Author, Lecturer, Ethicist

Those Pesky, Incomprehensible Constitutional Amendments

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(West HIlls, CA) During the midterm elections of 1964, California voters, like Florida voters in 2018, were asked to approve or reject a number of Constitutional Amendments. Then, as now, many of the ballot amendments, were written in incomprehensible legalize. One particular amendment - #14 - was a real doozy. It read, in part, as follows:

“Neither the State nor any subdivision or agency thereof shall deny, limit or abridge, directly or indirectly, the right of any person, who is willing or desires to sell, lease or rent any part or all of his real property, to decline to sell, lease or rent such property to such person or persons as he, in his absolute discretion, chooses.”

A cursory reading of the amendment seemed to imply that no one could be denied the right to purchase or lease a property based on their race, creed or color. In fact, the amendment did precisely the opposite; it was meant to overturn the 1963 Rumford Fair Housing Act, which the State Legislator had enacted in order to help end racial discrimination by property owners and landlords who refused to rent or sell their property to “colored” people. And so, in order to hopefully keep this discriminatory amendment from encoded in the state Constitution, liberals and progressives began a mass “No on Prop. 14” campaign. I can well remember going door-to-door with my slightly older sister Erica, two wide-eyed teenage idealists, attempting to explain to our neighbors why a “no” vote on Prop 14 actually meant a “yes” vote for racial equality in the housing market.

Despite our best efforts, it failed: Prop. 14 passed with 65.39% of the vote (4,526,460 votes in support and 2,395,747 votes against). Soon after it was passed, the federal government cut off all housing funds to California. And then, the California Supreme Court held that that Proposition 14 violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the federal Constitution. Their decision was eventually upheld by the United States Supreme Court The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the California Supreme Court's decision in Reitman v. Mulkey (1967), holding that indeed, Proposition 14 was invalid because it violated the equal protection clause. The proposition was repealed by Proposition 7 in the November, 1974 election

Historically, this represents one of the more egregious instances of linguistic obfuscation.  The current Florida ballot, which includes 12 constitutional amendments (although it ends with # 13, there is no there is no #8 – the state Supreme Court took it off the ballot). Sadly, many voters fail to read, review or ponder these amendments prior to arriving at their respective polling places. And then, when they see how much there is to read, they become frustrated and confused. In an attempt to cut through the verbosity and pesky mumbo jumbo, we present a brief pro-and-con of what’s on the ballot. Many, many thanks to our family friend, the Sun Sentinel’s Dan Sweeny, for his wisdom and insight.

Amendment 1: Increased Homestead Property Tax Exemption

Proposed by: Florida Legislature

What it would do: Floridians would be able to deduct the value of their homes between $100,000 and $125,000, in addition to the existing homestead exemption on the first $50,000. So, a home worth $200,000 would now be worth $125,000 in terms of taxable value. But a home worth $100,000 would still only be able to take $50,000 from the value.

Pros: Homeowners whose homes are worth more than $125,000 would get an extra $25,000 off the cost of their homes when determining property taxes. Given that median home prices in South Florida are well above $125,000 (Broward: $298,900; Palm Beach: $323,000; Miami-Dade: $365,000 and Monroe: $629,000, according to, that’s a significant tax cut for South Florida homeowners. Most homeowners will save between $200 and $300 a year.

Cons: This tax cut would not affect renters or those in homes with the lowest values, which means the poorest Floridians would not benefit. Plus, it may mean a few hundred bucks in savings for Florida homeowners, but all of that adds up to major holes in county budgets: about $650 million worth in just the 2019 fiscal year. That could mean increases in taxes and fees elsewhere to make up for the shortfall, or a reduction in services. MY VOTE: NO

Amendment 2: Limitations on Property Tax Assessments

Proposed by: Florida Legislature

What it would do: Right now, the assessed value of non-homestead properties can be increased only 10 percent in any given year, excepting school district taxes. But that limitation is set to expire on Jan. 1, 2019. If voters approve this amendment, the limitation on property tax increases would be made permanent.

Pros: Taxpayers would be protected from large, sudden increases in property taxes in the future when the value of properties rises in boom years.

Cons: There is no organized opposition to Amendment 2. MY VOTE: NO (No tax revenue should be limited or prohibited in the constitution.)

