On Your Ballot: 2020 Amendments and Referendums

The members of the Leon County Democratic Executive Committee recommend the following positions on Constitutional Amendments and the Children’s Services Council Referendum appearing on the General Election ballot on November 3rd.

VOTE NO

Background: Only citizens are eligible to vote in Florida elections already. Under Florida law, “a person may become a registered voter only if that person is a citizen of the United States.” The first question on the uniform statewide voter registration application form is, “Are you a citizen of the United States of America?”, and it is a third-degree felony to falsify this information. The Supervisors of Elections are responsible for verifying voter eligibility, and they are directed to remove an individual from the voter registration database if that individual is found not to possess citizenship. (See sections Sec.97.041(1)(a), 97.052, 104.011, 97.053(5)(a), 98.045, and 98.075, Florida Statutes).

Current proposal: Amendment 1 would change the wording of Article VI, Section 2 of Florida’s Constitution to remove the words “every citizen” and replace them with the words “only a” as follows: “Every citizen Only a citizen of the United States who is at least eighteen years of age and who is a permanent resident of the state, if registered as provided by law, shall be an elector of the county where registered.”

Analysis: Florida’s Constitution is currently inclusive, extending to every citizen the right to vote. The proposed change includes no requirement of additional proof or verification of citizenship in the registration process, so the only effect would be to draft language of exclusion, putting the focus on those who cannot vote rather than those who can. Before 2018, 48 state constitutions included the words “every citizen” or “all citizens” or “any citizen” in their articles for voter eligibility, but Citizen Voters, Inc., using money from unknown backers, has funded several state initiatives aimed at sowing division and mistrust through false propaganda. They have already succeeded in North Dakota, and they are now trying in Florida, Colorado and Alabama. The purpose of this proposal can only be to use Florida’s Constitution as a political tool in a presidential election year, exploiting fear and xenophobia to entice a higher turnout among Republican voters.

VOTE YES

Background: The minimum wage was put into the Florida constitution by citizen initiative in 2004.  It set the minimum wage at $6.15, to be increased each year by inflation (CPI-W, the consumer price index for urban wage earners and clerical workers).  The Florida minimum now, 16 years later, is $8.56 an hour.  The current federal minimum of $7.25 has not been raised since 2009.

Current proposal: The amendment increases the Florida minimum wage to $10 per hour on 9/30/21 and increases it by $1 each year until 2026 when it reaches $15.  After that, annual increases are again based on inflation (CPI-W).  Employees covered are those covered by the federal minimum wage law.

Analysis: Raising the minimum wage furthers the Democratic goals of improving the lot of low wage workers and of reducing inequality.  Not surprisingly, there is opposition based on arguments similar to the arguments against unionization of workers – that raising wages harms workers because it forces employers to cut jobs.  Whether minimum wage increases actually lead to less jobs is one of the most studied questions in economics.  In connection with Amendment 2, Florida’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research, an arm of the Florida Legislature, collected research papers pertaining to the effects of increasing the minimum wage.   What those papers show is that while some employers may respond to minimum wage increases by reducing hours or employees, overall, minimum wage increases have not caused a statistically significant loss of employment hours.  The research EDR collected suggests that a number of factors seem to explain why employment does not go down, including increases in productivity (better paid workers may work harder and managers may be more motivated to manage them better), lower turnover, slower growth in the salaries of higher paid employees, lower profits, higher prices, and increased demand for products caused by the shift in income from employers and higher paid workers, who tend to save more, to lower wage workers, who tend to spend more of their income.  As to the effect of minimum wage increases on prices, the research shows there may be increases in particular industries, including grocery stores, but any effect on prices is a much lower percentage than the percentage increase in the minimum wage, probably because increasing prices is only one of the ways employers adjust to an increased minimum wage and because wages of minimum wage workers are only one element of a business’s costs.  We support an increase in the minimum wage.  (AFL-CIO has also endorsed Amendment 2.)

VOTE NO

Background: The current Florida system, in partisan races, such as for governor, legislature, cabinet, sheriff, state attorney, public defender, and school board superintendent, is that in the primary, registered Democrats vote to determine the Democratic nominee, Republicans vote to determine the Republican nominee, and NPAs don’t vote.  Up until 29 days before the primary, any registered voter can change to the party whose primary they want to vote in. Then, in the general election, the party nominees and others who qualify are on the ballot, and all voters vote.  In non-partisan races, such as city commission, county commission, and school board, every candidate regardless of party is on the same primary ballot, and all voters regardless of party can vote.  In each race, if no candidate gets over 50%, then the top two are in a runoff in the general election.

