Sun Sentinel: Five good — seven bad — amendments for Florida’s Constitution

This commentary is longer than we would like, but so is the Nov. 6 ballot, which includes 12 proposed constitutional amendments, far too many. Several would seriously undermine Florida’s government and compromise our future.

The blame falls mainly on the Legislature and the Constitution Revision Commission, which squandered an opportunity that comes once every 20 years to put amendments directly on the ballot.

The best of the proposals — Amendment 4 — owes to neither batch of politicians, but to the people of Florida, who signed petitions to put it on the ballot. Amendment 4 is the initiative to restore voting rights to most of the more than 1.6 million Floridians who are disenfranchised for life because of felony convictions, no matter how old or minor the crime or how constructively they have lived since paying their debts to society.

Voting is the basic right that assures all others; it defines what it means to be an American. There may never be an opportunity to do a better thing than to vote yes on this reform.

As for the other 11 amendments, only four deserve to be ratified. For the most part, the remainder represent colossal failures of leadership in the Florida Legislature and at the commission, which put partisan politics above all else. The commission went even further by packaging unrelated issues in a way that could easily confuse or trick voters.

The worst proposal, Amendment 5, would make it virtually impossible to raise taxes, even in response to an emergency such as a Category 5 hurricane. Broward voters have a particular concern with Amendment 10, which would undermine home rule and force us to elect a tax collector and build another bureaucracy.

Let’s look at all 12. Keep in mind that the text of a constitutional amendment doesn’t appear on the ballot. Only a summary does, and some of the summaries are inadequate. If you find yourself puzzled, vote no. An amendment needs 60 percent of the vote to be ratified.

Amendment 1. We recommend NO. Passed by the Legislature, largely on party lines, it provides an additional homestead exemption of up to $25,000, except for school taxes, on homes valued above $100,000. The tax cut would mean little to homeowners in poorer neighborhoods. It would cost local governments at least $645 million the first year, based on present millage rates. It would shift more of the tax burden to non-homesteaded properties, which affects renters, snowbirds, small businesses and the owners of other commercial property. Most homes already benefit from a $50,000 exemption as well as from an earlier initiative that limits annual assessment increases. With the state and federal governments failing to address infrastructure needs, local governments are having to do more. This cut will hit hard close to home, for very little individual benefit.

Amendment 2. We recommend YES. Proposed by the Legislature, it makes permanent a provision that limits property tax increases to 10 percent, other than for school taxes, on non-homesteaded properties. The ceiling was adopted in 2008 to moderate the tax disparity with owner-occupied homes, which are assessed at about half the tax rate. This proposal passed the 2017 legislature with only three “no” votes in the House. It would not apply when property is sold or when improvements boost the value by more than 25 percent. Some local governments have been hoping for a windfall when the cap expires next year, but the text of the 2008 amendment instructed the present Legislature to propose making it permanent. Should voters disagree, commercial and other non-homesteaded properties could be reassessed at their current value next year, yielding an estimated $688 million in additional revenue from the same millage rates. That strikes us as unfair to small businesses, snowbirds and renters whose landlords would pass on the increase. A committee backing the amendment points out, accurately, that “Amendment 2 is the only protection for renters in Florida.”

Amendment 3. We recommend NO. Entitled “voter control of gambling,” this is an initiative bankrolled by Disney and the Seminole Tribe of Florida that would require any extension of casino gambling to be approved by voters statewide. This amendment would protect the Tribe’s near-monopoly on casino-type games in Florida. It would prevent South Florida racinos from consolidating licenses to create a destination casino, as proposed two years ago. It would prohibit slot machines in eight counties — Palm Beach, Lee, Brevard, Duval, Gadsden, Hamilton, St. Lucie and Washington — whose voters have approved local referendums to allow slots. It would eliminate the industry’s incentive to contribute to political candidates, but that would be done better by a straightforward amendment barring campaign money from any regulated industry.

