In 32 days, voters will decide whether 11 proposed amendments will be added to the Florida Constitution when they go to cast their ballots Tuesday, Nov. 6.
The amendments range in topics from tax exemptions for certain residents to judicial oversight, abortion financing and funding of religious groups.
The 11 amendments are numbered 1 through 12. The discrepancy is because there is no Amendment 7 on the ballot. All amendments require at least 60 percent approval for passage.
Palm Beach County Legislative Affairs Director Todd Bonlarron encouraged all voters to have a grasp of the issues before going into the booth.
“People need to know these amendments before they go in there,” he told the Town-Crier Wednesday. “This is a long ballot, and I encourage people to be prepared on how they are going to vote on these issues so they don’t get fatigued.”
Bonlarron has been out providing facts on the amendments for residents at local gatherings. He stressed that his aim is to provide facts, not to advocate for a certain position on any of the issues.
Amendment 1, the “Health Care Services” amendment, would prevent the state from “compelling any person or employer to purchase, obtain or otherwise provide for healthcare coverage.”
It would also allow direct purchasing of healthcare, protect residents and healthcare providers from penalties for buying healthcare, and prohibit abolishing the private healthcare market.
Bonlarron said the amendment is a result of the national debate surrounding the Affordable Care Act. “It started in Tallahassee out of the national debate,” he said. “At the time, there was still uncertainty about what would happen with the federal legislation.”
Since it was placed on the ballot, the Supreme Court of the United States upheld the individual mandate portion of the ACA. Though the amendment would not supersede federal law, Bonlarron noted that it could come back into force should the ACA be repealed or changed.
“It’s a fallback measure for the state in the event that the federal healthcare law is repealed,” he said. “It would prevent Florida from doing what other states like Massachusetts have done, which is a healthcare plan that mandates coverage of individuals by employers, among other things. It would prohibit state legislators from drafting a similar law.”
Amendments 2, 9 and 11 are similar in that they provide for additional homestead property tax exemptions for certain groups.
Amendment 2 extends additional homestead tax exemptions to veterans who were disabled in the line of duty.
“It’s similar to the one that’s already in the constitution,” Bonlarron said. “But that only applies to veterans who lived in Florida at the time they went into combat.”
About 1,200 veterans received a discount under the current amendment, he said. The new amendment would open up the requirements. “It would extend the benefits to any disabled veteran who decided to move to Florida,” he said.
Opposition to the measure, Bonlarron said, is largely by those who have fiscal concerns. “There are fiscal impacts associated with each of these amendments,” he said. “This one is approximately $15 million over the first three years, or $5 million a year. Then, in 2016, it jumps up to $7.5 million.”
Amendment 9 is similar in nature, giving additional exemptions to spouses of military members or first responders killed in the line of duty.
Bonlarron said that the constitution currently has such provisions for military widows, but not first responders. “This says that if their spouse is lost in the line of duty, they qualify for an additional exemption,” he said. “It could be a full or partial exemption.”
He said the fiscal impact is estimated at about $600,000.
In a similar vein, Amendment 11 would extend an additional exemption to seniors who are longtime homeowners.
“It would provide an additional tax exemption for seniors 65 years or older who have had the title to and lived in their home for more than 25 years,” Bonlarron said. “It would apply to homes less than $250,000.”
The changes, which would begin in 2014, would have a $9 million a year fiscal impact. “It passed in the House and Senate unanimously,” Bonlarron said.
Bonlarron said voters would have to weigh the costs of the amendments with the benefits of helping certain groups.
“You have to look at each individual amendment, or look at them correctly and ask ‘What’s the balance?’” he said. “We are helping a specific group of people. But there is a fiscal impact, and it can result in your taxes going up or your services being decreased.”
Also dealing with property taxes, Amendment 4 has three components: one to reduce the annual growth and assessment limitations, one to narrow the gap between assessed value and market value for homesteaded properties, and one to give an additional exemption to first-time homesteaders.
Bonlarron noted that if your home is not homesteaded, the annual growth and assessment limitation is 10 percent. “This will reduce it to 5 percent,” he said. Comparably, homesteaded properties have a 3 percent cap.
The second provision in the amendment would attempt to narrow the gap between assessed and market value for homesteaded properties.
