Some amendments excite interest; others not so much
By MELODY JAMESON
SOUTH COUNTY – Preparing for the November 2 general election ballot, about 200 South County voters assembled here last week to review six proposed amendments to the Florida Constitution.
They questioned and commented as Mickey Castor, president of the League of Women Voters, Hillsborough County chapter, provided a non-partisan overview of each potential amendment during a two-hour session in Community Hall sponsored by the Sun City Center Forum. The amendments discussion was initiated by Marilyn Balkany, SCC resident and activist.
Amendment 2, which would give a homesteaded property tax break to deployed military personnel, prompted the most positive reaction among the mostly retiree audience. They applauded emphatically in obvious support of U.S. troops currently posted in numerous hot spots around the world as Castor told them a vote for the amendment would reduce property taxes for military personnel while also limiting property tax revenues for counties and cities around the state, plus place that limitation in the state constitution from which it could not be easily removed.
Their greatest concern was the calculation and the length of time the tax break would be effective. Castor said the additional property tax exemption would be commensurate with the amount of time each home-owning member of the U.S. armed forces, including the Coast Guard, the National Guard and their reserves, was on active duty outside the U.S., Hawaii and Alaska during the previous year. As an example, she noted that a soldier owning a home in Florida and deployed overseas for a half year could get a tax bill reduced by six months.
The amendment, proposed by state legislators, also would have reduced statewide property tax revenues by an estimated $13 million if it had been effective in 2009-2010.
The amendments which generated the most intense focus were numbers 5 and 6, dealing with proposed prohibitions on the redrawing of legislative and congressional districts following each population census.
Sponsored by FairdistrictsFlorida, an organization initiated by a Miami area attorney, the proposed amendments would require that the districts of legislators and congressmen be as equal in population as possible, contiguous, using the boundaries of county and city borders as much as possible when drawn periodically by the legislature.
In other words, Castor said, under the amendments such districts could not be created to favor or disfavor any incumbent or any political party, nor could the redrawn districts reduce the abilities of minorities to participate in the political process.
Differences in political persuasions were made clear as residents in the audience presented opposing viewpoints, some in favor of imposing the standards as outlined in the amendments, others arguing the downsides of the standards.
A vote against the amendments, Castor suggested, could result in many incumbents remaining in office unchallenged. On the other hand, a vote for the amendments would, in addition to setting non-political standards for redistricting and reducing gerrymandering for political purposes, also would protect minority voter participation and likely increase competition within elections. But a supportive vote also could lead to litigation over implementing the provisions.
The one amendment which has been the most highly debated in television advertising and community meetings during the current election season did not raise many hackles among the older voters.
Amendment 4, sponsored by Florida Hometown Democracy – another attorney initiative – would allow voters to weigh in through the election process on proposed changes to their county comprehensive land use plans. It would require voter approval of development proposals that conflict with established land use plans. The potential amendment has been vigorously opposed by development interests around the state and enthusiastically supported by those committed to slower growth.
Castor, maintaining her non-partisan stance, observed only that “this definitely is one where you have to weigh the pros and cons.”
Similarly, proposed Amendment 1to repeal the existing provision in the state constitution dealing with political campaign financing elicited little interest.
The original amendment was approved in 1998 by 64 percent of Florida’s voters and established the campaign spending limits that candidates for statewide offices would adhere to. In 2005, the state legislature increased those spending limits by 300 percent, dramatically diluting the intent to hold down campaign spending. In 2010, the voluntary spending limit for candidates seeking the office of governor was just shy of $25 million.
The League of Women Voters official position on the amendment is that a vote for will reduce the number of candidates who can afford to run, will increase the influence of special interests in elections, will eliminate what may have been the most significant campaign reforms in the state’s history and may end limits on campaign spending that some believe is infringement on freedom of speech.
Conversely, a vote against the amendment would continue public financing of campaigns of candidates who qualify for it.
But, Amendment 8 which would set new limits on the number of students that can be assigned to each public school teacher, did touch a nerve among some attendees. Since this amendment would alter an amendment approved by voters in 2002, one speaker asserted “we can’t keep changing with the changing of the wind.” Yet another found the proposed increases in classroom student size “not unreasonable “ as the population increases.
The amendment would increase the number of students through grade 3 from 18 to 21, through grade 8 from 22 to 27 students and through grade 12 from 25 to 30 students.
A vote for the amendment is expected to allow more flexibility in meeting class size requirements, limit increases to no more than 5 and provide more local level control of student-teacher ratios. A vote against amendment 8 will generate more costs for the state in fully implementing the original class size standards and would discourage the legislature from proposing class size limits be eliminated.
Copyright 2010 Melody Jameson