As most of our readers are by now aware, the primary elections are being held on Tuesday, August 30th. What some may not know is that there are five constitutional amendments up for a vote in 2016, and one of them will be decided on August 30th. What makes it really confusing is that two of them – Amendment 4, the one up for a vote in August and Amendment 1 – apply to solar energy, but only one (Amendment 4) will help increase Florida’s use of renewable energy, according to sustainable energy advocates.
First, we wanted to know why an amendment would be on a primary ballot to begin with. Our state has a long history with constitutional amendments – 74 of them have appeared on the ballot since 1996 and 54 of them (73%) were approved. This got some folks worried, so in 2006 an amendment was passed to raise the requirement for approval of an amendment from a simple majority to 60%. Ironically enough, this amendment passed with only a 57% approval. Since then, three measures were approved by a simple majority but failed to meet the 60% requirement and thus were defeated.
Amendment 4 was ‘legislatively referred’ – meaning it is appearing on the ballot because the state legislature voted to put it there, rather than the voters doing it by collecting signatures (in Florida, voters seeking to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot must collect signatures equal to 8% of the total number of votes cast in the last presidential election, or 683,149 in 2016). Much like the traditional ‘initiated constitutional amendments’ done by voters, in Florida, the state legislature can only put an amendment on the ballot if 60% or more of the legislators in each chamber agree to do so in a joint resolution. Florida’s constitution allows such amendments to go on the ballot at either a special or a general election, meaning those who brought forth the bill can put it on any ballot they choose. Though it is unusual to have one appear on the primary ballot, the reason may be because its backers want to separate it from the other solar issue appearing in November.
In this case, Amendment 4 was initiated back in 2015 by Florida Sen. Jeff Brandes (R), Reps. Ray Rodrigues (R) and Lori Berman (D). It passed the Florida legislature this past March and since enjoyed broad support and bipartisan backing.
So what is it for?
Essentially, Amendment 4 would give tax breaks to the owners of businesses, condo buildings, apartments and other commercial structures who add solar energy upgrades – with the idea being to make renewable energy affordable to everyone. Right now, if someone adds solar panels to their home, it increases that home’s value and tax due.
Senator Jeff Brandes says the tax breaks are long overdue.
“If passed, the amendment will make solar upgrades more affordable, so you could see more homes and businesses go off the grid’,” he said, adding that the proposal could also lead to thousands of more jobs in Florida, as solar companies move into the state and local businesses expand to meet demand.
Amendment 4 would exempt solar energy devices in commercial and industrial properties. Those exemptions would begin in 2018 and continue for 20 years. It would also help out big utility companies like Duke Energy, Tampa Electric and Florida Power and Light because it would reduce their tax liability on solar panels and other renewable energy equipment.
Surprisingly for a state called ‘Sunshine’, Florida actually ranks 13th in the country for the amount of solar power we use. Our neighbor to the north, Georgia, passed similar tax breaks for solar power and now generates twice as much solar energy as Florida despite being half the size.
This amendment has no organized opposition, contrasting sharply with the other solar issue – Amendment One – appearing on the ballot in November.
Called “The “Consumers for Smart Solar” Amendment, “gives residents of Florida the right to own or lease solar energy equipment for personal use while also enacting constitutional protection for any state or local law ensuring that residents who do not produce solar energy can abstain from subsidizing its production”, according to BallotPedia.org. It was fully funded by the utility companies, who spent an estimated $16 billion to get it on the ballot.
The Florida Supreme Court narrowly approved Amendment One’s language earlier this year, with dissenting justices saying it ‘masquerades as a solar power initiative’. A competing amendment, which failed to make it on the ballot since it didn’t collect enough signatures, would have made it easier for companies other than the big utilities to lease solar panels to homeowners and sell the power those panels generate.
Proponents say that’s a good thing because it will protect Floridians from out of state scam artists. Opponents say it will constitutionalize rights that already exist, while providing barriers to future competition and slow solar use for the future.
Though amendments Four and One will appear on different ballots and are not directly related to each other, some argue that aspects of the two amendments are in conflict. Legislators and lawyers could argue that the specific tax break provided by Amendment 4 constitutes a subsidization of solar power by other taxpayers, making Amendment 1 the kind of law that Amendment 4 could be used to rescind or undermine through lawsuits.
In addition to the above, Floridians will decide on three other constitutional amendments in November: Two, which would legalize marijuana for individuals with debilitating medical conditions; Three, which would provide property tax breaks for first responders injured in the line of duty (something that now only applies to the military) and Five, which would allow seniors who have lived in their homes for more than 25 years to apply for ‘fixed value’ – meaning their homes could not be taxed at a value higher than $250,000.
Some amendments that did not make the cut this year: Amendment One’s competition – a proposal that would give businesses and individuals the constitutional right to produce up to two megawatts of solar power and sell that power directly to others at the same or contiguous property, something now only permitted to utility companies. Other proposed amendments would have raised the minimum wage, required health insurance companies to provide coverage for alternative treatments, required employers with at least five employees to provide paid sick time and require voter approval for the creation of tolls and toll increases – among others.
The deadline to submit signatures for initiatives in order to qualify them for the ballot in 2016 was on February 1, 2016. Initiative petitions in Florida, however, do not expire, which means petitioners can still submit signatures in an effort to qualify their proposals for the ballot in later years.
Keri Hendry Weeg