Photo:Florida voters will consider six amendments to the state constitution when they go to the polls next month. Each proposal requires at least 60% approval by voters.
Voting on Florida's upcoming six constitutional amendments
Changes constitutional wording on citizenship of voters
Title: Citizenship Requirement to Vote in Florida Elections
- Proposal: Article VI of Florida’s Constitution states: “Every 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.” Amendment 1 would change the wording from “every citizen” who is qualified and registered can vote, to “only a citizen” can vote.
- Pros and Cons: Backers of the amendment say it’s needed because the current constitutional language clarifies who can vote, but it doesn’t spell out who can’t legally vote. They also say the change is needed in “response to partisan efforts to give legal voting rights to noncitizens in local elections” in other parts of the country. The amendment, they say, would head off any similar efforts in Florida. Opponents argue the language is unnecessary because Florida already bars non-citizens from voting. In fact, the first question on Florida’s voter registration application is whether or not the applicant is a citizen of the United States.
- Background: A group called Florida Citizen Voters spent millions gathering signatures to land the amendment on the ballot. The group’s chairman, John Loudon, is a Republican and a former Missouri state senator who resides in West Palm Beach. Loudon also chairs Citizen Voters, a non-profit that’s spearheading a national effort to push citizen-only voting initiatives. His wife, Gina Loudon, a conservative commentator, is the “public face” of the organization. The Loudons — who gained notoriety for appearing in a 2013 episode of the TV reality show Wife Swap — are staunch Trump supporters. They were Trump delegates at the 2016 GOP convention, are members of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club, and Gina Loudon serves on Trump’s media advisory board and is one of seven co-chairs of Women for Trump 2020. John Loudon told the Washington Post that Tim Mooney, a friend and GOP strategist from Arizona who specializes in get-out-the-vote efforts and ballot measures, recruited him to head the noncitizen voting initiative — but it’s unclear who’s financing the effort. Florida Citizen Voters reported receiving nearly $8.3 million in donations from Citizen Voters and the non-profit, which lists a Ponte Vedra Beach UPS store as its address, isn’t required to disclose the names of its donors.
Some have suggested the amendment was just an exercise in political chicanery to hire away professional signature gatherers so they wouldn’t be available to work on a now-defunct initiative that would have deregulated Florida’s electric utility market. According to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Mark Jacoby, a consultant who managed the amendment’s signature-gathering efforts, sent an e-mail to colleagues explaining why the company was asking signature gatherers to sign a non-compete agreement: “It’s not a secret what we’re really doing. We are offering you and your people a higher-paying initiative to ensure that they don’t work for our client’s opposition, which is the utilities initiative,” Jacoby allegedly wrote. Whatever the case, if early polls are right, the amendment has a strong chance of passing: Nearly 72% of Florida voters said they supported the idea in a February/March 2020 poll by the Saint Leo University Polling Institute.
Increases Florida’s minimum wage
Title: Raising Florida’s Minimum Wage
- Proposal: Spearheaded by Orlando trial attorney John Morgan, the proposal would raise Florida’s minimum wage — currently $8.56 an hour — to $15 by 2026. It would increase the minimum wage to $10 an hour in September 2021 and bump it up by $1 each year until it hits $15 in September 2026. Wages for tipped employees, such as restaurant servers, would rise from $5.54 per hour to $11.98 per hour. From 2027 onward, the state minimum wage would be adjusted annually for inflation.
- Pros and Cons: Proponents of a $15 minimum wage point out that the current minimum wage isn’t enough to live on and want an increase to lift more Floridians out of poverty and reverse decades of growing pay inequality. An estimated 123,000 Floridians were earning the federal minimum wage (of $7.25 an hour) or less in 2017, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. According to MIT’s living wage calculator, a single person living on her own in Florida needs to earn at least $12.39 an hour to make ends meet; a single parent in Florida needs to earn at least $25.47 an hour to support a household. Opponents argue that a minimum wage hike is no panacea: Pinched businesses would likely pass their increased labor costs on to customers — increasing the cost of living for all — and some may eliminate jobs or automate them. A 2019 Congressional Budget Office analysis looking at the potential impacts of raising the federal minimum wage from its current $7.25 an hour to $15 per hour by 2025 said the effects are uncertain, but it predicted a 0.8% drop in employment, along with reduced business income and a slight reduction in the nation’s output. Florida economists say a minimum wage hike would also impact state and local governments, with increased wage costs of $16 million in 2021 and $540 million in 2027. School districts would face the greatest annual cost increases.
