November Ballot Will Include Four State Amendments

Assistant County Administrator Todd Bonlarron recently visited with voters at the Wellington library to discuss the four statewide constitutional amendments that will be on the Nov. 8 general election ballot.

“Every election cycle, whenever there are these pesky amendment questions on there that nobody understands at first read, I try to get out into the community and talk to as many people as I can to try to present them both sides of the issues,” Bonlarron said.

Each of the amendments will need 60 percent approval to pass.

The first amendment focuses on solar power. It is titled “Rights of Electricity Consumers Regarding Solar Energy Choice” and was sponsored by Consumers for Smart Solar. The amendment reads, in part:

“This amendment establishes a right under Florida’s constitution for consumers to own or lease solar equipment installed on their property to generate electricity for their own use. State and local governments shall retain their abilities to protect consumer rights and public health, safety and welfare, and to ensure that consumers who do not choose to install solar are not required to subsidize the costs of backup power and electric grid access to those who do.”

The first sentence states a right that residents already have, Bonlarron said. Merely statutory now, it would become a state constitutional right.

The second sentence is confusing, he said, calling the amendment one of the most difficult he has had to explain. “Right now, under state law, there’s a law called Net Metering,” he said.

Essentially, when you produce solar energy at your home, the electricity and utility companies purchase the excess power from you, and then add it to their electricity and sell, Bonlarron explained. The proponents for the initiative are the utility companies, which are governed by the Public Service Commission, which makes the determination about rates.

“What happens right now is that you get charged a hookup charge when you connect your house to the grid. Whether you use electric or not, you still get that charge, but you get charged by kilowatts an hour,” he said.

Solar users have to buy back electricity on the grid on days when it is cloudy or rainy and they need the electricity.

“There are arguments that say that folks who have solar and are not contributing more on a kilowatt percentage aren’t paying their fair share on the maintenance of the [electrical] grid that is in place, and other people might be subsidizing it,” he said.

The proponents, Bonlarron noted, believe that in the event there are laws restricting a state or local government from regulating solar power, it would hurt the business model of how people pay into it, and would potentially force non-solar users to subsidize solar power users.

“On the other side of the issue, a lot of the people advocating for many of the solar rights that you now have in the constitution feel like this is an overreach and an overstep, and actually, by the passage of this, would be a disincentive for people to go out and buy solar power for their properties,” he explained.

A “yes” vote for this amendment supports adding the language to the constitution, while a “no” vote opposes adding the language to the constitution.

Amendment 2 is called “Use of Marijuana for Debilitating Medical Conditions.” Sponsored by the People United for Medical Marijuana, the amendment reads, in part:

“Allows medical use of marijuana for individuals with debilitating medical conditions as determined by a licensed Florida physician. Allows caregivers to assist patients’ medical use of marijuana. The Department of Health shall register and regulate centers that produce and distribute marijuana for medical purposes and shall issue identification cards to patients and caregivers. Applies only to Florida law. Does not immunize violations of federal law or any non-medical use, possession or production of marijuana.”

This is a similar question that failed in 2014 with just under the 60 percent approval threshold.

The open-endedness of the 2014 proposed amendment was considered vague, Bonlarron explained, and now the law stipulates what sort of diseases — such as cancer, epilepsy, seizures, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, PTSD, ALS, Crohn’s disease and Parkinson’s disease — can be treated with medical marijuana.

The current status of medical marijuana is that a low THC form of it is legal in Florida today, he said. Grown in five regions in Florida, it has been prescribed and delivered to patients. The Department of Health regulates the centers that produce and distribute medical marijuana.

For some groups, there is concern about the distribution of medical marijuana, the benefits of it, whether there are benefits to medical marijuana, and whether marijuana is a gateway drug.

A “yes” vote for the amendment means that you support legalizing medical marijuana for individuals with specific diseases as licensed by a physician, while a “no” vote opposes this proposal for medical marijuana, keeping Florida’s current laws unchanged.

Amendment 3, “Tax Exemption for Totally and Permanently Disabled First Responders,” was proposed by the state legislature. It reads, in part:

“Proposing an amendment to the state constitution to authorize a first responder, who is totally and permanently disabled as a result of injuries sustained in the line of duty, to receive relief from ad valorem taxes assessed on homestead property, if authorized by general law.”

This amendment is focused on first responders, which are defined as law enforcement officers, corrections officers, firefighters, EMTs and paramedics.

Proponents argue that first responders put their lives on the line, put themselves in harm’s way and the community should support them. Opponents are generally taxation purists who believe that taxation should be equal. Others think it is dangerous to make exemptions by occupation. From a financial perspective, making some people exempt doesn’t mean that the government will stop providing those services — it will just be a smaller pool of people paying taxes.

A “yes” vote for this amendment supports a property-tax exemption for first responders permanently disabled in the line of duty. A “no” vote will not provide the property-tax exemption.

Amendment 5, “Homestead Tax Exemption for Certain Senior, Low-Income, Long-Term Residents,” focuses on low-income seniors. It was also proposed by the state legislature. It reads, in part:

“Proposing an amendment to the state constitution to revise the homestead tax exemption that may be granted by counties or municipalities for property with just value less than $250,000 owned by certain senior, low-income, long-term residents to specify that just value is determined in the first tax year the owner applies and is eligible for the exemption.”

Currently, the exemption is in the constitution, he said, for seniors 65 years old or older, low-income as defined as $28,448 or less, and have lived in their homes for 25 years or more, with home values of less than $250,000, can apply.

This amendment would maintain the exemption regardless of whether and how the home value changes. This would allow those who qualify to maintain that exemption in perpetuity. This only impacts property value circumstances.

A “yes” vote for this amendment supports property tax breaks for qualifying seniors by fixing home values. A “no” vote opposes the proposal for the land value application, not impacting the underlying language of the existing exemption.