Wading Through Amendments Will Be Work For Florida Voters

If you’ve ever seen parents spell out words they don’t want their child to understand or seen them bundle something onerous with something good — like, be nice to your sister and you can have ice cream when we get home — then you’ll understand the strategies that seem to have been employed by the Florida Constitution Revision Commission in the wording of the dozen amendments that voters will decide on in the November general election.

Assistant County Administrator Todd Bonlarron made a presentation at the Royal Palm Beach library Monday, Sept. 24 that was taped for broadcast on the program Politically Speaking on Channel 20. The program will air numerous times before the election on Palm Beach County’s public affairs television station.

Bonlarron said that the revision commission used several legislative tricks. “It puts good things and bad things together and bundles them,” he said.

Amendments can be placed on the ballot by citizen-led initiatives for ideas with grassroots support, by the state legislature to achieve political objectives or by the revision commission to really achieve political objectives.

The revision commission convenes every 20 years to offer amendments to Florida’s constitution. Many of the amendments offer an opportunity for the leaders in power to leave a legacy far beyond their term limits.

By bundling up to four diverse topics in a single amendment, the voter must be careful to vote “yes” or “no” to express their choice. Sometimes, “yes” means “no.”

There were 13 amendments, but one was struck from the ballot by the Florida Supreme Court. Amendments need 60 percent approval for passage.

Of course, the motives are not all nefarious. “They bundle the amendments to keep the ballot shorter,” Bonlarron said. “After about six, the voter will sometimes vote no to everything or skip the amendments all together.”

Bonlarron said that he wanted to explain the amendments and answer questions, so that voters would know what each one means.

“I am not here to convince you, only to educate you,” he stressed.

Here are some of the most confusing.

Perhaps you think using smokeless vaping is a matter of choice and should not be prohibited in public places. Amendment 9 prohibits its use in the same way current law prohibits tobacco use.

However, the amendment also prohibits offshore drilling in state, not federal, waters. The voter can choose “yes” if they don’t want offshore drilling and they don’t want public vaping. Want one, but not the other? You’re out of luck. The amendment is a two-sided coin. The constitution will either prohibit both offshore drilling and public vaping, or neither.

This is also an example of “yes” meaning “no.” Vote “no” to the amendment and offshore drilling in state waters isn’t protected.

If you’re interested in how much can be packed into a single amendment, see Amendment 10. No less than four distinct topics are covered in a single paragraph. Like a strict restaurant special, there are no substitutions.

First, the amendment changes the word “authorizes” referring to the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs to the word “requires.” Vote “no” and the existing state department will continue to exist, it just won’t be “required” constitutionally.

The same is true of the Office of Domestic Security and Counterterrorism. The existing one required by law would become constitutionally required.

Additionally, Amendment 10 would constitutionally set the annual legislative session to commence in even-numbered years in January rather than March, removing the legislature’s authorization to fix another date.

Finally, Amendment 10 guarantees that all county sheriffs, property appraisers, tax collectors, supervisors of elections and clerks of the circuit courts would remain independently elected positions.

One may well wonder just who makes up the revision commission and why they can’t make amendments easier to understand. The Florida Bar Association has found that nine out of 10 of Floridians do not know what the Florida Constitution Revision Commission does. So, here’s a chance to move far into the minority.

The 37-member panel convenes every two decades in a year ending in eight, reviewing the constitution and proposing changes and can refer amendments directly to the ballot for public vote. This ability to put items on the ballot makes Florida unique among all the 50 states.

The panel is made up of 15 members selected by the governor, which includes the chair. There are 18 members, split nine each for the selection of the president of the Florida Senate and the speaker of the Florida House, three are chosen by the chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court, and the sitting attorney general serves as the 37th member.

To change the constitution to put any of these measures in the document, it takes support from 60 percent of voters — and millions of dollars getting it on the ballot.

Just as important, changing the constitution to take any of these measures out takes the same 60 percent and millions more dollars for the initiative to get it on the ballot before the next 20 years are up. That’s where that legacy mentioned earlier comes in.

“It’s a high and more difficult [to reach] threshold to change the constitution,” Bonlarron said.

Exactly 19 people were in the room to hear the presentation: a librarian, Bonlarron, the broadcast crew of three, the Town-Crier and 13 interested citizens.

“You are some of the most educated voters in Palm Beach County,” said Bonlarron, who went on to add that he was recruiting the group to educate other voters.

Bonlarron said that the broadcast video would be shown on Channel 20 about 40 times between its debut in about a week and the election. He encouraged everyone to have their friends watch. He also said that his PowerPoint presentation with the exact language of the amendments, and his written explanations, would be available on the county’s web site.

Included below is Bonlarron’s explanation of the amendments.


A Guide To The 2018 Florida Constitutional Amendments

At a recent presentation, Assistant County Administrator Todd Bonlarron answered questions and explained the state amendments on the general election ballot. There are 12 amendments on the ballot, numbered Amendment 1 through Amendment 13, skipping Amendment 8, which was removed by the Florida Supreme Court.

