With one exception, the constitutional amendments on the Nov. 4 ballot are not particularly high profile. The most publicized amendments, involving tax reform and school vouchers, were removed from the ballot by the Florida Supreme Court. But there are a half-dozen amendments that voters should carefully consider.
The Constitution is still sullied by one vestige of its Jim Crow past. Amendment 1, proposed by the Legislature, would delete a provision that grants lawmakers the power to bar foreign nationals ineligible for citizenship from owning land in the state. The provision's original intent when it was approved in 1926 was to keep Asians from buying land. At that time, there was a growing concern that immigrants from Japan and China would work more cheaply than Americans on farms primarily in the West and would use their money to buy up property.
The Asian laborers who had come during the westward expansion of the railroad generated resentment when jobs dried up. The result was a series of exclusionary federal and state laws and court rulings. Around the country, state alien land laws over the years have been overturned or repealed. Florida is the only state left with such a provision, and it should be removed.
On Amendment 1, the Times recommends YES.
One of the keys to lowering property insurance premiums is hardening homes and businesses to better withstand hurricanes. The state has taken a number of steps in recent years to encourage Floridians to install storm shutters, stronger garage doors and other improvements, including requiring discounts on insurance premiums and creating a state program that offered free home inspections and state grants to some homeowners. Amendment 3 would allow the Legislature to exempt hurricane-related improvements such as storm shutters from being considered in determining the assessed value of residential property.
Now, installing permanent shutters, particularly large electronic ones on condominiums and more expensive homes, can result in higher assessed property values and higher taxes. Amendment 3, placed on the ballot by the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission, would enable lawmakers to prevent that from happening and apply to homesteads, second homes and rentals. The amendment also allows state lawmakers to exempt renewable energy devices such as solar panels from being considered when property is assessed for tax purposes.
The state estimates the cost in lost property tax revenue would be just $3.4-million in the first year. Florida's tax system should encourage hurricane protection and renewable energy, not create disincentives through property tax increases.
On Amendment 3, the Times recommends YES.
With public and state money for buying undeveloped land drying up, this amendment proposed by the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission offers two other ways to protect more property from development.
First, it requires the Legislature to exempt from all property taxes private property whose owners have agreed to permanently preserve it. That is typically accomplished through a conservation easement or similar protection. This is a less expensive way to keep large pieces of land undeveloped than buying it outright and having the public manage the property. It provides an incentive for private owners to hold on to their property and preserve it.
Second, the amendment requires the Legislature to create a new classification of land for conservation that would qualify for a property tax reduction. This is more troublesome, because it could allow large land owners such as the St. Joe Co. to get property tax breaks on land they are holding for future development. That could pinch small counties and shift the tax burden from developers to homeowners and businesses.
Yet the new classification has some merit. It could ease pressure to develop land by assessing it based on its current state rather than its highest and best use. Private dollars, not public money, would be used to manage the property. This is the philosophy behind similar property tax breaks for agricultural land. But there have been abuses, and lawmakers will have to place some restrictions on a conservation classification to ensure this is a long-term public benefit, not a short-term tax dodge for megadevelopers waiting for the economy to improve.
On Amendment 4, the Times recommends YES.
Fast-rising property values along Florida's waterfronts have made it tough on marinas, boatyards and commercial fishing operations. With those properties appraised for tax purposes for their highest and best development use, it made more economic sense to avoid the high taxes and sell out to developers.
Amendment 6, proposed by the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission, would allow those sorts of properties to be assessed based on their current use instead of their highest and best use. That should help keep some marine-related businesses viable and help preserve public access to marinas and boat ramps. This targets property tax relief to some of the property owners who need it most.
On Amendment 6, the Times recommends YES.
Community colleges are a critical part of the state's education system and often do not get the credit they deserve for their role in developing a quality work force. More than half of Florida's high school graduates begin their postsecondary education at a community college. But the community colleges also are straining to meet the needs of their students because of the state's declining revenue.
Amendment 8, proposed by the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission, would allow voters in a county to approve a local-option sales tax to raise money for their local community college. Only nine of the 28 community colleges serve just one county (such as St. Petersburg College and Hillsborough Community College), so in most cases voter approval in multiple counties would be required (such as for Pasco-Hernando Community College). There are several interests eyeing local sales taxes, including those supporting regional transit and indigent health care. But this amendment would only give voters the chance to consider a local sales tax for community colleges. Those institutions ought to have the same opportunity to seek additional revenue as the other interests.
On Amendment 8, the Times recommends YES.