With Senate Democrats deeply divided, Florida legislators voted Monday to put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that would ask voters to require a two-thirds majority of both the House and Senate before they can raise any tax or fee in the future.
The measure, HJR 7001, passed the Senate 25-13 after three Democrats reversed a previous decision to oppose the measure and joined with Republicans to vote for the amendment, which is a top priority of Gov. Rick Scott. It now goes directly onto the ballot and, because it is a resolution, does not require the governor's signature.
Sens. Lauren Book of Plantation, Bobby Powell of Palm Beach and Linda Stewart of Orlando had previously agreed to vote as a bloc with the other 12 Senate Democrats to oppose the tax restriction, but after the proposal was revised to reflect changes sought by the House, they changed course.
The vote exposed the deep fissures emerging in the Senate Democratic caucus, which in the last week has struggled with whether or not to support a school safety bill that allows school districts to train and arm teachers while it also directs millions in long-sought mental health funding to schools, a priority for many Democrats.
The surprise vote by the Senate Democrats came just an hour after Senate Democratic Leader Oscar Braynon reminded his colleagues in a meeting of the Senate Democratic caucus that they had previously agreed to oppose the bill, which many of them argued is designed to tie the hands of future legislators when Democrats regain the majority.
"If somebody has changed their mind, let me know,'' Braynon asked. No one spoke up.
Republicans argued the bill simply gives voters a choice.
"This is the people's money. It's not our money," said Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, who sponsored the measure. "It's not hand-tying us. It just means we have to work together with a two-thirds majority … if it's taking the money from our people to pay for something that is crucially important, then we need a two-thirds majority."
A previous Senate version had required a three-fifths majority of each chamber, a lower threshold than two-thirds, and did not include fees but applied the threshold only to taxes. But in a late-session agreement, Senate leaders to that approach.
Sen. Javier Jose Rodriguez of Miami was among several Democrats who argued that the amendment was a short-sighted attempt to limit future lawmakers in raising revenue while it doesn't impose limits when they give out tax breaks.
"This legislature would be constrained from raising funds going into the future but when it comes time — like this legislature does every year — to carve special exemptions out of the tax base, there would not be a heightened threshold," he said. "What that does is make our tax code more and more and more regressive."
Sen. Kevin Radar, a Delray Beach Democrat, called the amendment a violation of the principles of majority rule.
"The future legislatures shouldn't have their hands tied," he said. "At the heart of the American democracy reflects an approach that the nation's founders rejected — they rejected majority rule" because the Articles of Confederation included a super-majority and the Founders considered that "unworkable," he said.
Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, suggested that the states of California, Missouri, Wisconsin and Nevada all had a requirement like this in their constitutions.
"It's the people's money, not ours. That's a simple premise," he said. "Now's the time. Today's the day to take a vote for a fundamental principle we all believe in."