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Business Observer Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020 4 months ago

Complicated amendments include taxes, veteran issues

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Some key backers of amendments up for a vote remain in the background.
by: Matt Walsh Editor & CEO

Last week in this space, we addressed Amendments 1 through 3, along with our recommendations.

This week’s installment — the second of two — focuses on the remaining three state constitutional amendments on the ballot:

Amendment 4:  Voter Approval of Constitutional Amendments; Article XI, Sections 5 and 7

Summary: Requires all proposed amendments or revisions to the state constitution to be approved by the voters in two elections, instead of one, in order to take effect. The proposal applies the current thresholds for passage to each of the two elections.

When thinking Americans delve into the sanctity and importance of the U.S. Constitution, there is a deep-rooted reverence and profound respect for that most hallowed document.

Indeed, in the 233 years since it was ratified, American voters have amended the Constitution only 27 times.

Now contrast that with this:

Since Florida voters ratified the current constitution in 1968, the state constitution has been amended 140 times.

Obviously, Florida’s constitution does not beget the same reverence as the U.S. Constitution. Too bad; it should.

Which is partly the reason Fort Lauderdale law partners Jason Haber and Jason Blank are leading the effort for the passage of Amendment 5. Haber and Blank’s not-for-profit organization, Keep Our Constitution Clean Inc., has raised and contributed $9 million to the Keep Our Constitution Political Committee.

They did not respond to the Business Observer’s request for an interview. But their website explains part of the rationale for their proposed amendment: To stop “what has become ‘legislating’ through the constitution.”

That is a reference to special interest groups frequently using the state’s citizen initiative process to have their causes enshrined in the constitution rather than persuade lawmakers to adopt them as statutes.

More often than not, Florida’s proposed amendments are better suited to be adopted by the Legislature as statutes. Statutes are much more easily modified, amended, updated or repealed than are amendments.

But frustrated by a stubborn Legislature that refuses to address their causes, special interest groups instead opt for the amendment process. What’s more, these groups often find it much easier to appeal to the gullible emotions of voters than sway lawmakers. A prime example: This year’s Amendment 2, “For the People” lawyer John Morgan’s attempt to raise Florida’s minimum wage.

How many of Florida’s 13.5 million registered voters, for instance, will research the pros and cons of that amendment and who’s pushing it and why?

That’s why Haber and Blank  want to require proposed amendments to be approved with 60% or more of the vote in two consecutive general elections. Part of the thinking is that would give voters more of an impetus to learn the details of proposed amendments.

But, of course, let’s be blunt here: The name of Haber and Blank’s not-for-profit, Keep the Constitution Clean Inc., has a good, positive ring to it. What they really want to do is make it more difficult for citizens and special interest groups to get their causes on the ballot.

In the end, you can say this proposed amendment comes down to this: What do you want — a tougher-to-amend constitution that primarily addresses the relationships between the three branches of government; sets up the boundaries in which they can operate; and states our rights? Or a system, which exists now, that allows for direct democracy and clutters up the constitution?

While we agree that Florida’s Constitution is cluttered with measures unfit for a constitution, according to our litmus test, this amendment would add another layer of government and diminish people’s freedom.

We recommend: No

 

AMENDMENT 5: Limitations on Homestead Property Tax Assessments; Increased Portability Period to Transfer Accrued Benefit; Article VII, Section 4 and Article XII

Summary: Proposing an amendment, effective Jan. 1, 2021, to increase, from two to three years, the period during which accrued Save-Our-Homes benefits may be transferred from a prior homestead to a new homestead.

Trying to explain the nuances behind this amendment is probably so technical that most voters’ eyes will glaze over.

But in fact, unlike many proposed amendments, there isn’t some sneaky, nefarious subterfuge at play here. When Rep. Rick Roth, R-Palm Beach Gardens, filed this proposed amendment as a House bill in the last legislative session, it was intended to correct an unintended glitch in a 2008 constitutional amendment that voters approved.

That amendment gave homesteaded property owners the ability to transfer the value of their homestead exemptions when they sold their home and purchased a new one. That 2008 amendment gave property owners up to two years to transfer the value of their exemptions to their new property.

But because of the way the amendment was written, it turned out two years was not really two years. Say you sold your home in December 2019. As is, the law would require you to move into your newly purchase home by Jan. 1, 2021 — the second Jan. 1 from the time you sold your home.

For many homeowners waiting for their new homes to be completed, the timeline was too short, causing them to lose the portability of their exemptions.

Amendment 5 corrects that, extending from two to three years the time to transfer the value of the exemptions accumulated in your previous home.

As we said, it’s complicated. Suffice to say, even though homestead exemptions are an anachronistic subsidy to property owners, this amendment relaxes government regulations and is a benefit to taxpayers.

We recommend: Yes

 

AMENDMENT 6: Ad Valorem Tax Discount for Spouses of Certain Deceased Veterans who had Permanent, Combat-Related Disabilities, Article VII, Section 6 and Article XII

Summary: Provides that the homestead property tax discount for certain veterans with permanent combat-related disabilities carries over to such veteran’s surviving spouse who holds legal or beneficial title to, and who permanently resides on, the homestead property, until he or she remarries or sells or otherwise disposes of the property. The discount may be transferred to a new homestead property of the surviving spouse under certain conditions. The amendment takes effect Jan. 1, 2021.

 

For the past decade, Florida lawmakers repeatedly have placed on the ballot proposed constitutional amendments with an intent to honor combat-wounded military veterans and disabled first responders — and in the process make Florida one of the most attractive states in the nation for these heroes.

And Floridians have obliged.

Since 2010, Floridians have adopted five constitutional amendments that give homestead property-tax exemptions and college tuition waivers to these service men and women and their surviving spouses and family members.

• 2010: An additional homestead tax exemption for members of the military, military reserves, Coast Guard or its reserves and Florida National Guard who were deployed in the previous year on active duty outside the continental United States, Alaska, or Hawaii in support of military operations designated by the Legislature.

• 2012: This amendment expanded the homestead exemption to veterans who became disabled as a result of a combat injury and who were not Florida residents when they entered the military.

• 2012: This amendment extended property-tax relief to the surviving spouse of a military veteran who died from service-connected causes while on active duty or to the surviving spouse of a first responder who died in the line of duty.

The amendment authorizes the Legislature to totally exempt or partially exempt all property taxes. First responders include: law enforcement and correctional officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians and paramedics.

• 2016: This amendment 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 property taxes on homesteaded property.

• 2018: This amendment grants mandatory payment of death benefits and waives certain educational expenses to qualifying survivors of certain first responders and military members killed in action.

So now, in 2020, the Legislature is asking Floridians to extend homestead property tax exemptions to the spouses after their combat-wounded or disabled veterans have died.

Matt Walsh

Longtime Observer readers know we typically reject government bestowing special favors and subsidies for anyone. What you give to one means you must take away from another. In the case of government, that usually means what you give to one means you must tax someone else more.

We’ll admit to a weak spot in the case of our military. Our service men and women and first responders volunteer to put their lives at risk in defense of our freedom and nation and for our safety. They give up a lot — their families and their own personal safety and security.

In return and in the scheme of society at large, granting them these property-tax subsidies is a small repayment.

To an extent, you could argue these subsidies to veterans, first responders and their families add to our freedom. They reward those who protect us.

We recommend: Yes

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