“It would allow the legislature to prevent the home’s assessed value from going up while the market value goes down,” Bonlarron said.
The last provision would give first-time homesteaders — those who are receiving a homestead exemption for the first time in three years — an additional homestead exemption equal to 50 percent of the median value of the home up to $400,000.
The rate would decrease at 20 percent each year for a five-year period, until the homeowner is back to their regular homestead exemption.
“I think the idea is to get those people who are sitting on their hands, who want to buy a home but just haven’t done it yet, into the market,” Bonlarron said.
He said that the amendment would have a fiscal impact of $85 million over four years in Palm Beach County’s government alone.
“For all the government entities and municipalities in Palm Beach County, it would be $150 million,” he said. “It has a significant fiscal impact. You have to weigh the costs and benefits.”
Amendment 10 is aimed at businesses and deals with tangible personal property tax exemptions, which are currently set at $25,000. The change would expand that to $50,000 in exemptions. “It would help 150,000 businesses statewide,” Bonlarron said. “It would have a $20 million a year fiscal impact.”
Amendment 3 would implement restrictions on spending by state lawmakers. Bonlarron compared it to Colorado’s taxpayer bill of rights. “It would replace existing revenue limits with a new one that would be based on inflation and population change,” he explained.
Bonlarron said that the amendment is an effort to curb state spending during boom years, resulting in massive cuts in hard times.
“When times are really good and you have high revenue spikes, the government spends a lot of money,” he said. “Then when the downfall comes, you have deep, draconian cuts. This would say if the state is going to grow revenue, it can be no greater than the population growth.”
Amendment 5 gives additional control to the state legislature over the state’s judiciary by requiring that Florida Supreme Court justices be confirmed by the state senate, and by changing the two-thirds majority to overturn a Florida Supreme Court ruling into a simple majority.
“It would add a 90-day provision for the senate to deny or approve the confirmation of a Florida Supreme Court justice,” he said. “It would also allow the overturning of court rulings by a simple majority.”
Bonlarron said that supporters and opponents are divided mainly among party lines. “Some believe this would weaken the judicial branch,” he said. “Some opponents believe that this is meant to punish them for decisions that were made where people didn’t see eye to eye. Others think that some of the judges are legislating from the bench and going beyond the scope and purview of what they are supposed to decide. Supporters believe that putting more oversight by legislators will be beneficial.”
Though it is currently against federal and state law to use public money for abortion, Amendment 6 would seal the practice in the constitution.
Bonlarron noted that public funds could be spent only in order to save the mother’s life.
One provision in the amendment, however — to overturn court rulings that have allowed minors to seek abortions without their parents’ consent under the notion of privacy — is where the controversy lies, Bonlarron said.
“The arguments before the Florida Supreme Court have argued that if an individual has the right to privacy, then minors should have the right to privacy, meaning they should not need consent from their parents to have an abortion,” he said. “This would mean courts would no longer be able to use that clause in defending abortion rights.”
Amendment 8 would repeal the current state ban on tax money going for religious financing.
“Those opposed to it believe it is intended to expand the use of private school vouchers,” Bonlarron said. “On the other side, supporters believe that change is needed because hospitals, private colleges and pre-K programs tied to religious groups are in jeopardy of losing state funding.”
Finally, Amendment 12 would create a council of state university student body presidents and appoint the council’s chair to the Board of Governors of the State University System.
Under the current system, the president of the Florida Student Association sits on the board, Bonlarron said. This person has the ability to influence financing and other measures that affect universities.
Some universities, he said, believe the process is unfair.
“Florida State University has been lobbying for this for years,” he said. “What we have seen is that a lot of smaller universities from around the state have come together and prevented members from larger universities from being that representative [on the board].”
Bonlarron noted that every amendment on the ballot has an impact — be it fiscal, social or otherwise. He encouraged residents to seek out more information.
Bonlarron will be speaking on the issues at the Wellington branch of the Palm Beach County Library on Wednesday, Oct. 10 at 2:30 p.m. He will also be the guest speaker at County Commissioner Jess Santamaria’s Community Forum on Wednesday, Oct. 17 at 7 p.m. Both meetings are open to the public.