Florida Politics

Should it be harder for legislators to raise taxes? Voters get to decide in November

Members of the Florida Senate Democratic Caucus discussed strategy during a meeting Monday, March 5, 2018. Democratic leader Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, center, asked if any of them had changed their minds about taking a caucus vote against the proposed constitutional amendment that would make it harder to raise taxes. Although no one spoke up, three senators voted with Republicans.
Members of the Florida Senate Democratic Caucus discussed strategy during a meeting Monday, March 5, 2018. Democratic leader Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, center, asked if any of them had changed their minds about taking a caucus vote against the proposed constitutional amendment that would make it harder to raise taxes. Although no one spoke up, three senators voted with Republicans. Tampa Bay Times

Three Democrats joined Republicans Monday to put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that would ask voters to require a two-thirds majority of both the House and Senate before they can raise any tax or fee in the future.

The measure, HJR 7001, passed the Senate 25-13 but only after the issue became entangled in the divisive politics surrounding the school safety bill expected to come to a vote later Monday. Three Democrats reversed a previous decision to oppose the measure and joined with Republicans to vote for the amendment, which is a top priority of Gov. Rick Scott. It now goes directly onto the ballot and, because it is a resolution, does not require the governor’s signature.

With the hope that concessions could be made to a controversial plan to arm teachers in response to the Parkland shooting, Democrats agreed to reverse a previous caucus position to vote as a block against the measure. Sens. Lauren Book of Plantation, Bobby Powell of Palm Beach and Linda Stewart of Orlando joined Republicans after Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Miami, proposed an amendment to SB 7026, the school safety bill.

Garcia’s amendment will remove classroom teachers from the optional “school marshal” program intended to allowed trained personnel to carry firearms in school. The amendment also renames the program the “Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program,” after the former Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School coach who was among the 17 victims.

“I was told there would be a concession for the marshal plan, which I am totally against,” Stewart said after the vote.

Stewart downplayed the significance of the Legislature’s vote on the constitutional amendment, saying that the same proposal was pending before the Florida Constitution Revision Commission and was likely to be placed on the November ballot regardless of the lawmakers’ effort. The CRC, which meets every 20 years and has the power to place constitutional amendments on the November 2018 ballot, will decide on Proposal 72 in the next month.

In order for lawmakers to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot, it requires a three-fifths vote of each chamber. The House voted 80-29 last month, and the Senate needed 24 members voting in favor (three-fifths of the 40 seats in the Senate regardless of vacancies). Three of the 15 Democrats joined with Republicans, and one Republican, Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, voted against it.

Republicans argued the bill simply gives voters a choice.

“This is the people’s money. It’s not our money,” said Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, who sponsored the measure. “It’s not hand-tying us. It just means we have to work together with a two-thirds majority … if it’s taking the money from our people to pay for something that is crucially important, then we need a two-thirds majority.”

A previous Senate version had required a three-fifths majority of each chamber, a lower threshold than two-thirds, and did not include fees but applied the threshold only to taxes. But in a late-session decision, Senate leaders agreed to that approach.

Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez of Miami was among several Democrats who argued that the amendment was a short-sighted attempt to limit future lawmakers in raising revenue, and that it doesn’t impose limits when they give out tax breaks.

“This Legislature would be constrained from raising funds going into the future but when it comes time — like this Legislature does every year — to carve special exemptions out of the tax base, there would not be a heightened threshold,” he said. “What that does is make our tax code more and more and more regressive.”

Sen. Kevin Radar, a Delray Beach Democrat, called the amendment a violation of the principles of majority rule.

“The future legislatures shouldn’t have their hands tied,” he said. “At the heart of the American democracy reflects an approach that the nation’s founders rejected — they rejected majority rule” because the Articles of Confederation included a super-majority and the Founders considered that “unworkable,” he said.

Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, suggested that California, Missouri, Wisconsin and Nevada all had a requirement like this in their constitutions.

“It’s the people’s money, not ours. That’s a simple premise,” he said. “Now’s the time. Today’s the day to take a vote for a fundamental principle we all believe in.”

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