Amendment 4. We recommend YES — emphatically. This is the public’s heartwarming response to the politically motivated abuse of power by Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi and their colleagues on the Cabinet. Immediately after their election eight years ago, Scott and Bondi began requiring ex-felons to wait five years before applying to regain their voting rights and they have since considered cases at a glacial pace. Only 992 people won clemency in 2016 and 2017, according to the web journal Florida Phoenix. Some 10,000 applications are pending. Many thousands of people seem to have simply given up. Florida’s lifetime disenfranchisement is deeply rooted in post-slavery racism — some 21 percent are African-American — and serves no purpose except voter suppression. Florida is the largest of just four states with such a harsh policy. This amendment would restore voting rights automatically upon completion of all terms of a sentence, including parole or probation, but does not apply to those convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense, who would still need to apply individually. This issue unites liberals such as the ACLU with conservatives such as the Koch Brothers, whose committee Freedom Partners had this to say about it: “If we want people returning to society to be productive, law-abiding citizens, we need to treat them like full-fledged citizens… . This will make our society safer, our system more just, and provide for real second chances for returning citizens.” There is no significant opposition except from Scott and Bondi, and the Republicans running to replace them: gubernatorial nominee Ron DeSantis and attorney general nominee Ashley Moody.

Amendment 5. We recommend NO — emphatically. It requires two-thirds supermajorities in the Florida House and Senate to raise state taxes or fees, adopt new ones or reduce or eliminate any tax exemption. House Speaker Richard Corcoran muscled this through the Legislature when he was planning to run for governor. It would give a minority of the Legislature a permanent stranglehold on Florida’s future, condemn the schools and colleges to eternal mediocrity, and thrust ever-increasing burdens on local governments. This is the worst amendment to come from the Legislature in the 51 years since the court-ordered end of malapportionment, which allowed rural counties with fewer than 18 percent of the people to elect majorities of both houses. South Florida needs the state to invest in big-ticket items to address sea-level rise and traffic congestion. If this amendment passes, inland or small counties could dictate what happens in coastal or urban counties, the drivers of our state’s economy.

Amendment 6. We recommend NO. Titled “Rights of Crime Victims, Judges” and otherwise known as Marsy’s Law, this is one of the Constitution Revision Commission’s conspicuous blunders. Florida’s Constitution and laws already assure essential victims’ rights, including the right to be informed and heard at every stage. Except for occasional failures of enforcement, there is no problem that needs solving here. We don’t need this elaborate (and expensively advertised and lobbied) import from California, which erases a provision to respect the civil rights of defendants and poses a threat to Florida’s public records laws. Those best suited to judge it, the executive council of the Criminal Law Section of the nonpartisan Florida Bar, recommended against this amendment by a vote of 29 to 3. The state attorney at Jacksonville, Bill Cervone, calls it “a nice-sounding buzzword that nobody in the criminal justice system thought we needed.” Amendment 5 also includes two separate and entirely unrelated issues, fixing judicial retirement firmly at 75 (it’s now 70, but flexible) and barring judges from relying on administrative agency interpretations of law. Bundling disparate items into a single amendment is called logrolling, and it’s a fraud on the voters.

Amendment 7. A hearty NO. Another example of logrolling, it mixes restraints on college and university fees — governing boards would need supermajorities to raise them — with entirely unrelated death benefits to families of first responders and military personnel killed in action (the law already provides for some), and gives constitutional status to the boards that govern higher education. With state support lagging, the colleges need fee flexibility. The commission had no business meddling with them.

There is no Amendment 8: The Supreme Court kicked Amendment 8 off the ballot. It should have done so to some of the others, as well.

Amendment 9. We recommend YES. More logrolling by the Constitution Revision Commission, but with no apparent harmful effects. It bars offshore oil and gas drilling in Florida waters — but not pipelines or surface transport through those waters — and extends the existing ban on smoking in workplaces to vaping devices.