Amendment 3: Voter Control of Gambling in Florida

Proposed by: Petition drive carried out by Voters In Charge, a political committee largely financed by Disney and the Seminole Tribe.

What it would do: Any expansion of casino gambling in Florida would have to be approved by voters. That includes expansion of slot machines and other electronic betting devices as well as games like blackjack, roulette and craps.

Pros: From the perspectives of Disney and the Seminole Tribe, the pros are obvious. This amendment makes it harder to expand gambling in Florida, decreasing competition for tourist dollars. And for people who consider gambling a societal ill, making its expansion harder in Florida also has obvious positives.

Cons: With the state and the Seminole Tribe in and out of court over their revenue-sharing agreement regarding Seminole casinos, the future for that line of revenue, which brings hundreds of millions of dollars to the state, is unclear. Preventing the Legislature from pursuing gambling legislation means the state may not be able to make up that revenue should it ever go away. MY VOTE: YES

Amendment 4: Voting Restoration

Proposed by: Petition drive carried out by Floridians for a Fair Democracy, a political committee funded in large part by the American Civil Liberties Union, several philanthropic nonprofits, and the children of billionaires David Bonderman and Jim Simons.

What it would do: This amendment would restore the right to vote for all ex-felons, except murderers and sex offenders, who complete their sentences.

Pros: The high-minded upside is that voting rights are given to American citizens who have been disenfranchised and now have no say in what is supposed to be a representative democracy. The practical effect depends on how many of the estimated 1.6 million ex-felons who have been disenfranchised opt to register to vote. For those that do, though, studies have shown a correlation between being civically engaged and low recidivism.

Cons: Gov. Rick Scott and other Florida officials who support the current clemency process have argued that it’s important for offenders to prove that they are ready to re-enter society before regaining the right to vote. MY VOTE: YES

Amendment 5: Supermajority Vote Required to Impose, Authorize, or Raise State Taxes or Fees

Proposed by: Florida Legislature

What it would do: Passage of this amendment would require a two-thirds majority of the Legislature to raise any tax or fee.

Pros: The obvious positive point from a taxpayer’s perspective is that it would be incredibly difficult for the Legislature to raise taxes.

Cons: The downside is actually the same as the upside. Critics of the amendment, including a new Floridians for Tax Fairness committee backed by labor union money, argue that it would protect corporate giveaways and make the Legislature far less nimble in times of crisis. MY VOTE: NO

Amendment 6: Rights of Crime Victims, Judicial Retirements

Proposed by: Constitution Revision Commission

What it would do: The main thrust of the amendment would set up a list of rights of crime victims, including the right to due process, to be “reasonably protected from the accused,” the right to have their safety considered when judges set bail, and the right to be heard at public trial proceedings.

The amendment would also raise the required retirement age for judges from 70 to 75, and require judges to not consider a state agency’s interpretation of a law when interpreting the law themselves.

Pros: Most Florida sheriffs support the amendment for its major expansion of victims’ rights.

Cons: The Florida Public Defenders Association and the Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union have joined the League of Women Voters in opposing the amendment, according to the League. They say the new victims’ rights would mean people accused of crimes would face new time limits on appeals and that a current provision that states victims’ rights cannot infringe on the rights of the accused would be eliminated. MY VOTE: NO

Amendment 7: First Responder and Military Member Survivor Benefits; Public Colleges and Universities

Proposed by: Constitution Revision Commission

What it would do: To raise any fee — tuition not included — a university board of trustees would need nine votes out of its 13 members. For a fee to be raised system-wide the State University System’s Board of Governors would need 12 out of 17 members to approve.

Additionally, the surviving spouses of military members and first responders killed in the line of duty would receive a payment of death benefits from the state and would have some educational costs at public institutions waived.

Pros: The costs of college could be kept down by requiring a higher threshold to increase fees. The amount of taxpayer dollars it would cost to pay out death benefits and educational expenses is negligible.

Cons: Like Amendment 5, which makes it harder for the Legislature to raise taxes, setting the bar higher to increase fees would allow a small group of trustees to prevent any fee raises, potentially handicapping a university’s ability to pay for services. MY VOTE: NO

Amendment 9: Prohibits Offshore Oil and Gas Drilling; Prohibits Vaping in Enclosed Indoor Workplaces

Proposed by: Constitution Revision Commission

What it would do: Offshore drilling would be banned in “Florida territorial seas,” which includes about nine miles west of Florida and three miles east of Florida or to the Gulf Stream, whichever is furthest. The amendment would also add vaping to the state’s already-existing ban on smoking in indoor workplaces.

