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5 ballot items invite scrutiny

By A TIMES EDITORIAL
Published October 18, 2006


There are six amendments to the Florida Constitution on the Nov. 7 ballot. Amendment 3, which would require future amendments to be approved by 60 percent of those voting instead of a simple majority, gets most of the attention and should be rejected. But there are five other amendments that also require some thoughtful consideration:

 

AMENDMENT 1: YES

Whether a new provision in the state Constitution can make Florida lawmakers act responsibly when they write the budget is an open question, but give Tom Lee credit for trying.

Lee used his clout as Senate president last year to push an amendment aimed at bringing fiscal discipline to the Capitol. Amendment 1 would require long-range revenue and spending estimates, create an efficiency task force and set up a framework for midyear budget adjustments. It also attempts to restrain lawmakers from paying for recurring expenses with one-time windfalls. Without three-fifths approval, lawmakers could only plug 3 percent of their general budget in that fashion.

"Too many games were being played in the budget process," Lee says. "This will really shine a light on the long-term financial condition of our state."

Amendment 1 won't stop all the budget games, but it can only help. The Times recommends a YES vote.

AMENDMENT 4: NO

Few broken promises are as shameful as the one that drove the American Cancer Society to push Amendment 4 to the ballot this year. Lawmakers agreed nine years ago to spend part of a historic $13-billion tobacco settlement on efforts to curb youth smoking, yet despite documented success they pulled the plug.

That retreat has caused understandable anguish among public health groups. But their proposed amendment heads down a treacherous budgetary path.

By establishing a formula for spending on youth smoking prevention, a percentage that works out to roughly $58-million a year from the settlement, this amendment would in essence write a constitutional line-item into the $74-billion state budget. That, in turn, invites obvious questions. If tobacco prevention is worthy of such protection, then why aren't other endeavors? Should emergency trauma centers or affordable housing or children's health care be next?

Lawmakers broke their pledge by shifting tobacco settlement money to other areas of the budget. But this amendment creates a narrow spending category that would only encourage other groups to try to do the same. The Times recommends a NO vote.

AMENDMENT 6: NO

The way Florida taxes real estate has become so distorted and inequitable that small business owners, apartment dwellers and new homeowners are crying for help. But Amendments 6 and 7 are more of the same election-year pandering that has helped create this mess.

Amendment 6 is aimed at giving more tax relief to low-income elderly homeowners. Under current provisions, cities and counties can approve up to a $25,000 extra property tax exemption for homeowners, ages 65 and older, whose annual income does not exceed $20,000. This amendment would double that rate, to $50,000.

Supporters say the doubling merely keeps pace with inflation. And few classes of taxpayers are more deserving of protection than the poor elderly. The problem is that property tax exemptions are being handed out with such abandon that the state needs a moratorium until it can sort them all out.

The 1992 Save Our Homes exemption, for example, already cushions elderly homeowners from rapid increases in property values. And the current $25,000 extra exemption comes in addition to the basic $25,000 homestead exemption.

Gov. Jeb Bush has appointed a committee that is studying how to bring fairness and balance to the way property is taxed in Florida, and the tax code could stand a breather until that work is done. Most voters, like most lawmakers seeking re-election, can't resist a new tax break. But we urge restraint. The Times recommends a NO vote.

AMENDMENT 7: NO

As with Amendment 6, the target of this proposed property tax exemption could hardly be more worthy. Amendment 7, proposed by lawmakers in a time of war, is aimed at disabled elderly military veterans.

Legislators were so eager to approve this tax break they didn't even bother to wait for a cost estimate. Then again, property tax breaks are mostly a political freebie in Tallahassee. To the extent they reduce property tax collections, most of the impact falls on city and county governments, not on the state budget.

This break is narrowly crafted so that it extends only to veterans, 65 and older, who were Florida residents when they joined the military and suffered combat-related disabilities. Unlike the existing $5,000 veterans disability exemption, this one would be calculated based on a sliding scale. The percentage of disability would become the percentage discount on homestead property taxes.

As with Amendment 6, this surely can wait until the next governor and Legislature complete a thorough review of property tax exemptions. The Times recommends a NO vote.

AMENDMENT 8: NO

After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that governments could condemn private land for purposes of economic development, property rights advocates went into full panic mode. The result in Florida was a sweeping new law this year that essentially bans condemnation except for explicit public purposes such as acquiring land for roads and schools.

Still, lawmakers couldn't leave well enough alone. Amendment 8 goes one step further. The law bans cities and counties from condemning property as part of community redevelopment and says no land acquired through eminent domain can be resold unless it has been held for at least 10 years and is submitted to competitive bidding. The amendment merely aims to restrict future Legislatures by requiring a three-fifths vote to make any changes in the law.

This is an amendment in search of a campaign brochure. The reality is that eminent domain laws were seldom abused in Florida, and although the new law was an overreaction it has plenty of political and public support. The city and county government associations that resisted some of the restrictions aren't even bothering to oppose this amendment.

Amendment 8 amounts to legislative showboating, and the Times recommends a NO vote.

 

Amendments to the Florida Constitution

No. 1: Budget controls on Legislature: YES

No. 2: Removed from ballot

No. 3: 60 percent for amendments: NO

No. 4: Money to stop youth smoking: NO

No. 5: Removed from ballot

No. 6: Tax break for elderly homeowners: NO

No. 7: Tax break for combat veterans: NO

No. 8: Reinforce eminent domain law: NO

Note: The Times' recommendations for the Nov. 7 elections are posted at politics.tampabay.com.

[Last modified November 7, 2006, 15:45:38]


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