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Sunday, 19 February 2012 21:20

Voter Guide: Six proposed constitutional amendments on ballot

Written by 
 Orlando Sentinel recommends: 'No' on 2, 6 and 8, 'yes' on others. Condensed summary:,0,6520804.story
Voters' Guide to Proposed Constitutional Amendments 
by Cammie Donaldson, Space Coast Progressive Alliance 
Information presented here was compiled by consulting a variety of sources including: Florida Vote Smart, League of Women Voters, Florida Chamber of Commerce, Florida League of Cities, Florida Trend Magazine, Daytona News-Journal, Orlando Sentinel, St. Pete Times, Treasure Coast Scripps-Tribune, Audubon of Florida, the websites of Political Action Committees (PACs) supporting and opposing the amendments, and various blogs and online opinion letters.

Florida voters will have the opportunity to vote "YES" or "NO" to six proposed amendments to the state constitution.

Originally, there were nine amendments, most of which were put on the ballot by the state legislature and the state Tax and Budget Reform Commission (TBRC). One amendment (#2) was achieved by citizen petition organized by Florida4Marriage, a Political Action Committee (PAC) run by John Stemberger, Orlando attorney and president of The Florida Family Policy Council (

Three amendments proposed by the TBRC (# 5, 7, 9) were removed by the Florida Supreme Court, which judged them to be deceptive and misleading, and which questioned the authority of the TBRC to deal with education policy. Amendment #5 proposed to do away with property tax and replace the revenue with sales taxes. It was supported by realtors and some legislators but opposed by business and education interests. Amendment 7 sought to remove existing language in the state constitution safeguarding religious liberty and would have allowed for government-funded religious programs. Amendment 9 would have weakened the state's commitment to public education and overturned the supreme court's prior decision which declared then Governor Bush's school voucher program unconstitutional. Amendments 7 & 9 were supported by persons working with and for Jeb Bush, as well as Bush himself, the James Madison Institute, a conservative libertarian organization, and the Institute for Justice, a conservative libertarian law firm. Amendments 7 & 9 were opposed by the ACLU, numerous education associations, Americans United for Separation of Church & State, People for the American Way, and the Anti-Defamation League.

Amendment #1

Official Title: Relating to Property Rights/Ineligible Aliens

Official Ballot Summary: Proposing an amendment to the State Constitution to delete provisions authorizing the Legislature to regulate or prohibit the ownership, inheritance, disposition, and possession of real property by aliens ineligible for citizenship.

Discussion: Voting YES would remove from the State Constitution a provision commonly referred to as ?alien land law,? widely considered racist in origin and archaic, and potentially in conflict with federal law.

Voting NO would keep the provision in the State Constitution.

The key phrase is ?aliens ineligible for citizenship.? Florida?s provision dates back to 1926, a time when federal law restricted citizenship to whites and those of African descent. Asians and other races were ?ineligible.? Racial barriers to citizenship were gradually removed over time and in 1952, eliminated entirely by Congress.

From the late 1800s through WW II, prejudice against Asians, particularly Japanese farmers, led to fears that American agriculture would be taken over by Asians. Many states enacted alien land laws in response (and have since repealed such laws). Florida?s Constitution authorizes the Legislature to enact alien land laws, but Florida has never done so. Florida is the last state to have such an authorizing provision in its Constitution.

Advocates: State Legislature, Florida TaxWatch, Organization of Chinese Americans, Orlando Sentinel, St. Pete Times.
What they say: Removes racist, archaic language from Florida?s Constitution. Case law has determined that the ?ineligibility? language specifically targets race and not other factors (such as criminal history).

Opponents: No known organized groups
What they say: Some legislators (including former local Rep. Mitch Needelman) voted against this and raised concerns about the ability of government to regulate property ownership by undocumented aliens and non-citizen felons and terrorists. (Other legislators and the ACLU say that federal law, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Congress and the Dept. of Homeland Security have the authority to deal with such concerns.)

Amendment #2

Official Title: Florida Marriage Protection Amendment

Official Ballot Summary: This amendment protects marriage as the legal union of only one man and one woman as husband and wife and provides that no other legal union that is treated as marriage or the substantial equivalent thereof shall be valid or recognized.

Discussion: Voting YES would put language in the State Constitution that defines marriage and eliminates official recognition of any other kind of domestic partnership.

Voting NO would leave this language out of the Constitution.

A key concern is the phrase ?... no other legal union that is treated as marriage or the substantial equivalent thereof shall be valid or recognized.? This phrase puts any domestic partnership at risk of losing existing legal, economic, health and other social benefits and rights. The loss of such rights from similar legal measures has already occurred in Kentucky, Michigan, and Ohio.

Specific example: Many senior citizens share homes but do not marry for fear of losing pensions, social security or other forms of income. Voting YES would interfere with their ability to comfort or assist each other in the event of accidents, illness, or death, because hospitals, nursing homes and other institutions could not legally recognize them as having any rights to comfort or assist.