Current proposal: Amendment 3 would run the legislature, governor, and cabinet races similarly to how non-partisan races are done.   There would be no Democratic primary and no Republican primary.  All candidates would run it the same primary regardless of party.   Unlike current non-partisan races, however, each candidate’s party affiliation would be stated on the ballot, and the top two would be in a runoff even if one of them got more than 50% in the primary.  If there were only two candidates, there would be no primary, only a general election.

Analysis:  The proponents’ main arguments are that primaries open to all voters will push candidates toward less extreme positions, will engage the many young voters who are registered NPA, and will be fairer to NPAs whose taxes go to pay for primaries they can’t vote in.

The moderation argument asserts that primaries only open to one party cause candidates to adopt extreme positions.  The proponents’ assumption that Democratic proposals like increasing taxes on the wealthy or government financing of medical care for everyone are “extreme” is offensive.  We may choose not to adopt such policies, but we should not be changing our election system to stack the deck in favor of other policies.  And it’s simply not true that closed party primaries cause extreme candidates.  Joe Biden and Al Lawson are two ready counterexamples.

As to engaging NPAs, a common complaint of NPAs is that Republicans and Democrats are no different.  One way for us win over NPAs is to publicize our values and our goals and show how those are different from the values and goals of Republicans.   We clarify what we stand for by nominating candidates who fight for our values.  Changing to a system that takes that tool away from us is not helpful.

The notion that taxpayers paying for elections that NPA’s can’t vote in is unfair is like saying that taxpayers paying for schools is unfair because not all families have children.  Conducting elections that help voters choose among competing ideas is in the public interest just as is educating the next generation, even though not everyone participates directly in either.

Also, if Amendment 3 passed, there could be some bizarre results.  Consider a district in which almost but not quite half the voters are Republicans or NPAs who tend to vote Republican, and slightly more than half the voters are Democratic or NPAs who tend to vote Democratic.  If two Republicans run, and three Democrats run, and if the Republican voters are equally divided between the two Republican candidates, and the Democratic voters are equally divided among the three Democratic candidates, then each Republican candidate will get slightly less than a quarter of the votes, but each Democratic candidate will only get slightly more than a sixth of the votes.  Even though there are more Democratic voters, the two top vote getters, who will face off in the general election, will be Republicans.

VOTE NO

Background: Until 2006, Florida constitutional amendments were approved by one election at which a simple majority of voters approved the amendment.  In 2006, the constitution was changed to require 60% to approve an amendment.

Current proposal: Amendment 4 requires two different elections.  In order to adopt an amendment, voters have to approve the amendment (by 60%) the first time, at a general election, and then approve the same amendment a second time (by 60%), at the next general election.

Analysis: Amendment 4 follows the pattern we’ve seen in recent years of efforts to make it harder and harder to use the constitutional amendment process to make change in Florida.

The constitutional amendment petition process is the only way citizens have to force change on a legislature that won’t act.  Amendment 4 would make it impractical to use that process successfully most of the time.  And we should remember that the Florida constitution contains anti-tax provisions that will make it nearly impossible for Democrats to enact our agenda, even with a majority in both houses of the legislature and with a Democratic governor.  We have to be able to get these provisions out of the constitution, and Amendment 4 makes that much harder.  Defeating Amendment 4 should be a high priority.

VOTE NO

Background: The so-called Save Our Homes provision of the Florida Constitution, adopted in 1995, provides that the assessment of homestead property (the primary residence of the owner) for property tax purposes cannot be increased each year by more than 3% a year or by the rate of inflation, whichever is lower.  Home prices sometimes go up much faster than 3% a year, so Save Our Homes results in many houses getting assessed at less than their actual market value.  Thus, a person could have bought a house for $100,000, and many years later it is worth $300,000, but the assessed value may be $150,000.   This would mean there is $150,000 of value that goes untaxed.  Starting in 2008, the Florida Constitution allows a homeowner who sells a house with untaxed value under the Save Our Homes provision to transfer the benefit to a new home.   In the example above, if the owner sold the house for $300,000, and bought a new home that had actual value of $400,000, the untaxed part of the value of the old house would be subtracted from the value of the new house, so the new house would be assessed at $250,000, not the real value of $400,000.  If the new house has less actual value than the old house, then there’s a different way to calculate the benefit to be transferred.  The fraction that represents assessed value divided by actual value for the old house is applied to the new house.  So if assessed value was 2/3 of the old house’s actual value, than the new house is assessed at 2/3 the real value of the new house.  The maximum amount of untaxed value that can be transferred is $500,000.  The constitution says that in order determine if the homeowner gets the benefit of this transfer, look at the first January 1 when the new homestead has been established, and then if the homeowner had received a homestead exemption as of January 1 in either of the two years preceding establishment of the new homestead, the homeowner can transfer the benefit.

