Four ballot amendments reviewed; pros and cons given

medmarLazaro Aleman
ECB Publishing, Inc.

Voters will face many important choices when they go to the polls beginning next Monday, among them four amendments that stand to have far-reaching consequences. In the interest of voter education, the Monticello News offers the following on the four amendments, a composite of information derived from the Florida TaxWatch, League of Women Voters of Florida and James Madison Institute — three nonpartisan, fairly objective sources. The four amendments — numbered 1, 2, 3 and 5 — deal respectively with solar energy, medical marijuana and property tax exemptions for disabled first responders and long-term senior residents. Amendment 1, titled Rights of Electricity Consumers Regarding Solar Energy Choice, is a citizens’ initiative. The amendment would make the right of consumers to own or lease solar equipment on their properties to generate electricity for their own use a constitutional right. It would also enshrine in the state constitution the ability of state and local governments to protect consumers rights and ensure that consumers who choose not to install solar power equipment are not required to subsidize the costs of backup power and electric grid access for those who do. A yes vote means that consumers’ right to generate and use solar power, a right already enjoyed under Florida laws and regulations, would become a constitutional protection. As would the right of state and local governments to protect consumers and ensure that non-solar customers do not have to subsidize solar customers’ access to the grid or backup power. A no vote means that Floridians’ right to use and generate solar power for their own use remains in general law, where it is vulnerable to change. Amendment 1 proponents argue that it would guarantee Floridians’ right to use and produce solar energy. The measure, they say, would promote solar energy in Florida and treats all consumers fairly, ensuring that those who don’t use solar don’t have to subsidize those who do. Opponents argue the amendment does not promote solar energy, but rather undermines it. They say Amendment 1 opens the door for the utilities to charge solar users a fee under the guise of ensuring that solar users are not subsidized, which current Florida law allows. They say Amendment 1 needlessly enshrines what is the status quo in the state constitution. Amendment 2, titled Use of Marijuana for Debilitating Medical Conditions, is also a citizens’ initiative. Amendment 2 would permit individuals who suffer from debilitating medical conditions to use marijuana for medical purposes, as determined by a licensed physician. The measure would also permit caregivers to assist individuals with the use of marijuana if the latter couldn’t do it on their own. It would not legalize the use, possession, sale or production of non-medical marijuana. A yes vote means that individuals with debilitating medical conditions such as AIDS, cancer and epilepsy would be able to use marijuana without fear of criminal or civil liability, so long as a physician prescribes the use. Parental consent would be required for minors to use medical marijuana, and the use of the drug for other than medical reasons would still be prohibited. The Florida Department of Health would regulate the medical marijuana system. A no vote means that marijuana would remain illegal and subject to prosecution, with the exception of the few medical uses of the drug under special circumstances, as authorized by the Florida Legislature in 2014 and 2016. Proponents say Amendment 2 represents a compassionate response to those suffering from debilitating diseases. They say marijuana would provide an alternative to pills and reduce the number of fatalities and addictions associated with pain medications such as oxycodone. Proponents further point out that 58 percent of Florida voters supported the measure in 2014, just shy of the 60 percent needed to pass the amendment, and that 25 other states plus the District of Columbia have enacted medical marijuana laws. Opponents, which include the major law-enforcement organizations, say the law flies directly in the face of federal law, which prohibits marijuana use. They claim the language of the law is too broad and would lead to abuse. They cite the state’s history with pill mills as evidence that there wouldn’t be a shortage of physicians willing to provide approval for questionable conditions. They say it would also put a financial and manpower strain on law enforcement agencies, as well as citing Colorado, where they say medical marijuana has been diverted into recreational use. Amendment 3, titled Tax Exemption for Totally and Permanently Disabled First Responders, is a legislative initiative. Amendment 3 seeks to give property tax relief on homesteads of first responders such as police and firefighters, provided the individual is totally and permanently disabled as a consequence of injuries received in the line of duty. If approved, the exemption would take effect on Jan. 1, 2017. A yes vote would authorize the Legislature to enact the exemption, as the amendment itself does not enact it. A no vote would prevent the Legislature from authorizing the exemption, as property tax amendments require citizens’ constitutional approval. Proponents argue that it’s incumbent upon society to reward disabled first responders for the sacrifices they make on behalf of the general good. They point out that even if approved, the measure must still go through the legislative process to become law. Opponents counter that the exemption would add more complexity and non-uniformity to Florida’s already complicated property tax system. They argue that granting an exemption based on occupation is unwarranted and a first step down a slippery slope that will lead to granting exemptions for other occupations. Amendment 5, titled Homestead Tax Exemption for Certain Senior, Low-Income, Long-Term Residents; Determination of Just Value, is another legislative initiative. Amendment 5 proposes giving an additional homestead tax exemption to low-income, long-term senior residents whose properties have a just value of less than $250,000. Actually, under current law, homeowners who are 65 or older and whose annual income doesn’t exceed $20 annually and whose home values are less than $250,000, qualify for the exemption. What Amendment 5 would do is make it so that even if a property’s value rises above $250,000, the individuals would still qualify for the exemption, so long as they meet the other requirements. A yes vote would authorize county and city governments to grant the exemption to homeowners who are age 65 or older and whose income makes them eligible, even if the home value goes above $250,000. A no vote means that low-income seniors will still qualify for he exemption, so long as the values of their homes don’t exceed $250,000. Amendment 5 proponents point out that it would ensure that low-income elderly homeowners whose property values rose above $250,000 wouldn’t automatically lose the exemption, a situation that could result in them losing their houses. They call it an unfair system that doesn’t account for rising property values and penalizes long-term elderly residents. Opponents argue that Amendment 5 would put another wrinkle in an already complex, complicated and inconsistent tax system. They say it would allow homeowners to continue receiving the exemption no matter how high the value of their houses, or if the increase value was the result of additions and upgrades. They also say it deprives local governments of revenues and shifts the burden to other property owners.