Thursday, September 20, 2018

Column: Vote yes on Amendment 4, no on other amendments

While the candidates for governor, U.S. senator and other public offices are clamoring for support, Florida voters must devote full attention to twelve — 12! — proposed amendments to our state constitution that are also on the ballot.

The U.S. Constitution has been in effect for 242 years, and there have been only 27 amendments. Now Florida voters are being asked to consider half that many amendments to our state’s fundamental document in a single year.

Only one of these proposed changes deserves your support, and I will return to it in a minute. But in the meantime, it helps to know how this constitutional kluge made it onto the ballot.

The Florida Legislature

We elect our office-holders to deal with changing circumstances, but this year the Florida Legislature wants to limit the options of other public officials who will face huge changes and tough decisions.

The Legislature put three amendments on the ballot to cap taxes and spending. Despite their superficial appeal, all three deserve to be defeated. With 20 million residents, Florida already has become the third biggest state, and our needs will keep growing along with our population.

Amendment 1 would raise the homestead exemption for property taxes by $25,000. It would save homeowners a few hundred dollars, but at the cost $600 million for vital public services such as public safety, roads and transportation, and water and sewer.

Amendment 2 would make permanent a 10 percent cap on annual property tax assessments on non-homestead property that would expire in 2019, such as apartment rentals and commercial buildings. Along with Amendment 1, it would erode the tax base in a large and dynamic state.

Amendment 5 is a terrible attack on majority rule. It would handcuff future legislatures by requiring a two-thirds vote to raise taxes or fees. Other states that have adopted this idea are now in a financial bind, and we must not let Florida fall into that trap.

The Constitution
Revision Commission

Once every 20 years, a panel of leading citizens appointed by elected officials can propose amendments to the state constitution. I served on an earlier commission. This year, the commission’s work is a lost opportunity.

If a proposed amendment comes from a citizen initiative, it can deal with only one subject, and the Florida Supreme Court often strikes down ballot questions that are too broad before they get to the voters.

But the Constitution Revision Commission is exempt from this rule, and it has cobbled together ideas that have nothing to do with each other in ways that are designed to draw public support. Bad ideas are camouflaged within amendments that may sound good to voters. Issues that should be settled in legislation, which can be changed more easily, would be stamped into the constitution.

The Constitutional Revision Commission put forward eight amendments. The Florida Supreme Court already struck down one of them, and the voters should defeat the rest.

Amendment 6 lumps together the rights of crime victims, an increase in the mandatory retirement age for judges, and limits on how judges can consider the actions of administrative agencies. These ideas should be separated and debated by the Florida Legislature, not put in the Constitution.

Amendment 7 increases benefits for survivors of first responders and the military, requires a two-thirds vote of university trustees to raise college fees and adds a state college system to the Florida Constitution. If these issues are important, they should be presented separately. Moreover, the amendment dramatically undermines higher education at all levels.

The Florida Supreme Court struck down Amendment 8 even before it got to the voters. It would have put term limits on local school board members and required civics education, but the court ruled that another purpose was hidden: to let state government start operating charter schools. One hallmark of education has been local responsibility. This amendment would have taken authority and given it to the Legislature.

Amendment 9 bans drilling for oil and gas offshore, and bans vaping in enclosed workplaces. Can somebody please explain the connection? Besides, neither idea belongs in the state constitution. Energy needs and technology will change over time.

Amendment 10 requires elections for some local offices, changes the starting date for legislative sessions, creates a Florida counter-terrorism office and puts the state Veterans Affairs Department in the Florida Constitution. This suitcase is especially overstuffed, and the amendment grabs power from local communities.

Amendment 11 repeals a meaningless prohibition on foreign citizens owning property, requires a high-speed transit system and makes clear that changes to criminal law do not apply to crimes already committed. If these are good ideas, they should stand separately, on their own.

Amendment 12 prohibits public officials from lobbying while in office and for six years after they leave office. This idea may have some merit, but the issue should be settled by the Legislature and not placed in the Constitution.

Amendment 13 bans dog racing. Unlike other proposals, this one does confine itself to a single subject, but it should also be defeated. In 2002, Florida voters narrowly approved an amendment that bans keeping pregnant pigs in crates. That law did not belong in the Florida Constitution, and this ban on dog racing does not, either.

Citizen Initiatives

Two proposed amendments started with petitions signed by citizens. They are limited to single subjects, and they deserve their place on the ballot.

Amendment 3 would ban the expansion of casino gambling in Florida without a voter referendum. Personally, I will vote against the proposal, but a ballot initiative that relies on public opinion — and not the influence of special interests — is a proper way to settle this issue.

Amendment 4 is the only proposal that deserves your full support. It would restore the right to vote for convicted felons who have served their full sentences — except in cases of murder and sex crimes. Our system, which penalizes felons even after they finish their sentences, is contrary to the American way.

We have always believed in second chances, and we should restore the rights of people who have completed their punishment. Instead of England’s debtors’ prisons, the United States created the bankruptcy code to give people a second chance financially. In the same spirit, this measure would give a fresh start to those who have earned it.

• • •

When you go to the polls on Nov. 6, or cast your ballot by mail in advance, the long list of 13 constitutional amendments may seem daunting, but the best course for voters is actually quite simple.

Vote "yes" on Amendment 4, and "no" on everything else.

Frank Morsani is a business owner and philanthropist, and a former chairman of the United States Chamber of Commerce. In 1998, he served on the Florida Constitution Revision Commission.

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