforcement officers, paramedics, correctional officers and other “first responders” are killed while performing their official duties. The provision also includes Florida National Guard members and active-duty military members stationed in Florida.
It’s unclear how much the more generous death benefits might cost.
Amendment 9: Prohibits Offshore Oil and Gas Drilling; Restricts Vaping in Enclosed Indoor Workplaces
The title aptly describes the intent: Amendment 9 bans oil and gas drilling beneath Florida state waters, and it seeks to treat indoor vaping in a manner similar to smoking.
Restrictions on oil drilling have won the support of environmental advocates such as the Florida Wildlife Federation. And vaping restrictions have won the support of health-related organizations such as the American Cancer Society and the American Lung Association, which say that e-cigarettes expose non-vaping workers to secondhand aerosols that could prove harmful. The amendment would treat electronic cigarettes in a similar manner to tobacco cigarettes and send office workers outside to vape. However, vaping would be allowed in homes, bars and hotel rooms that permit vaping.
Opponents of Amendment 9 include the Florida Petroleum Council, Associated Industries of Florida and the Florida Chamber of Commerce. Meanwhile, the ballot measure has drawn criticism for combining two unrelated issues in one amendment.
Amendment 10: State and Local Government Structure and Operation
This amendment addresses a variety of seemingly unrelated issues. It would compel each of Florida’s 67 counties to elect rather than appoint constitutional officers, including sheriffs, tax collectors, property appraisers and supervisors of elections.
Miami-Dade, Broward and Volusia counties unsuccessfully challenged the proposal, arguing that local voters should have the right to decide whether constitutional officers are appointed or elected.
Amendment 10 also would mandate the creation of an Office of Domestic Security and Counterterrorism within the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. It would forbid Florida from dissolving the state Department of Veterans’ Affairs.
And the ballot measure would require the state Legislature to begin its session in early January in even-numbered years, rather than allowing lawmakers to set the start date.
Amendment 11: Property Rights; Removal of Obsolete Provision; Criminal Statutes
Supporters of this proposal consider it a “clean-up” measure. Amendment 11 would eliminate an unenforceable section in the state Constitution that prohibits “aliens ineligible for citizenship” from owning property.
The proposal also would strike obsolete language that authorizes a high-speed rail system. And it would revise the Constitution to make it clear that the repeal of a criminal law does not affect the prosecution of any crime committed before the repeal, although it could allow the punishment to be adjusted in light of the repealed or modified statute.
Amendment 12: Lobbying and Abuse of Office by Public Officers
This government ethics proposal would impose a six-year ban on lobbying by state and local elected officials, expanding the current two-year prohibition.
Amendment 12 was spearheaded by former Florida Senate President Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican who served on the Constitution Revision Commission.
Amendment 12 would forbid state lawmakers and statewide elected officials from lobbying the Legislature, any state agency or Cabinet offices for six years after they leave office. Also, former state agency heads would be banned from lobbying their former agencies, as well as the Legislature and other state agencies.
At the local level, former county commissioners, school board members, mayors, city council members and constitutional officers would be banned from lobbying their former agencies for six years after they leave office. And former judges would not be allowed to lobby the Legislature or state executive agencies for six years after they leave the bench.
Another provision would prohibit public officials, at both the state and local levels, from lobbying any other government entity, including the federal government, “for compensation” while they are in office. Amendment 12 is supported by Common Cause and Integrity Florida and opposed by the Florida Chamber of Commerce.
Amendment 13: Dog Racing
Greyhound racing, that throwback to Florida’s days of early-bird dinners, cocaine cowboys and Coppertone tans, has been in decline for decades. Opponents of the sport hope to hasten its demise.
Amendment 13 would end betting on dog racing by Dec. 31, 2020, while letting dog tracks continue to offer poker rooms and slot machines.
Critics long have called the racing industry’s treatment of dogs cruel, an allegation greyhound owners dispute. Activists say more than 400 racing dogs have died in Florida since 2013, many after injuries sustained on the track, including broken backs, broken necks and head trauma. They also point to greyhounds testing positive for steroids and cocaine.
Other criticisms: Greyhounds spend more than 20 hours a day in small cages, eat low-grade food and frequently are afflicted with hookworm, ticks and fleas.
“They are incredibly athletic and beautiful and graceful,” said Carey Theil, executive director of the anti-racing group Grey2K USA of Massachusetts. “We think Florida voters will look at this and think, ‘This isn’t how I would treat my dog.'”
Jack Cory, a lobbyist who represents the Florida Greyhound Association and the National Greyhound Association, disputes allegations of abuse. The dogs’ owners get paid only if the animals finish in the top four of any given race, so handlers have an incentive to coddle greyhounds, Cory argued.
“Common sense would tell you they’re going to do everything humanly possible to treat their animals well,” Cory said. “They’re animal athletes, no different than the basketball players and football players at FAU. Would FAU not feed their football players? Of course not.”
Amid the strenuous debate over the treatment of dogs, there’s no disputing another harsh reality: Greyhound racing no longer captures the attention of the betting public like it once did. For the past quarter-century, the racing business has been shrinking.
In 2006, Florida greyhound tracks handled bets totaling $478 million, according to the state’s Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering. By 2017, the handle had plummeted to less than $230 million.
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