Amendment 1, Increased Homestead Property Tax Exemption — Currently, the first $25,000 in value of a homesteaded property is exempt from taxation; the next $25,000 is taxed; the bracket of $50,000 up to $75,000 is tax exempt except for school taxes; and over $75,000 is taxable. This amendment provides an additional $25,000 exemption between $100,000 and $125,000, also excluding school taxes. Non-homesteaded and commercial properties are not included.

Passage of this amendment would mean that the county will see a reduction in its budget of $37 million, including $8 million for fire-rescue departments and $2 million for the library system. What this means to the individual is a lowering of property taxes, coupled with a possible reduction in government services and/or an increase in the tax rate. A “yes” vote means support for the additional exemption, and a “no” vote means there would be no additional homestead exemption.

Amendment 2, Limitations on Property Tax Assessments — In 2008, the legislature voted to combat a run-up of home valuations during the boom years that caps the uppermost rate at 10 percent per year for non-homesteaded properties. This would be the maximum allowed, and it had a sunset provision.

A “yes” vote removes the sunset provision and keeps the cap. A “no” vote will let the cap expire. If the 10 percent cap goes away, this would mean a $28 million increase in county tax revenue.

A voter who votes “yes” removes the sunset provision and retains the cap. A voter who wants to do away with the 10 percent cap would vote “no.”

Amendment 3, Voter Control of Casino Gambling — This amendment was put on by voter initiative. Today, voters and the state legislature have a right to control gambling. This amendment would put the decision exclusively in the hands of the voters. Voting for this measure means that you want to make it more difficult to expand casino gambling in Florida. This measure is being supported by family-friendly companies like the Disney Corporation, while the Seminole Tribe of Florida and various cruise lines are against the measure.

Amendment 4, Voting Rights Restoration — This amendment restores the right to vote for people with prior felony convictions, except those convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense, upon completion of their sentences, including prison, parole and probation. Currently, Florida has one of the most difficult processes to restore voting rights to convicted felons. This amendment would change that.

Amendment 5, Supermajority Required to Impose, Authorize or Raise State Tax Fees — This measure was put on the ballot by the legislature to tie the hands of future state officials to make it more difficult to raise taxes. It would put the control in a smaller group of officials who could say “no” and prevent the supermajority from saying “yes.” Voting “yes” means it would take a two-thirds supermajority of the legislature to raise taxes in the future. A “no” vote keeps it a simple majority.

Amendment 6, Rights of Crime Victims; Judicial Issues — This bundled amendment provides rights to crime victims that most people seem to think is a good idea. It also increases the retirement age for judges from 70 to 75, and it prohibits state courts from deferring to administrative agencies that have ruled on complex issues they work with every day. A “yes” vote makes these items part of the constitution. A “no” vote leaves these as Florida statutes and not in the constitution.

Amendment 7, First Responder/Military Member Survivor Benefits; State College System Issues — This is another measure that exists in Florida law, but the revision commission opted to put to a vote to add it to the constitution. This would mandate survivor benefits to the surviving spouses of first responders and active-duty military. It would also require a supermajority vote to raise state college fees and codify the current state college system in the constitution.

Amendment 9, Prohibits Offshore Oil and Gas Drilling; Prohibits Vaping in Enclosed Indoor Work Spaces — This two-for-one amendment prohibits offshore drilling in state waters and treats vaping like regular tobacco, which is prohibited in enclosed areas. A “yes” vote bans both; a “no” vote does not.

Amendment 10, State and Local Government Structure and Operation — Amendment 10 includes four issues. It authorizes changes to require a State Department of Veterans Affairs and a State Office of Domestic Security and Counterterrorism. It also sets the annual legislative session dates, and it requires the direct election of county constitutional officers. A “yes” vote puts all four measures in the constitution.

Amendment 11, Property Rights; Removal of Obsolete Provisions; Criminal Statutes — Bonlarron described this amendment as the most difficult to explain. There is obsolete language in the constitution that voters elected to repeal in the past. Such action caused the language to be crossed out, but not removed. This measure would actually remove the language entirely from the constitution.

Other measures in this amendment strike discriminatory wording that has been in the constitution since the 1800s that prevented some people from owning property in Florida. The obsolete language has already been struck down by the courts but remains in the document.

A final measure is a retroactive application for convicted criminals of crimes that have had their sentencing guidelines changed. This lets judges revisit and adjust the sentencing if they consider the original punishment is too harsh given the current standards.

Amendment 12, Lobbying and Abuse of Office by Public Officers — This amendment would make laws more restrictive prohibiting lobbying, if one has held public office. A vote of “no” maintains the current level of legal prohibitions.

Amendment 13, Ends Dog Racing — The final amendment puts in a sunset provision, ending dog racing in the State of Florida. Other gaming is not affected.