Some Florida cities and counties already offer ?Domestic Partnership Registries? to help ensure that domestic partners have access to benefits and rights such as hospital visitation and medical decision-making. Many Florida businesses, educational institutions and nonprofit organizations provide Domestic Partnership benefits to their employees, and use these as employee recruiting and retention tools.

Florida law already limits ?marriage? to one woman and one man (Florida statutes 741.212 (1, 2, 3) and 741.04 (1). Florida?s existing Defense of Marriage act does not allow same-sex marriage nor does it allow such marriages to be legally recognized in Florida, even if they are legal in other states.

Advocates: Florida Christian Coalition and various religious organizations, (was, Florida Family Policy Council
What they say: Activists are trying to redefine marriage. The amendment protects the current definition of marriage for future generations of Floridians. The amendment targets only same-sex and polygamous unions, and does not put other domestic partnerships at risk (but problems have occurred in other states with similar measures.)

Opponents: ACLU, Florida AFL-CIO, Florida Professional Firefighters, Human Rights Campaign, The League of Women Voters, NAACP of Florida, Orlando Sentinel, (includes Florida Red and Blue), the Unitarian Church, and various municipalities and businesses
What they say: Laws defining and restricting the definition of marriage already exist; this amendment is not needed. The amendment puts a wide range of existing financial, health, legal and social benefits at risk. People living together will lose benefits they currently enjoy, such as health insurance coverage. Businesses will lose the ability to attract employees in domestic partnerships, because partnership benefits cannot be offered. The Constitution should define rights, not restrict them. This amendment is very intrusive, regulating personal relationships of Floridians. The amendment will lead to major lawsuits, as similar measures have in other states.

Amendment #3

Official Title: Changes and Improvements Not Affecting the Assessed Value of Residential Real Property

Official Ballot Summary:
Authorizes the Legislature, by general law, to prohibit consideration or improvements to residential real property which increase resistance to wind damage and installation of renewable energy source devices as factors in assessing the property?s value for ad valorem taxation purposes. Effective upon adoption, repeals the existing renewable energy source device exemption no longer in effect.

Discussion: Voting YES would enable the legislature to create property tax exemptions that favor the installation of hurricane wind-hardening features and renewable energy use in existing residential homes.

Voting NO would not put this capability in the Constitution.

Example: If a homeowner spends money on hurricane shutters, hurricane resistant windows, or a solar energy system; these features increase the home?s value and provide a basis for increasing the homeowner?s property tax bill. This amendment would allow the legislature to create specific exemptions that would prohibit the added value from being considered for property tax purposes.

Advocates: Florida Chamber of Commerce, property insurers, businesses that sell wind-hardening and renewable energy products, Orlando Sentinel, Florida TaxWatch
What they say: Encouraging homeowners to wind-harden their homes and install renewable energy is a plus for everyone. Guaranteeing that such improvements will not result in higher property taxes may remove an obstacle for people to make these improvements. Residential property values will be increased. Homeowners will take steps to lessen the impact of climate change by shifting to renewable energy.

Opponents: Florida AFL-CIO.
What they say: Individual homeowner savings are hard to predict. This will result in  less local tax revenues. The amendment does not apply to new homes or commercial construction. Legislators could do this without amending the Constitution (some lawyers say no). The Constitution already allows local governments to provide exemptions for renewable energy sources (for original cost and no more than ten years). This may be an effort to take away local control from county governments. It?s unclear why the existing renewable energy source device exemption is being repealed.

Amendment #4

Official Title: Property Tax Exemption of Perpetually Conserved Land; Classification and Assessment of Land Used for Conservation

Official Ballot Summary: Requires Legislature to provide a property tax exemption for real property encumbered by perpetual conservation easements or other perpetual conservation protections, defined by general law. Requires Legislature to provide for classification and assessment of land used for conservation purposes, and not perpetually encumbered, solely on the basis of character or use. Subjects assessment benefit to conditions, limitations, and reasonable definitions established by general law. Applies to property taxes beginning in 2010.

Discussion: Voting YES would amend the Constitution to require that land used for conservation purposes be granted a property tax exemption and also provides for a new category of land use, conservation, for the basis of property tax assessment.

Voting NO would not add this to the Constitution.

This amendment does two things: creates a property tax exemption for conservation easements and requires the Legislature to create a new classification of ?conservation? land that qualifies for a reduced tax rate, much like current agricultural lands. Conservation land use could be changed to another use.

Generally, commercial property is taxed at its highest and best (?most potentially profitable?) use, not its current character or use. Agriculture is an exception. Agricultural land is taxed based on its use for agriculture, not its future potential as a housing development. This situation can be abused, with property owners putting out a few cows or trees to keep taxes low on ?agricultural? property that they plan to sell for other uses.

To protect the public from such abuse, safeguards would have to be institutionalized to capture lost tax revenue if land use changes (e.g., from conservation to condos).