Amendment 10: Another NO. This is yet another foul play by the revision commission, another bundle of unrelated proposals whose chief effect is to gut the home rule reform that distinguished Florida’s 1968 Constitution. This piece of dirty work would prohibit any county’s voters from adopting a charter that changes the duties of certain constitutional officers or allows them to be appointed, rather than elected. It’s clearly intended to overturn parts of eight charters, including that of Miami-Dade, which has an appointed public safety director instead of an elected sheriff. It also would require Broward to begin electing a tax collector and build a separate bureaucracy. Every county would be required to forever elect its sheriff, tax collector, property appraiser, supervisor of elections and clerk of circuit court, and could not transfer any of their duties to some other office. The ballot summary does not alert voters to the retroactive impact on the eight counties. This amendment is on the ballot because a clerk and a sheriff exploited their membership on the revision commission. They say local voters who support home-rule county charters don’t know what’s best for them. Amendment 10 is a throwback to perpetual fiefdoms in county courthouses. Why shouldn’t a county’s voters be able to decide they’d like their chief law enforcement officer appointed, like cities appoint police chiefs? Or that their elections supervisor should be appointed, as in Miami-Dade?

The commission tacked on irrelevant provisions to change the Legislature’s session dates, which the legislature has already changed, and create an office of counter-terrorism in the Department of Law Enforcement, which already has one. For all of this, Amendment 10 merits a resounding “no.”

Amendment 11. NO. From the revision commission. The major effect would be to allow the Legislature to reduce penalties for crimes committed before the repeal of a criminal law. The practical effects are unclear and the NRA’s reported interest in this provision is of serious concern. It’s combined with the repeal of two obsolete and harmless provisions that could await another day. Again, if the language and intent of an amendment aren’t perfectly clear, vote no.

Amendment 12. YES. This amendment from the commission bars state officials — including agency heads, judges and local elected officials — from becoming paid lobbyists before local, state or federal agencies. (They could still lobby in connection with their official duties.) It would prohibit them from lobbying their former agencies until six years after they have left office. Presently, legislators, governors and Cabinet members must sit out two years before lobbying their former colleagues, but that hasn’t stopped lobbying firms from hiring former lawmakers to give “advice” while the two-year clock runs. The main objection to Amendment 12 is that six years is too drastic and would discourage qualified people from running for office. But if your motive for running is to become a lobbyist, perhaps “public service” isn’t your proper calling. We recommend a yes vote.

Amendment 13. YES. This effectively bans greyhound racing in Florida by prohibiting wagering on the dogs, although not on races conducted out of state. Although the sport’s popularity has been sagging along with the state’s revenue from it, state law requires Florida’s 11 dog tracks to continue racing in order to keep their card rooms and slot machines. The chief objection to Amendment 13 is that such an issue doesn’t belong in the Constitution. Trouble is, the potent lobby for breeders and handlers persistently blocks the Legislature from outlawing this brutal “sport,” in which dogs are often injured and die and are tightly caged when not racing. Amendment 13 deserves to be ratified.

A final word.

The ballot is sadly lacking in what ought to be on it — issues such as open primaries, which would open primary elections to the third of Florida voters who register as “No Party Affiliation;” stronger protection for the environment, which was defeated in a revision commission committee; and a bill of rights for nursing home patients, which was withdrawn without a floor vote. And despite the Parkland massacre, the commission refused to even consider a ban on military-style assault weapons.

This commission was by far the least responsible of the three that have been convened under the 1968 Constitution. That owes mainly to poor appointments by Gov. Rick Scott and Speaker Corcoran, who were looking to the commission for planks in their campaign platforms.

Florida still needs a Constitution Revision Commission, but it deserves a far better one in 2038.

Editorials are the opinion of the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board and written by one of its members or a designee. The Editorial Board consists of Editorial Page Editor Rosemary O'Hara, David Lyons and Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson.