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Constitutional tinkering

The new Constitution the Florida Legislature sent to the voters in 1968 _ to replace one that had been amended 151 times _ was a pallid compromise that retained the elected Cabinet, the ban on income taxes and an antiquated court system. What helped the good government crowd swallow its disappointment were two new provisions that supposedly would lead to bold reforms in the near future.

One called for a constitution revision commission, to meet in 1978 and every 20 years thereafter, whose recommendations would go directly to the ballot, bypassing the Legislature. The other, better yet, allowed citizens to petition to put their own amendments on the ballot. Mossback legislators be damned; the people at last could take the future into their own hands. Visions of a unicameral legislature and other political sugar plums danced in many heads.

The results, 24 years later, prove the maxim that you should be careful of what you wish for because you might get it. Term limits may be the next great disappointment.

Of the three initiative petitions that have made it into the Constitution, only one improved government _ Gov. Reubin Askew's "Sunshine Amendment" of 1976, incorporating financial disclosure and ethical standards the Legislature had throttled. The lottery, authorized by a 1986 initiative, has hurt the schools more than it has helped them, while the best that can be said of the initiative that made English Florida's official language is that it has turned out to be meaningless.

Enormous stores of time and money have been spent over troublesome initiatives that failed, including two attempts to legalize casino gambling and a proposal backed by the Florida Medical Association to restrict civil lawsuits. There have been other baneful effects on public policy. The first casino initiative, against which the popular Askew mobilized a huge "no" vote, was on the same 1978 ballot as the Constitution Revision Commission's entire slate of substantive amendments, and helped drag them all down to defeat. It was to stave off any Florida version of California's Proposition 13 that the 1980 Legislature set about raising the homestead exemption to $25,000, a mistake for which no one has discovered a fair remedy.

More government by monkey wrench is on the Nov. 13 ballot. Amendment 9 proposes term limits on the Cabinet, Legislature and _ as if the U.S. Constitution were a mere trifle _ Florida's delegation in Congress. Misguided as this may be, it is at least the genre of subject, having to do with the basic relationship between the people and their government, for which initiatives are appropriate.

The other current initiative, Amendment 10, is really bad news. It was sold to petition signers as "Save our Homes," but the Florida League of Cities' Mike Sittig was on the money when he said it ought to have been called "Save our waterfront homes." Though owners of expensive waterfront homes would not be the only persons to benefit from its passage, they would save far and away the lion's share. To the extent they paid less taxes, others would have to pay more.

The initiative would limit tax assessment adjustments on homesteads to no more than 3 percent a year or the actual change in the consumer price index. Assessments that had been affected by this could be reset to full value _ everybody else's standard _ only when the homes are sold. In California, they call this the "welcome stranger" clause. (As I read the amendment, it would also forbid appraisers from reducing an assessment more than 3 percent even if a severe recession knocked the bottom out of resale values.)

The Florida Supreme Court is hearing arguments today on whether to bounce Amendment 10 from the ballot under Florida's single-subject rule. The League of Cities contends that its passage would activate a poison pill by which the 1980 Legislature intended to discourage any initiatives dealing with the way property is valued for taxes. If so, everyone's homestead exemption for city and county tax rolls would revert next year to the original $5,000. (School taxes wouldn't be affected.)

This possibility, unintended by sponsors and unnoticed by opponents until an anonymous journalist pointed it out, will turn on the court's interpretation of the poison pill. The 1980 amendment raising the homestead exemption for non-school taxes provided that it would "stand repealed on the effective date of any amendment . . . which provides for the assessment of homestead property at a specified percentage of its just value."

While amendment 10 on its face does not specify a percentage, it is clearly the sort of mischief that everyone who worked on the 1980 increase was hoping to head off. But former Rep. Steve Pajcic, a lawyer who chaired the House Finance and Taxation Committee, says he isn't sure how he'd vote if he were on the Supreme Court.

It all goes to show that a constitution shouldn't be taken lightly. It is no place to be tinkering with tax rates.

Martin Dyckman is associate editor of the Times.