- Background: The national Fight for $15 movement started eight years ago when fast-food workers in New York walked off the job, demanding a boost in pay and unionization. Since then, a handful of cities and states — including California, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maryland, Illinois, New Jersey, Seattle and Washington, D.C. — passed measures mandating a minimum wage of $15 by certain dates. Here in Florida, Morgan — the force behind the successful push to legalize medical marijuana — took up the cause, calling it a “moral, ethical and religious” issue. His group, Florida for a Fair Wage, raised and spent approximately $4.6 million getting the amendment on the ballot. Business groups in Florida, including the Florida Chamber and the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, oppose the amendment, calling it a jobs killer. Meanwhile, some industry heavyweights — including Walt Disney World and Universal Parks and Resorts — have said they will phase in a $15-an-hour wage within the next few years. Those announcements came before COVID-19, however, and it remains to be seen whether they’ll stick by their pledges. Overall, 68% of voters said they “strongly” or “somewhat” supported the ballot measure in a February/March 2020 poll by Saint Leo University Polling Institute, though there’s a clear partisan gap: Roughly 84% of Democrats and 72% of independents were in favor, compared to 48% of Republicans polled.
Creates open primaries for state elections
Title: All Voters Vote in Primary Elections for State Legislature, Governor and Cabinet
- Proposal: Since 1913, Florida has been a closed primary state, meaning that only voters registered as affiliated with one of the two major parties can vote in that party’s primary — only Democrats may vote in Democratic primaries and only Republicans may vote in Republican primaries. Amendment 3 would replace the closed primaries with a single primary for each office: All candidates running for that office would appear on the ballot, regardless of their party affiliation, and all registered voters would be allowed to vote in the primaries, regardless of their political party affiliation. The top two vote-getters would then face each other in the general election. The amendment would apply only to state legislative, gubernatorial and Cabinet contests, not federal or smaller, local races.
- Pros and Cons: Proponents of open primaries say closed primaries shut out big and growing blocks of independent voters. Twenty years ago, approximately 15% of Florida voters were registered as independent or no party affiliation (NPA). Today, more than 3.6 million Florida voters — roughly 26% of the electorate — are non-affiliated and therefore can’t vote in most primary elections. Backers of the amendment believe open primaries might also tamp down on the partisan extremism that’s overtaken politics today: They cite the conventional wisdom that candidates in closed primaries tend to cater more toward their party’s base and believe an open primary would encourage candidates to find more middle ground. Opponents of the amendment include the Democratic Party of Florida and Republican Party of Florida. They say open primaries would interfere with their ability to select their own candidates and that a so-called “top-two” system could result in two Democrats or two Republicans being on the general election ballot.
- Background: Miami attorney Gene Stearns, a founding partner of Stearns Weaver Miller, and some of his law partners launched their push for open primaries about five years ago in response to the growing polarization of the electorate and a lack of civil discourse and compromise in politics. “Political discourse was being overtaken by the extreme wing of both parties,” says Glenn Burhans Jr., an attorney with Stearns Weaver Miller and chairman of All Voters Vote, which spearheaded the amendment. The group failed to gather enough signatures to put the proposal on the ballot in 2015, but it got a second breath when Miguel “Mike” Fernandez, a South Florida businessman, took up the cause. Once a prominent Republican donor, Fernandez left the party after Donald Trump got the GOP nomination in 2016 and was surprised to realize that he could no longer vote in the state’s primaries. From 2018 to 2019, Fernandez and his companies poured more than $6.2 million into All Voters Vote to back its signature-gathering effort. The group may push for more changes down the road. “If 60% approve it, we may be back on the federal side,” Burhans says, referring to presidential and congressional races.
Double election requirement for constitutional amendments
Title: Voter Approval of Constitutional Amendments
- Proposal: Under current law, a constitutional amendment is enacted if 60% of voters approve it. Amendment 4 would require an amendment be approved by voters in two consecutive election cycles, rather than one, to become part of the state constitution. If it passes, it would take effect on Jan. 5, 2021, and the two-election requirement would likely apply to amendments that appear on the 2022 ballot.
- Pros and Cons: Advocates for Amendment 4 want to make it harder to amend the constitution. They object to “legislating” by constitutional amendment and want to keep the document clutter free. An oft-cited example of the amendment process run amok is the socalled pregnant pigs amendment, a 2002 amendment approved by voters that banned keeping pregnant pigs inside of small cages. In the years since, Florida voters have approved dozens more constitutional amendments, including banning gay marriage, legalizing medicinal marijuana, restoring voting rights for ex-felons and ending greyhound racing. Opponents argue that citizen-led ballot initiatives are an important tool for voters, particularly when the Legislature resists policy changes desired by large numbers of voters or influential groups. If the proposal passes, Florida’s constitution would be one of the toughest in the nation to amend. It will also likely increase the cost of elections for state and local governments, according to state economists.
