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Florida TaxWatch weighs in on amendments

by David Chapman
Staff Writer

While the races for the next Florida governor and U.S. senator dominate headlines heading toward the Nov. 2 general election, there are numerous amendments as well.

Three of the measures, Amendments 4, 5 and 6, were created through citizen ballot initiatives, while three others, Amendments 1, 2 and 8, were put on the ballot by the Florida Legislature.

Voters won’t see three others, Amendments 3, 7 and 9, because they were removed from the ballot by the Florida Supreme Court.

Amendment 3 focused on a maximum annual increase in property taxes. Amendment 7 regarded redistricting and lawmakers siding with a political party or incumbent when redrawing lines. Amendment 9 would have allowed voters to weigh in on banning laws requiring people to participate in the health care system.

Florida TaxWatch, a statewide nonprofit, nonpartisan taxpayer research institute and government watchdog, recently analyzed the measures and made recommendations.

Amendments 2, 4 and 8 pertain to economics. Amendments 1, 5 and 6 deal with the political process.

Here’s a rundown of the amendments and the Florida TaxWatch recommendations.

Amendment 1

A House joint resolution, the amendment proposes to repeal a portion of the Florida Constitution relating to public financing for campaigns of candidates for elective statewide office who agree to campaign spending limits.

In 1987, the Florida Legislature established public financing in campaigns for governor and cabinet positions with the intent to limit spending and special interests and to open elections for more candidates.

Proponents of the amendment claim it’s a misuse of tax dollars, while opponents claim it’s needed for its original purpose of ensuring an even playing field.

Most recently, Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott went to federal court during his primary battle with Bill McCollum to contest the dollar-for-dollar public match McCollum would receive for every dollar Scott spent past the state’s $24.9 million cap this year. A federal judge ruled against Scott’s suit. McCollum received a total of $1.8 million in public financing, according to the Florida Division of Elections website.

Florida TaxWatch had no recommendation.

Amendment 2

Titled “Homestead ad valorem tax credit for deployed military personnel,” the measure would provide an additional homestead property tax exemption by law for members of the U.S. military or reserves, the U.S. Coast Guard or reserves and the Florida National Guard who receive a homestead exemption and were deployed in the previous year on active duty outside the U.S. The exempt amount would be based on how many days the previous calendar year the person was deployed on active duty.

The Legislature passed a House Joint Resolution last year to put it on the ballot.

The person must already have a current homestead exemption and the additional exemption would be calculated by dividing the numbers of days on deployment by the number of days in that year.

According to Florida TaxWatch, the State Revenue Estimating Conference during 2009 analyzed the resolution and estimated a $13 million impact if the measure were in place then.

In addition, the average exemption would be worth $1,500 and have an impact of reducing local government revenues and millage rates.

Florida TaxWatch suggests voters approve the measure.

Amendment 4

The most discussed, contested and advertised measure on the Nov. 2 ballot, Amendment 4 deals with comprehensive land use changes.

Titled “Referenda required for adoption and amendment of local government comprehensive land use plans,” the amendment would require any changes to the comprehensive land use plan be up for voter referendum following approval by local government.

Future development and growth are at the heart of the issue.

Hometown Democracy, a nonpartisan grassroots organization, has spearheaded the measure and collected the necessary signatures to put the issue on the ballot. Its stance is that “voters should get a seat at the table” after approval of new developments, due to tax dollars going toward services, according to its website. The fight, they claim, is against overdevelopment.

Opponents of Amendment 4 claim the measure would have a negative effect on the state’s economy and is a “Vote on Everything” initiative that would require many new costly elections each year.

A financial information statement on the Florida Division of Elections website, based on public workshops and research, determined local governments that adopt plans or propose comprehensive plan amendments would incur additional costs based on the referendum, but the expenditures couldn’t be precisely estimated.

For average-sized counties, each referendum would range between $143,000-$288,000; for average-sized cities, $11,000-$22,000

Impact on state expenditures would be insignificant, it states.

Florida TaxWatch is currently studying the potential fiscal impact, but preliminary findings show Amendment 4 would “have serious long-term negative impacts on our economy,” according to its voter guide.

Florida TaxWatch suggests voters vote no on Amendment 4.

Amendment 5

It is titled “Standards for Legislature to follow in legislative redistricting” and was added to the ballot via petition and Fair Districts Florida.

The ballot language includes: “Legislative districts or districting plans may not be drawn to favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party ... shall not be drawn to deny racial or language minorities the equal opportunity to participate in the political process.

Unless otherwise required, districts must be compact, as equal to population as feasible and where feasible must make use of existing city, county and geographical boundaries.”

According to a financial statement by the Florida Division of Elections, the fiscal impact cannot be precisely determined, but state government and state courts might incur additional costs.

Proponents claim it would end gerrymandering of districts; opponents claim it would divide minority votes and thus, proper representation.

Following the Census every 10 years, Florida legislative districts are redrawn.

Florida TaxWatch had no recommendation.

Amendment 6

Amendment 6 also applies to congressional districts.

Titled “Standards for Legislature to follow in congressional redistricting,” the measure would prohibit congressional districts or districting plans to be drawn to favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party.

Like its counterpart, the Florida Division of Elections financial statement cannot precisely determine fiscal impact.

Proponents of the amendment claim it would end gerrymandering of districts, with opponents, including U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, claiming it, like Amendment 5, would divide minority votes and representation.

Florida TaxWatch had no recommendation.

Amendment 8

Titled “Revision of class size requirements for public schools,” the amendment was a joint resolution by the Legislature tackling class size.

Currently, the maximum number of children for pre-K through 3rd grade classrooms is 18 students; 4th grade through 8th grade, 22 students; and 9th grade through 12th grade, 25 students.

The amendment says the maximum would become the average for each grouping, with a maximum number of students in a classroom becoming 21, 27 and 30 students, respectively. The amendment would not apply toward virtual classrooms.

The current limits were created in 2002 with the passage of a class reduction size amendment and gradually implemented. School districts are subject to accountability standards and can be fined if not in compliance.

Proponents claim Amendment 8 allows flexibility of students and schools by “right-sizing” classrooms instead of hard caps.

Opponents claim it would raise class sizes and affect student performance.

In its study, Florida TaxWatch says the implementation of the smaller classes sizes has cost taxpayers billions of dollars since passage in 2002. Further study, it said, says the 2002 amendment could cost $40 billion in operational costs over the next 10 years.

Florida TaxWatch recommends approval.

Also on the ballot

While not an amendment, there is a nonbinding referendum titled “Balancing the Federal Budget - A Nonbinding Referendum Calling for an Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.” As the title suggests, it asks voters if they favor or disfavor an amendment to the U.S. Constitution requiring a balanced budget without raising taxes. Regardless of outcome, it is considered simply a message to be sent.

dchapman@baileypub.com

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