Deciding who you want to support for president is hard enough with all the misleading garbage the campaigns and political parties are throwing at you. But then the state goes and makes it that much harder by loading your ballot down with 11 (!) complicated, messy and controversial ballot amendments loaded with buzzwords that prey on your emotions: senior citizens, widows, disabled veterans, property taxes. All of the amendments sound like they're trying to do worthwhile things, like help old people or promote religious freedom. But, as always, you gotta read the fine print. We did, and we suggest you do, too. We've examined each of the amendments on the ballot,
summarized them and simplified the arguments for and against them. Then we've thrown our 2 cents in for good measure (because we just can't help ourselves).
In case you were wondering – or if you just want to cut to the chase – when we go to the polls, we'll be voting no on all of the amendments appearing on the ballot. Read on to find out why.
Health care services
What it says: This amendment would prohibit the state from requiring that individuals, businesses or health-care providers be part of a larger health-insurance program; it would also prohibit state from implementing fines for those who do not take part.
What proponents say: In addition to blocking the implementation of the federal Affordable Care Act, this amendment sends a signal to the federal government that Florida cares about the states' rights laid out in Amendment 10 of the U.S. Constitution. Supporters believe that ACA is an infringement on personal and professional liberties.
What opponents say: The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the ACA is Constitutional, so this attempt to symbolically denounce healthcare carries no legislative weight. Should the amendment pass, it could hamper future state health care reforms, especially if the ACA is repealed.
What we say: This amendment represents a pathetic grudge match, and it's a waste of time. A similar attempt in 2010 was knocked off the ballot by state courts for containing caustic, misleading language. Republicans, like authors state Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, and Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, scrubbed it and are presenting effectively the same bill, only with even less merit since the Supreme Court decision ruled the ACA Constitutional.
Veterans disabled due to combat injury; homestead property tax discount
What it says: This amendment would allow disabled veterans who weren't Florida residents before entering the military to qualify for property-tax discounts.
What proponents say: This program is a benevolent attempt to lend combat-disabled veterans a helping hand. It might even help stimulate the housing market by encouraging veterans to relocate here.
What opponents say: This is an underhanded attempt to play on voter sympathies – the Constitution is not the appropriate place to specify tax-revenue sources, and even if it were, this measure would drastically cut into school budgets and property-tax income that state and local governments rely on.
What we say: On the surface, it seems like something everyone would want to get behind: relaxing the tax burden on disabled veterans. But here's the thing – disabled veterans who were Florida residents when they entered the military are already receiving this property-tax discount. All you have to do to get it is be a current Florida resident 65 years or older who was disabled in combat, and you had to have been a Florida resident before you joined the military. This law would allow disabled veterans from other states to reap tax benefits at the expense of people who've been living here all their lives. According to the state's Revenue Estimating Conference, schools stand to lose more than $7 million in the first three years of the program's implementation and local governments would lose an additional $8 in property-tax revenues. That's a lot of money out of our state and local coffers, and we're concerned it could result in an increased tax burden on those who aren't eligible for special tax breaks.
State government revenue limitation
What it says: Replaces Florida's personal-income-based revenue cap with a new "smart cap" that hinges on inflation and population growth. State revenues exceeding the cap go to a budget-stabilizing reserve account that, when it reaches 10 percent of the previous year's budget, can be used to offset public school property taxes or voted on by the legislature to be used for other tax relief. The cap can be raised by legislative vote or be put to a ballot by the legislature.
What proponents say: The imposition of the more restrictive cap will inspire private-sector growth by cutting government spending. It's a chance for Florida to learn how to cope with less while still supporting public schools.
What opponents say: It's a "wolf in sheep's clothing" that haphazardly toys with education funding while simultaneously forcing painful cuts on the state's most needy, especially seniors and the poor.
What we say: The only previous example of "smart cap" legislation being passed was a huge failure; in Colorado, where the original Taxpayer Bill of Rights was passed in 1993, the measure has been shambolic. The amendment had to be amended twice since its passage, and higher education and road improvements have both taken substantial hits. This think-tank legislation plays to all of the gut instincts of poorly constructed austerity governance, playing images of bootstraps against a reality of poverty. Also, this TABOR thing was already silenced by the legislature in 2010, so bringing it up now as a ballot initiative smacks of political hubris. The conservative legislature will happily conserve when it comes to the needs of citizens, but given its track record of business kickbacks and tax loopholes for corporations, the cuts can only be seen as one-sided.
Property tax limitations; property value decline; reduction for non-homestead assessment increases; delay of scheduled repeal
What it says: Prohibits increases in assessed values of homesteaded properties when market values decrease; reduces limits to annual assessment value increases on non-homesteaded property; offers additional homestead exemption over five years.
What proponents say: The amendment will protect property owners from rising property taxes, help small business owners and renters, spark first-time home-buying and stimulate the economy.
What opponents say: This boon for snowbirds and out-of-state business interests will suffocate already strapped local governments and result in huge cuts for fire and police.
What we say: It's easy to wave a tax break and call it a smart solution when everybody is trying to save a buck. Not so easy is the damage it will do municipalities already hit hard by the property tax maneuvering of 2008's Amendment 1. In Orlando, property taxes make up 28 percent of the city's budget, and Amendment 4 would limit the annual growth of that budget to $4.8 million, or 1.3 percent of the city's budget, according to city staff. What that means, in no uncertain terms, is that the city will have to offset the cuts with increased millage rates or by simply cutting services. You'll end up paying in the end.
What it says: A vote for amendment 5 would give the state legislature more power over the judicial process – the Senate would have to approve judicial nominees, the state Speaker of the House would be able to review confidential information pertaining to investigations by the Judicial Qualifications Commission, and it would make it easier for the legislature to repeal a court rule.
What proponents say: The Florida legislature – the main proponent of this amendment – says this measure would make the state court systems more "efficient." They point out that in some other states, the legislature has some input in judicial appointments and there's no reason we can't have that here, too.
What opponents say: If efficiency means a heavily politicized judiciary that operates at the pleasure of the legislative branch, they're right. This bill has been called a legislative power-grab and an attempt to undermine judicial independence in Florida.
What we say: The Florida legislature is so partisan, so easily influenced by lobbyists and so disturbingly opaque that the last thing our state needs is to give it any more power over the judicial branch. Do we really want to complicate our current judicial-appointment process by giving the Senate veto power over candidates that are already vetted and selected by a judicial nominating committee and the governor? Too many cooks in the kitchen – ones that absolutely want to flavor the soup to their own tastes. And why should the House have free reign to dig into confidential investigations of judicial behavior, even when judges are not actively being considered for impeachment, if not to drum up ways to kick justices who displease them off the courts? This amendment would also allow the legislature to overturn court rules it doesn't agree with. Why not just hand over all judicial power to state legislatures? That's practically what this amendment proposes.
Prohibition of public funding of abortions; construction of abortion rights
What it says: Prohibits the use of public funds for abortion services or for health insurance policies that provide for abortion services, except in cases of rape, incest or where the mother's life is at stake.
What proponents say: The amendment strengthens state law by removing "right to abortion" caveats in state law that prevent pro-life legislation from passing. Specifically, the amendment will make it easier to push through stronger parental consent laws for minors seeking abortions.
What opponents say: The amendment muddies the waters by allowing Florida politicians to inject themselves into private decisions best handled between a woman and her health care provider. Also, it would deny coverage to public employees whose insurance policies presently cover abortion services.
What we say: For a legislature so bent on presenting itself as tuned into the economic woes of its constituency, the conservatives in Tallahassee have a lot of gall trying to write this horrific overreach into the state Constitution. As MSNBC's Rachel Maddow pointed out, there is no divining point on the whole "rape or incest" issue – does a doctor decide? A cop? A judge? How long will that take? – meaning that the red herring presented here (intended to soften the blow) is truly insincere. This is culture-war crassness played out in an election as a means of driving voter turnout.
What it says: A vote yes on this amendment deletes a provision in the state Constitution that prohibits the state from funding churches, religious schools and other non-secular organizations; it replaces it with language that would make it so the state may not deny religious organizations funding just because they are religious.
What proponents say: They say that the current law that prohibits the government from funding religious organizations is discriminatory and that it prevents religious organizations from obtaining public funding for charitable work.
What opponents say: This amendment is not about religious freedom at all. Rather, it's a blatant attempt to prey upon voters' ignorance of the state's longstanding "no aid" rule, and if passed, it could force the government to use taxpayer dollars to fund religious schools and programs that currently aren't eligible for government funding due to the religious nature of their activities.
What we say: There's no doubt that this amendment is misleading. It was introduced as Amendment 7 and was struck from the ballot by the courts, which said its language made it seem as if it was necessary to pass this amendment to bring state law in line with the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees religious freedom. In fact, Amendment 7 – which was quickly rewritten and then introduced to the ballot again as Amendment 8 – does no such thing. Rather, it would make it illegal for the state to deny funding to programs that exist to promote a religious point of view.
While secular activities performed by religious organizations can currently apply for public funding from government entities, any programs that exist to further a religious agenda may not. Amendment 8 would not only make it legal for them to obtain such monies – it would make it practically illegal for the government to turn them down.