Pros: For environmentalists, a constitutionally mandated ban on offshore drilling would be a big win. As for vaping, there’s still a great deal of disagreement about just how bad secondhand e-cigarette vapor is compared with traditional cigarette smoke, but most of the studies out so far show that, while not as harmful as smoke, it’s also not 100 percent safe, containing not just nicotine but also aluminum and carcinogenic hydrocarbons.

Cons: There’s the potential loss of state revenue that would come with selling offshore drilling rights. Vapers would have to go out in the hot sun to get their fix. MY VOTE: YES

Amendment 10: State and Local Government Structure and Operation

Proposed by: Constitution Revision Commission

What it would do: First, this amendment would permanently move legislative sessions in even-numbered years to January. It also would make constitutional requirements of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement counterterrorism office and the state’s Department of Veterans Affairs. Finally, the amendment requires all counties to have an elected a sheriff, tax collector, property appraiser, supervisor of elections, and clerk of court. If this amendment passes, Broward County would have to have an elected position of tax collector, and Miami-Dade County would have to have an elected sheriff.

Pros: For some, having elected positions rather than these constitutional officers being appointed by an elected body means more accountability.

Cons: Allowing a county commission to select these positions means the commission gets to pore over resumes to find the best person for the job. The life experiences and personality traits that allow one to win a countywide elected office may not necessarily be the same as those that make somebody a good cop, or a good accountant. MY VOTE: NO

Amendment 11: Removal of Obsolete Provisions

Proposed by: Constitution Revision Commission

What it would do: This would simply delete wording regarding a high-speed rail amendment that has since been repealed and delete wording that bans property ownership for “aliens ineligible for citizenship.” This is no longer an issue, but harks back to century-old, now-overturned laws such as the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Pros: The already overly long Florida Constitution would be just a little more precise and brief with the removal of outdated and unconstitutional provisions.

Cons: None MY VOTE: NO

Amendment 12: Lobbying and Abuse of Office by Public Officers

Proposed by: Constitution Revision Commission

What it would do: Elected officials would be banned from lobbying the bodies they were elected to for six years after leaving office. Former justices and judges would also be banned for six years from lobbying the legislative or executive branches of state government. In addition, the amendment would ban any elected official from using their office to receive a “disproportionate benefit” for themselves, their families or their businesses.

Pros: With the Florida Legislature’s eight-year term limit, lawmakers-turned-lobbyists would be unable to lobby most former colleagues.

Cons: It remains to be seen just how much teeth this would have, given that the amendment leaves it up to the Legislature to determine what penalties lawmakers would face for abusing the lobbying ban. MY VOTE: NO (It could easily keep many first-rate people from ever running for office.)

Amendment 13: Ends Dog Racing

Proposed by: Constitution Revision Commission

What it would do: Technically, this amendment doesn’t actually ban greyhound racing in Florida. It bans people from racing dogs “in connection with any wager for money or any other thing of value,” and also bans would-be gamblers from betting “money or any other thing of value on the outcome of a live dog race occurring in this state.” Greyhound racing would be banned by 2021, and track owners would be allowed to keep their gambling permits even if they halt racing by 2019. In other words, Florida’s 11 dog tracks would still be able to operate as card rooms and, in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, larger-scale casinos that offer slot machines.

Pros: For animal rights advocates, the end of dog racing in Florida would be a huge coup. Florida has more dog tracks than the rest of the country combined.

Cons: Greyhound trainers, breeders and others involved in the business say the end of live dog racing in Florida means significant job losses. MY VOTE: NO (As much as I love dogs and hate greyhound racing for humanitarian reasons, this issue simply does not belong in the state constitution; it would be better handled by local county governments.)

The above is a mixture of the reasonably objective and totally subjective; a blend of hard fact and opinion (hopefully) backed up by knowledge. You don’t’ have to agree with me; you do have to do some contemplation; you bloody well must cast your vote!

Midterm elections are a mere 16 days away!

Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone