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Constitutional Amendment recommendations

October 14, 2016
Lehigh Acres Citizen

For voters in Florida, there's a lot more on the Nov. 8 ballot than a plethora of races from the presidential on down.

Five constitutional amendments have been proposed this year, and four will be decided in the general election

One, Amendment No. 4, was placed on the August ballot; it was approved by the voters. The remaining four - Amendments No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 and No. 5 - are still up for consideration.

They are all worth noting: No. 1, an alleged "solar energy" initiative, is greatly misleading; No. 2 would allow those with "debilitating illnesses" the option of medical treatment afforded in 25 states, but not Florida; and Nos. 3 and 5, would provide for additional homestead tax exemptions for two classes of property owners.

Our recommendations are:

* No. 1 Constitutional Amendment

Rights of electricity consumers regarding solar energy choice

My, oh my, if there ever was a descriptive misnomer, the so-called "Rights of electricity consumers regarding solar energy choice" amendment title and ballot summary wins the prize.

Proffered by some of the state's largest utility providers in response to a consumer-driven petition drive that failed to make it to the ballot, Amendment No. 1 squeaked itself on after its confusing language was challenged and the state Supreme Court narrowly allowed it by a 4-3 vote.

Ostensibly to "protect" the rights of Florida property owners to use solar energy, dissenting Justice Barbara Pariente summed up the proposal succinctly:

"Let the pro-solar energy consumer beware," she wrote. "Masquerading as a pro-solar-energy initiative, this proposed constitutional amendment, supported by some of Florida's major investor-owned electric utilities actually seeks to constitutionalize the status quo."

As noted by Justice Pariente, the proposed amendment addresses rights consumers already have in state statutes with an imbedded-in-stone twist: A "yes" vote could actually preclude property owners from opting to install solar provided by third-party vendors - i.e. not electric companies - and from selling any excess to other consumers - i.e. not electric companies, according to the League of Women Voters of Florida. A "yes" vote also would "create an assumption" that those who opt for solar "subsidize" electric company customers, thus mandating state and local governments to "protect" those customers, the League states.

It's not utility customers, uh, excuse us, "consumers," this "masquerading pro-solar-energy initiative" will protect - it's big, for-profit utilities that look to secure their monopolies.

Do not be fooled by this ballot initiative:?it is NOT pro-solar.

Vote NO on Amendment No. 1.

Ballot language:

No. 1 Constitutional Amendment

Article X, Section 29

Rights of electricity consumers regarding solar energy choice

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 amendment is not expected to result in an increase or decrease in any revenues or costs to state and local government.

* * *

* No. 2 Constitutional Amendment

Use of marijuana for debilitating medical conditions

After a narrow defeat at the polls in 2014, a medical marijuana amendment is back on the 2016 General Election ballot here in Florida.

Approved by nearly 58 percent of the voters two years ago, the first attempt to allow doctors to prescribe the drug to patients failed, not because a majority of voters rejected it, but because Florida law requires a supermajority of 60 percent approval to change the state constitution.

A modified amendment, which more narrowly defines "debilitating illness," is now back on the ballot because the state Legislature, with an exception for the terminally ill, did little on this one despite the pretty definitive voter mandate.

Let us recap the arguments presented in our 2014 editorial urging a YES vote on medical marijuana, which already is legal in 25 states and the District of Columbia:

We agree that drug abuse is a scourge, the plague of the 21st century. Misuse costs lives. Absolutely.

But for the vast majority of users - and we stress the word "majority" here - properly administered and regulated drugs save lives and maintain quality of life.

As proposed, Amendment 2, would allow licensed Florida physicians to prescribe medical marijuana for "debilitating medical conditions," defined specifically as cancer; epilepsy; glaucoma; HIV; PTSD, post traumatic stress syndrome; ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease; Crohn's disease; Parkinson's; multiple sclerosis or other disease of like class.

Amendment 2 would allow doctors to decide whether medical marijuana would be less harmful, or more beneficial, than the array of drugs already legally prescribed that are now the only options available; whether its use would "likely outweigh the potential health risks for a patient" - something physicians do for every script they currently write,

Passage of the amendment places implementation first with the Department of Health, and provides for the establishment of rules and regulations, including patient and caretaker identification cards, physician certifications and the registration of Medical Marijuana Treatment Centers.

The Florida Legislature retains the authority to implement legislation consistent with the provisions within the amendment.

It's a pretty well-defined process with built-in safeguards.

This means - fright ads to the contrary - no one is going to open a pot shop next door to a school; no one is going to authorize handing kids a wink-wink "prescription" or "pot candy;" and no one is going to start a legal grow house next door.

As we did in 2014, we urge a YES vote for Amendment No. 2, medical marijuana.

Ballot language:

No. 2 Constitutional Amendment

Article X, Section 29

Use of marijuana for debilitating medical conditions

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.

Increased costs from this amendment to state and local governments cannot be determined. There will be additional regulatory costs and enforcement activities associated with the production, sale, use and possession of medical marijuana. Fees may offset some of the regulatory costs. Sales tax will likely apply to most purchases, resulting in a substantial increase in state and local government revenues that cannot be determined precisely. The impact on property tax revenues cannot be determined.

* * *

* Amendments No. 3 & 5

The state of Florida provides for a number of exemptions for owner-occupied, or "homesteaded," properties. Some of these are constitutionally mandated, others give local governments the option to implement additional exemptions allowed by the state constitution.

Amendments No. 3 and No. 5 each propose to expand homestead exemptions already allowed.

Both were placed on the ballot by the Florida State Legislature, which unanimously approved both proposals. According to the League of Women's voters, neither proposal has drawn much opposition.

- No. 3 Constitutional Amendment

Tax exemption for totally and permanently disabled first responders

Florida voters previously approved an exemption for first responders - police, corrections officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians and paramedics.

The exemption on the books provides a 100 percent homestead exemption to the spouses of first responders who die in the line of duty.

Amendment 3 would expand this exemption to first reponders who are "totally and permanently disabled from injuries sustained in the line of duty."

The amendment would require a determination that the injury was incurred in the line of duty and the state Legislature would decide the parameters of the enabling legislation - i.e. decide whether the exemption should be partial or full.

Given that the voters have already mandated special consideration for the families of first responders in the case of death, it's difficult to oppose an extention to those who are totally and permanently disabled.

But let us provide a caveat here to our YES recommendation: The state Legislature needs to narrowly define "totally and permanently disabled" to an inability to be gainfully employed - that's what "totally," means.

It's not that we are hardhearted or unappreciative of those who serve on public safety's front line. We simply believe that paying taxes to support such services received is a civic duty and exemptions should be narrowly - very narrowly - prescribed.

With this in mind we are comfortable with a YES vote for Amendment 3.

Ballot language:

No. 3 Constitutional Amendment

Article VII, Section 6, Article XII

Tax exemption for totally and permanently disabled first responders

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. If approved by voters, the amendment takes effect January 1, 2017.

- No. 5 Constitutional Amendment

Homestead tax exemption for certain senior, low-income, long-term residents; determination of just value

Local governments already have the ability to give low-income seniors who are also long-time residents a generous break on their property taxes.

Florida voters, in 2012, approved an amendment that allows cities and counties to extend a "just value" homestead exemption to property owners 65 and older, whose household incomes are below a certain limit provided the value of their homesteaded property is below $250,000 and provided they have lived in their home at least 25 years.

According to the Florida League of Women voters, the income cap in 2015 was $28,448.

Amendment 5 would allow these property owners, where local governments have approved the exemption, to retain the tax break even if the value of their home climbs above $250,000 as long as they otherwise qualify.

The "just value" homestead exemption, would be retroactive to 2013 for those who received the break but whose property valuation now exceeds the $250,000 cap.

This exemption provides a greater benefit than a similar exemption for income-qualifying seniors which allows local governments to exempt only an additional $50,000 for homesteaded properties.

The city of Cape Coral allows seniors to qualify for the additional homestead exemption, but not the "just value" option, which provides full relief from property taxes

The Florida League of Women's Voters estimates the overall financial impact to local government would be minimal - climbing to an estimated $1.2 million statewide in 2020-21 provided no additional governments approve the full exemption.

As with Amendment 3, it's difficult to oppose an amendment 1) placed on the ballot by the state legislature and 2) is an extension of an amendment already approved for a group deemed to be in need of the tax relief.

Again, we are hesitant to recommend an expansion of a tax exemption equal to the total value of a home without limit. Amendment 5, however, is limited in scope as implementation requires local enactment with public input and, if enacted, is narrowly prescribed.

With this in mind, we are comfortable with a YES vote for Amendment 5.

Ballot language:

No. 5 Constitutional Amendment

Article VILI, Section 6, Article XI

Homestead tax exemption for certain senior, low-income, long-term residents; determination of just value

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. The amendment takes effect January 1, 2017, and applies retroactively to exemptions granted before January 1, 2017.

* * *

For more information on the proposed constitutional amendments appearing on the Nov. 8 ballot, visit the Florida League of Women Voters site at:

www.lwvlee.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/2016-Voter-Guide-amendments-final.pdf

or the Florida Department of State Division of Elections site at:

dos.myflorida.com/media/696216/constitutional-amendments-2016-general-english-booklet.pdf

- Citizen editorial

 
 

 

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