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Amend or Not Amend? part 3

Oct 18th, 2012 | 0

By BRUCE COLLIER

This is the third of a series on the 11 active proposed state constitutional amendments that will go before voters on Nov. 6. Twelve were originally listed, but one has been removed. To pass, an amendment must receive 60 percent or more votes of approval. This article will cover proposed amendments 7, 8, 9 and 10. The full texts of all of the proposed amendments (including the removed one) can be accessed online in full text and downloadable format via the Walton County Supervisor of Elections Office or the Florida Division of Elections.

The seventh proposed state constitutional amendment is called “Religious Freedom,” and has been removed from voters’ consideration. The eighth proposed amendment is likewise called “Religious Freedom,” and is on the ballot. It is a rewritten version of the seventh amendment, which was challenged and removed.

The eighth proposed amendment, if passed, would remove an existing prohibition in the Florida constitution’s declaration of rights. That prohibition, currently in effect, reads: “No revenue of the state or any political subdivision or agency thereof shall ever be taken from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution.” Passage of amendment eight would remove that language, adding “Except to the extent required by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, neither the government not any agent of the government may deny to any individual or entity the benefits of any program, funding or other support on the basis of religious identity or belief.”

Proponents of the eighth proposed amendment anchor their argument in Florida legislative history. The current prohibition against funding churches or sectarian institutions is known as the Blaine Amendment, so-named for Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives James G. Blaine, a Maine Republican, who proposed an amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1875, which would prohibit the funding of religious education. That amendment failed, but a number of state legislatures instituted and passed identical or similarly worded “Blaine Amendments.” Florida did so in 1885.

Proponents of the amendment contend that the Blaine Amendment is rooted in a “doctrine, born of bigotry,” specifically an anti-Catholic bias, and is a relic of a discriminatory time, one that included the now-discarded “separate but equal” doctrine of segregation. They also argue that many worthy and publicly desirable institutions are being unfairly deprived of support because they happen to be affiliated with churches or religious sects.

Opponents of the proposed amendment reject the argument of anti-Catholic bias as a “red herring” and contend that passage of the amendment would impermissibly blur the line of separation between church and state. They also argue that it would pave the way for a school voucher program, which would enable parents of children in failing schools to receive financial support to enroll their children in private schools, some of which are affiliated with churches.

Florida had a voucher program (the Opportunity Scholarship Program, passed in Gov. Jeb Bush’s administration), but it was challenged and ultimately struck down in 2006 by the Florida Supreme Court. However, the program was ruled unconstitutional because it violated a clause that requires the state to keep a “uniform system of public education,” not on the grounds that it violated the Blaine Amendment. The challengers did raise that as an argument, and won in a lower appellate court, but the Supreme Court did not rely on that in striking down the program. Therefore, passage of this amendment would not automatically revive the voucher program. It might make it easier to revive a voucher program – in some form – in the future, say its critics.

The proposed amendment includes significant language that may have a bearing on its effectiveness if passed. The amendment contains the phrase, “Except to the extent required by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution….” This serves as a reminder that all state laws and constitutions are subject to the supremacy of the U.S. Constitution (Article VI, the “Supremacy Clause”). Passage of this amendment could lead to state and federal challenges, testing its compatibility with a long line of federal jurisprudence on relations between church and state.

The ninth proposed amendment is called “Homestead Property Tax Exemption for Surviving Spouse of Military Veteran or First Responder.” If passed, this amendment would authorize the Legislature to enact general laws that would grant full or partial ad valorem property tax relief for surviving spouses of military veterans who died from service-related causes while on active duty, or to surviving spouses of first responders who die in the line of duty. “First responders” are defined as law enforcement officers, corrections officers, firefighters, EMTs and paramedics. The amendment also specifies what constitutes “in the line of duty.” The exemption continues as long as the surviving spouse holds title to the homestead, is a permanent resident of the homestead, and does not remarry. The exemption can be transferred to a new homestead if the original property is sold.

This amendment reportedly had unanimous support in both houses of the Legislature. Estimates are that it would reduce local school and government tax revenues by approximately $600,000 during its first year. If passed, it would go into effect Jan. 1, 2013.

The tenth proposed amendment is called “Tangible Personal Property Tax Exemption.” If passed, this amendment would double the tangible personal property tax exemption, and allow local governments (cities and counties) to increase the exemption beyond that.

Under current law, tangible property that is used in a business or to earn income, such a machinery, tools, and other equipment is taxable, but the first $25,000 of that property is exempt. This amendment would double that exemption to $50,000. Additionally, city and county governments would be authorized to go beyond the $50,000 exemption. The amendment, which reportedly received unanimous approval in the state Senate and near-unanimous approval in the House, is intended to provide tax relief to small businesses and help stimulate the economy.

Opponents contend that it will have the effect of further reducing revenues that go to provide basic services at the local level. Estimates from the state Revenue Estimating Conference are that if passed the amendment would reduce property tax collections statewide by $61 million over the first three years. Estimates cannot be made yet of the impact of any additional city and county exemptions.

Next: Amendments 11 and 12.

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