The general election is not far away, and although the heated race for president and for Florida Senator have gained much public and media attention, four amendments to the Florida Constitution will also be on the November ballot.
Two amendments are particularly controversial: Amendments 1 and two. Amendment one deals with solar energy while Amendment 2 addresses medical marijuana.
The controversy surrounding the solar amendment comes from its language, Susan MacManus, national political analyst and USF political science professor, said.
“… It takes 60 percent to pass an amendment but the controversy and the confusing nature of it make it look like it’s going to fail,” MacManus said.
“But, it is not unusual for amendments to be worded in ways that confuse voters, and they often get perturbed when they find out that they voted ‘yes’ when they really wanted to vote ‘no,’ because the amendments are written in such legalistic language it’s hard for the average person to understand.”
The wording in the amendment sounds pro-solar, but pro-solar and other environmental groups across the state say otherwise. According to the amendment, it “establishes a right under Florida’s constitution for consumers to own or lease solar equipment installed on their property to generate electricity for their own use.”
The second part of the amendment, which states “State and local government shall retain their abilities to protect consumer rights and public health, safety and welfare, and to ensure that consumers who do not choose to install solar are not required to subsidize the costs of backup power and electric grid access to those who do,” has caused some to question its motives.
MacManus said USF Neilson polls in the past have shown that people see that amendments on the ballot are put there by special interests and not grassroots efforts.
An article from the Miami Herald from Oct. 18 revealed that Sal Nuzzo, a vice president at the James Madison Institute located in Tallahassee, spoke of purposeful ly deceptive tactics designed to convince voters to pass solar amendments that benefit electric utility companies while at a State Energy/Environment Leadership Summit in Nashville earlier in October.
Amendment 1 is backed by utility companies, which the Herald reported have donated more than $21 million for the amendment.
“As you guys look at policy in your state, or constitutional ballot initiatives in your state, remember this: Solar polls very well,” he said in the recording.
“To the degree that we can use a little bit of political jiu-jitsu and take what they’re kind of pinning us on and use it to our benefit either in policy, in legislation or in constitutional referendums — if that’s the direction you want to take — use the language of promoting solar, and kind of, kind of put in these protections for consumers that choose not to install rooftop.”
MacManus noted that many media outlets are devoting a lot of coverage to Amendment 1, saying she hasn’t seen any endorsements of Amendment 1 in newspaper editorials.
Multiple organizations have offered thorough analyses ,including Florida TaxWatch and the League of Women Voters, according to MacManus.
Analysis from the League of Women Voters has stated that a yes vote for Amendment 1 would “put existing statutory language into the state constitution, making it difficult to change future solar energy policy in statute,” and “establish a constitutional rather than statutory right for consumer to own or lease solar power equipment on their property … leaving out the ability for third-party providers to install solar equipment on their homes or businesses and then sell that power directly back to the consumers,” among other things.
Voting no on Amendment 1 would, according to the League of Women Voters, “protect existing rules that allow net metering, where utilities credit a retail rate to customers generating excess solar power that is returned to the electricity grid,” among other effects.
On the other hand, Florida Tax Watch backs the amendment, saying in its guide for the 2016 election that “any effort protecting the rights of Floridians to use solar energy in the Sunshine State is positive,” and have taken a stance in support of Amendment 1.
Amendment 2 has also received a lot of public attention. It allows people suffering from diseases including but not limited to cancer, epilepsy, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, PTSD and ALS to use marijuana “as determined by a licensed Florida physician,” according to the amendment. It also calls for regulation and registration of centers for production and distribution of marijuana as well as patients and caregivers (by means of identification cards) by the Department of Health.
The amendment would not legalize marijuana for patients with illnesses that do not fall under the amendment’s specifications or for recreational use. It would also not provide any protections for the violation of federal law, as it would apply only to Florida. It is currently supported by people including John Morgan of the law firm Morgan and Morgan.
There exists an inference that younger people are more for the medical marijuana amendment than older populations, MacManus said.
Dr. Selim Benbadis with USF Health said the medical marijuana debate has people at two extremes. One group thinks of marijuana as the cure-all with absolutely no negative side effects for users, which he said he thinks is ridiculous.
The other side thinks of medical marijuana as a gateway drug that couldn’t possibly help anyone, which Benbadis said he also thinks is nonsense.
“As often, the reasonable attitude is somewhere in the middle of those two,” Benbadis said. “The people that are misguided are the fanatics on either side.”
The U.S. government currently classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug, with “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse,” according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Other schedule one drugs include heroin and lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). Many medical societies have asked the government to reduce it to a Schedule II drug, but Benbadis said the government refused.
“They confirmed it’s still a Schedule I which makes research very difficult and cumbersome,” Benbadis said.
The research into the efficacy of medical marijuana is little, Benbadis said. It is currently being used for compassionate use, but side effects and dosage are still unknown.
“The argument is that it may help people, it may help some people with certain diseases … and we have anecdotes, including some that have been on television,” he said. “… It has not gone through research like other treatments, so there’s a lot of unknown. There is enough anecdotes and personal stories to warrant research but the research has not been done.”
He encourages people to not steer towards the extremes when approaching the medical marijuana issue and instead keep an open mind.
“The ones that are extreme one way or the other are not advancing the cause,” he said.
An assessment from Florida TaxWatch concluded that voting yes on Amendment 2 would give a constitutional right “for people with Debilitating Medical Conditions … to use marijuana, as long as it is certified by a physician,” and provide that “patients, caregivers, and physicians in compliance with the amendment would not be subject to criminal or civil liability under Florida law,” among other effects.
As for voting no on Amendment 2, Florida TaxWatch stated that “laws passed in 2014 and 2016 by the Florida Legislature authorizing the use of medical marijuana in limited circumstances would remain in effect.” Florida TaxWatch’s conclusion on the amendment was not in support for it, as it conflicts with federal law. The League of Women Voters offered no official stance.
One of the other two amendments on the ballot are Amendment 3, which offers a property tax exemption for disabled first responders. The League of Women Voters reported that a yes vote would “authorize the Legislature to grant a property tax exemption on homestead property to first responders who are totally and permanently disabled from injuries sustained in the line of duty” and “allow the Legislature to decide whether the exemption should provide full or partial relief from property taxes,” as well as other effects. In turn, the League determined that a no vote would “not extend property tax exemptions …” and “not have an impact on local-government tax revenue.” The amendment is currently backed by Florida TaxWatch.
Amendment 5 allows for a homestead tax exemption for low-income seniors. The League of Women Voters determined that a yes vote on the amendment would “ensure that low-income seniors who qualify for a city- or county-approved property tax exemption do not lose that exemption if the value of their home exceeds the $250,000 limit” and “Cost cities and counties that currently grant the exemption an estimated $2.3 million in fiscal year 2016-17; $500,000 in 2017-18; and eventually $1.2 million in 2020-21,” along with other effects.
A no vote would “retain the property tax exemption for low-income seniors who are longtime residents, but not ensure they keep it if property values rise” and not cost cities and counties any revenue, along with not providing the previously mentioned relief, as determined by the League of Women Voters. Florida TaxWatch is in favor of the amendment.
“(Amendments 3 and 5) seem to be fairly non-controversial,” MacManus said.
MacManus emphasized the importance of voters educating themselves about the amendments, especially the lesser known amendments. Typically, newspaper endorsements tend to matter most in relation to things voters are going to vote on but may not know much about, MacManus said.
She also encouraged voters to ask the question of whether or not something needs to be a constitutional amendment.
“Some make the argument that constitutions are to be basic frameworks of government, not the details, the policy details that has increasingly been the case,” she said. “That’s why some state constitutions are so much longer than the U.S. constitution. They want to put everything but the kitchen sink in the constitution … So some people that might be okay with the ideas just don’t think it’s proper to put issues in a state constitution.”