Current proposal: Amendment 5 gives the owner more time to establish the new homestead and still have his new home assessed based on the assessment of the old home.  Instead of having to have had a homestead exemption on January 1 of either of the two years prior to the new homestead, the requirement is to have had a homestead exemption on January 1 in any of the three years prior to the new homestead.  The owner gets an extra year to move into the new house.

Analysis: Akin Akinyemi, our property appraiser, says that the purpose of Amendment 5 is to give an additional year to owners who sell their home and then build a new one, and don’t get done in time to meet the deadline to transfer their Save Our Homes benefit.  Akin sees, however, that the policy justification for transfer of the Save Our Homes benefit is questionable.  When I buy a home for $100,000, and the market value goes up, I don’t get any benefit of that increased value unless I sell or I borrow against the house.   For people who don’t sell, taxing them as if they had bought a $300,000 home could cause such hardship they might be forced to sell.  But a person who does sell is in a different position.  That person has the $300,000 or whatever the old house is worth now, and chooses to spend whatever it costs to buy the new house.  It’s not clear why this person should not be paying taxes on the actual value of the new house.  Also, as Akin points out, this transfer rule means that in one neighborhood, two houses of the same value, bought on the same day, can be taxed very differently if one of them is owned by someone who moved from a house that had gone up in price.  Also, our evaluation of the wisdom of this amendment must take into account the effect on local government revenue.  The Revenue Estimating Conference determined that the amendment will reduce local property taxes by $1.8 million a year initially, and ultimately by $10.2 million per year.  This may not be a huge amount, but it is reducing local government revenue in order to expand a policy that does not seem sound.   The one situation in which extending the time for transferring the Save Our Homes benefit has some appeal is for disaster victims who lose their homes but have a long wait for insurance or disaster relief, so they may not be able to buy or build a new home in time to claim the benefit.   It does not make sense, however, to grant a tax reducing measure to all homeowners in order to help just disaster victims.   There is no reason this or other relief cannot be given just to the disaster victims who need it.  (Note: The AFL-CIO opposes Amendment 5.)

VOTE YES

Background: The Florida constitution now gives a benefit to a veteran over age 65 who has a permanent military service-connected disability.  The veteran’s property taxes are reduced by the percentage of disability.  A 100% disability reduces property taxes to zero.  A 50% disability reduces the tax by 50%.  Currently, this benefit ends when the veteran dies.

Current proposal: Amendment 6 gives the surviving spouse of the deceased veteran whatever percentage tax reduction the veteran got, so long as spouse owns and permanently resides in the house, and so long as the spouse does not remarry.   If the spouse sells and then establishes a new homestead, the cash value of the reduction on the old house’s taxes can be applied to the taxes on the new house.

Analysis: Akin Akinyemi told us that this issue mostly comes up with widows who are not wealthy, and the increased tax is a hardship.  He says that when disabled veterans die, their widows are shocked to see the amount of property tax they now have to pay.  Akin supports Amendment 6, and he says the property appraiser association supports it.  The Revenue Estimating Conference puts the revenue loss for schools as $.4 million in the first year and $1.6 million a year thereafter, and the non-school revenue loss as $.6 million in the first year, and $2.4 million a year thereafter.  This revenue loss is relatively small, and the sacrifice veterans who became disabled in the course of their military service is substantial.

VOTE YES

Background: Section 125.901, Florida Statutes, authorizes each county to create a special district for the purpose of funding children’s services.  The special district is to be governed by a Children’s Services Council, which may have taxing authority up to .5 mills of assessed value of properties within the county.  The power and purpose of the Council is to provide services to children, including preventive, developmental, treatment, and rehabilitative services.  The Children’s Services Councils already in place in other counties have had a positive effect on the welfare of children, including school readiness and health.

Current proposal: If passed, Leon County will have a Children’s Services Council with the power to impose up to .5 mills of property tax and spend the money for services to children in Leon County.  The council will have ten members including the superintendent of schools, a school board member, a representative of the Department of Children and Families, a member of the County Commission, a judge assigned to juvenile cases, and five persons chosen by the governor from among names submitted by the County Commission.

Analysis: Nearly 20% of children in Leon County live below the poverty line.  Many children fail to thrive in school.   We have a significant youth crime problem.  The need to address children’s needs is substantial.  A Children’s Services Council is the mechanism the Legislature has established for providing services to children.  This referendum is an opportunity to take advantage of that mechanism and to improve the lives of our children and of our county.  Let’s vote to do what we can for the kids.