- Background: In 2018, Major Harding, a former chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court, appeared at a public hearing of the Constitutional Revision Commission on behalf of a group called Keep Our Constitution Clean, which he has described in a series of op-ed pieces as a “group of concerned businesses and Floridians who are urging the commission to exercise restraint and reject proposals that detract from the Florida Constitution’s purpose.” But exactly who those business interests are remains a mystery. Keep Our Constitution Clean, which raised $9 million to get Amendment 4 on the ballot, is led by Broward attorneys Jason Haber and Jason Blank, but the attorneys — who work for dozens of political committees in the state — have kept a low profile on the issue. And the group doesn’t have to disclose its donors. According to state lobbying records, Keep Our Constitution Clean paid Ausley McMullen, the Tallahassee firm where Harding works, between $20,000 and $30,000 in 2019. The group has also paid GrayRobinson $10,000 for lobbying services related to the effort over the past two years. Amendment 4 is the only amendment the Florida Chamber of Commerce has explicitly endorsed this year.
Orlando trial attorney John Morgan, who backed the campaign to legalize medical marijuana and is spearheading the fight for a $15 minimum wage this year, is incensed by the proposal that would require voters to approve constitutional amendments twice to take effect. He tweeted last fall: “Big money behind this wants special interests to control us. They don’t like it when we have a say!”
Extending window of transfer for Save Our Homes benefits
Title: Limitation on Homestead Assessments
- Proposal: Created by a 1992 constitutional amendment, Florida’s Save Our Homes exemption limits annual increases in the assessed value of a homestead property to 3%, or the change in the Consumer Price Index, whichever is lower. In 2008, Florida voters approved another amendment allowing homestead property owners to transfer, or port, up to $500,000 in accrued Save Our Homes benefits from one home to another one when they move — but the law requires that transfer to happen within two tax years of the date that the homeowner left his or her previous homestead. This amendment would increase that window to three years. It would take effect on Jan. 1, 2021.
- Pros and Cons: Proponents of the amendment say it will fix a flaw in the current portability requirements. While homeowners are supposed to have two years to transfer their Save Our Homes benefits, it doesn’t always work out that way. “Tax years start on Jan. 1,” says Pinellas County Property Appraiser Mike Twitty. “If you sell in January, you get close to two years. If you sell in December, you could have as little as one year and a day.” He says the timeframe becomes problematic for people when they sell later in the year and face any delays in purchasing and occupying their new home, such as when they encounter construction delays. Some Floridians who’ve missed the deadline have ended up in court trying to fight for their benefits. The state’s Revenue Estimating Conference estimates the amendment would reduce local property taxes by $1.8 million in fiscal year 2021-22 and would result in an annual decrease of $10.2 million in subsequent years.
- Background: Twitty, who’s spent his career in the property appraisal industry, says he came up with the idea for the amendment while running for office in 2016. At the time, new construction and property values were “on a tear,” and he grew concerned about people losing their portability amid contractor delays. “No sooner did I say that, I saw it happening,” he says. He originally pitched the idea to state lawmakers — who can originate amendments — after taking office in 2017, but it didn’t gain enough backing. This year, Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg) and Rep. Rick Roth (R-West Palm Beach) sponsored resolutions in their respective chambers that passed unanimously. The Property Appraisers’ Association of Florida and the Florida Association of Property Appraisers also support the amendment.
Carry over of homestead property tax reduction for surviving military spouses
Title: Ad Valorem Tax Discount for Spouses of Certain Deceased Veterans Who Had Permanent Combat-Related Disabilities
- Proposal: Florida provides a homestead property tax discount for honorably discharged, combat-disabled veterans who are 65 or older. Under current law, the discount expires upon the veteran’s death and is not transferred to the spouse — resulting in increased property tax bills for widowed spouses, who are often living on fixed incomes. This amendment proposed by the Legislature would allow a surviving spouse who is on the title and lives in the home to continue to receive the discount until he or she remarries, sells or disposes of the property. If surviving spouses sell the property, they could transfer the discount to their new permanent residence. It would take effect on Jan. 1, 2021.
- Pros and Cons: Tax relief for military personnel and their families is politically popular, and most states offer some sort of property tax exemption for disabled veterans who qualify. But as with any property tax deduction, it would result in a slight decline in revenue for cities, counties, schools districts and special taxing districts. Florida’s Revenue Estimating Conference predicts the tax discount would reduce school tax revenue by $1.6 million annually and reduce non-school property tax revenue by $2.4 million statewide per year going forward.
- Background: State Rep. Sam Killebrew, a Winter Haven Republican, says the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs approached him about the issue. He worked closely with the agency in developing HJR 877, the joint resolution proposing the constitutional amendment. It passed the Florida House with broad bipartisan support last March — 115 yeas and zero nays — and a companion bill passed unanimously in the Senate. The proposed amendment has the backing of veterans groups and the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs. The Property Appraisers’ Association of Florida (PAAF) and the Florida Association of Property Appraisers (FAPA) also support the amendment.
Read more in Florida Trend's Ocotober issue.
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