This amendment would open the floodgates for the government funding of churches, synagogues, mosques and other religious organizations, but most importantly, it would open the door to the funding of religious schools via voucher programs and public aid that they aren't currently eligible for. A vote for Amendment 8 undermines the longstanding separation of church and state in Florida, and it has the potential to undermine our public-education system, as well.
Homestead property tax exemption for surviving spouse of military veteran or first responder
What it says: A vote in favor of this amendment is a vote to give widows of law-enforcement personnel, military veterans and first responders who died from service-related causes full exemption from property taxes.
What proponents say: Only the heartless would say no to this – why wouldn't you want to give property-tax exemptions to those who've lost loved ones in the line of duty to their community and country?
What opponents say: There's not a lot of organized opposition to this amendment – again, widows! – but those who do say it's not a great idea point out that this is not a great time to be reducing the amount of money flowing in to our cash-strapped state and local governments.
What we say: As the League of Women Voters of Florida President Deidre McNab wrote in a recent editorial at Sunshinestatenews.com, "the state Constitution is not the appropriate place for tax breaks … for anyone, regardless of how deserving he or she might be." It's far more difficult to make changes to the state Constitution than it is to pass or repeal laws, and for good reason – it shouldn't be changed on a whim or emotional response. And it's certainly not the appropriate place to create and modify tax law.
The state should (and can) help the widows of firefighters, police officers, correctional officers and military veterans – but it should do so through the appropriate channels. And in this case, the appropriate channel would be via legislative action, not via Constitutional amendments. As McNab wrote: "We urge legislators to use their law-making powers, and not taint our Constitution with complicated amendments that don't belong there." Amen, sister.
Tangible personal property tax exemption
What it says: Provides for a new exemption from ad valorem taxes levied by counties, cities and school districts on tangible personal property valued between $25,000 and $50,000.
What proponents say: The amendment will provide relief for small businesses and inspire economic growth.
What opponents say: The amendment is another costly tax loophole that could slap local governments with a $60 million cost over the next three years.
What we say: Amendment 10 is about as inconsequential as its author, state Rep. Eric Eisnaugle, R-Orlando, in that it looks like something potentially meaningful on paper but does little more than complicate matters in reality. Specifically, the amendment attempts to incentivize the purchase of medium-sized equipment for small businesses by offering a tax break. Most economists agree that tax breaks (especially those amounting to just a few hundred dollars saved) are lousy incentives; however, they sure do make nice greeting cards. Loopholes are most often the targets for abuse, and, in this case, that abuse stands to directly affect local governments. Vote no.
Additional homestead exemption: low-income seniors who maintain long-term residency on property; equal assessed value.
What it says: A vote in favor of this amendment is a vote to give low-income senior citizens who've lived in their homes for 25 years or more an exemption on property taxes.
What proponents say: That this amendment would make it easier for senior citizens struggling to make ends meet and stay in their homes.
What opponents say: This is yet another law that would take a big bite out of tax revenues, which could ultimately lead to higher taxes for those who aren't eligible for these kinds of breaks.
What we say: As Deidre McNab of the League of Women Voters of Florida noted on her organization's opposition to Amendment 9, the state Constitution – a governing document – is simply not the place for the state to create tax policy. If passed, this would be yet another amendment that would codify tax inequities in our state Constitution – inequities that would be far more difficult to repeal or amend than if they were created by new legislation. Hey, Tallahassee, if you think we need so much revision to our tax laws, why don't you make it a key topic during your next legislative session and hammer out some meaningful, comprehensive tax reforms that help all of us, rather than try to prey on voters' emotional responses to get them to pass tax relief for just a few select segments of the population? This is no way to govern.
Appointment of student body president to board of governors of the state university system
What it says: Replaces the president of the Florida Student Association with the chair of the council of state university student body presidents as the student member of the Board of Governors of the State University System.
What proponents say: The Florida Student Association is a private lobbying group, and state university students are more likely to have their student body president representing them on the Board of Governors if a new council of student body presidents is created.
What opponents say: Though private, the Florida Student Association no longer charges dues, which is the primary reason why some universities chose not to have their student body presidents join as members. Therefore, this amendment is unnecessary.
What we say: How the hell did this make it on the ballot? Basically, Florida State University didn't want to pay to be part of the FSA, so they demanded the creation of a new organization that looks and smells just like the FSA, only without the dues. But the FSA stopped charging dues in January, making this battle meaningless. Yet the legislature still ran headfirst in a bipartisan manner to rush this to the ballot, probably hanging itself on the fact that the FSA is synonymous with a "lobby." This procedural amendment carries no water for the average voter and it stinks of petty infighting. Your government at work!