Advocates: Audubon of Florida, Florida Chamber of Commerce, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Florida TaxWatch, Florida Wildlife Federation, The Nature Conservancy, Trust for Public Lands, 1000 Friends of Florida
What they say: Provides another tool to conserve vanishing open space and natural habitat. Will result in greater protection of water quality and wildlife habitat. Conserves land but puts management burden on property owner. Public benefits from conservation without paying full price. Money saved can be used to conserve more land. Some conservation lands can support agriculture. Easements in perpetuity safeguard the public?s investment. Reduced tax revenue is offset by reduced needs for public expense ? conservation lands don?t require schools, libraries, roads, etc.

Opponents: Florida League of Women Voters, Florida AFL-CIO
What they say: Requires legislature to put in safeguards to protect public investment. Could become a give-away to developers if it is too easy to classify property as conservation land (environmentalists have proposed safeguards for legislators to build into the system). Conservation land not perpetually encumbered could be converted to other uses when sold (again, safeguards would be required). Easements do not necessarily require public access. Easements limit land uses and reduce local tax revenues. This could have a big impact in poorer, largely rural counties. Some argue that property values decline (others cite the opposite case).

Amendment #6

Official Title: Assessment of Working Waterfront Property Based Upon Current Use

Official Ballot Summary: Provides for assessment based upon use of land used predominantly for commercial fishing purposes; land used for vessel launches into waters that are navigable and accessible to the public; marinas and drystacks that are open to the public; and water-dependent marine manufacturing facilities, commercial fishing facilities, and marine vessel construction and repair facilities and their support activities, subject to conditions, limitations, and reasonable definitions specified by general law.

Discussion: Voting YES will amend the Constitution to include a special category of property assessment based on current character and use of land used predominantly for commercial fishing and various marine uses.

Voting NO will not put this provision into the Constitution.

As waterfront property values increase, the property taxes increase. Most working waterfront businesses do not achieve profit levels that support the rapid increase of property taxes based on the highest and best (?most potentially profitable?) use of the waterfront. Many marine-related businesses claim that high taxes force them to sell or develop the property for more profitable, private uses (e.g., condos, housing).

Much like Amendment #4, this deals with taxation based on current character and use,  preserving what is perceived to be a generally more beneficial land use. This will result in significantly lower property taxes for working waterfront property (e.g., marinas, boat launches, commercial fishing).

Unlike Amendment #4, there is no suggestion of easements in perpetuity.

Advocates: Florida Chamber of Commerce, Florida TaxWatch, boatyard owners, fish house owners, marina owners, Marine Industries Association of Florida
What they say: This helps working waterfronts remain in business, diversifying and strengthening the economy. Working waterfronts provide public access to Florida waterways and enhance tourism. Working watefronts are part of Florida?s cultural heritage and should be protected.

Opponents: Florida AFL-CIO
What they say: Waterfront property owners do not lose their development rights; the property can be developed. In this case, the public loses the benefit of the property. No provision has been suggested to recoup lost tax revenue or create perpetual easements. Local tax revenues will be reduced. Could open the door to more special interest exemptions.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Since this Guide was written, Orlando Sentinel has advised voting NO on this amendment, advising (correctly) that the legislature could offer Conservation Easements for waterfront property, thus protecting the property from both taxes AND development. Otherwise, the proposed amendment as written, would enable waterfront property owner to misuse the amendment as temporary tax evasion, and then develop or sell the property for development. Newly identified proponents of this amendment include various organizations frequently aligned with development, ie Florida Association of Realtors, Associated Industries of Florida, and Florida Home Builders.

Amendment #8

Official Title: Local Option Community Funding

Official Ballot Summary: Proposing an amendment to the State Constitution to require that the Legislature authorize counties to levy a local option sales tax to supplement community college funding; requiring voter approval to levy the tax; providing that approved taxes will sunset after 5 years and may be reauthorized by the voters.

Discussion: Voting YES would amend the Constitution to require that the Legislature authorize counties to levy local sales taxes to benefit community colleges.

Voting NO would not put this provision into the Constitution.

County commissioners could place on the ballot a local option sales tax to supplement a community college?s funding. Taxes approved by the voters would sunset after five years but could be reauthorized by the voters.

Advocates: Florida Education Association, Associated Industries of Florida, United Faculty of Florida, Florida TaxWatch, some community colleges
What they say: This measure creates constitutional status for community colleges. Community colleges in California, Texas, Ohio, New York and North Carolina receive some form of municipal/county support in addition to state funds. Community colleges are gateways to higher education and deserving of broad support. This could provide funding for specific programs needed. Community colleges don?t get enough support from the Legislature; this provides a mechanism for local communities to pick up the tab.

Opponents: Orlando Sentinel, some community colleges
What they say: This will encourage more local tax referendums to support community colleges, which should be funded by the state. This amendment is not  required: Miami-Dade College has already been allowed by the Legislature to seek a tax hike to supplement its funding (and voters approved). Most community colleges serve more than one county; it?s unclear whether host county would vote to increase its taxes by itself. The result could be more unequal education opportunities for Floridians based on their county of residence. Sales taxes put a greater burden on lower-income residents.  

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