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Thursday, Jul 27, 2017
Editorials

Proposed amendments honor sacrifice and stability

It's hard to know where to draw the line on special tax breaks for selected property owners who might need or deserve help. The Legislature once again is offering more targeted benefits in proposed constitutional amendments 2, 9 and 11. These are just what they appear, straightforward tax gifts to veterans disabled by combat injury, to the spouses of veterans and first-responders killed in the line of duty, and to long-time homeowners over 65 who haven't moved in a generation and who have low incomes. The appeal of these measures is obvious. The Legislature was unanimous in putting them on the ballot. We recommend voting yes on all three. But there are some valid reasons to vote no that are worth considering.
Amendment 2 fixes a flaw in an earlier amendment approved by voters to give a property tax break to combat-disabled veterans 65 and older who happened to live in Florida when they entered the military. The new change extends the tax exemption, with the percentage discounted equal to the percentage of the veteran's disability, to all veterans regardless of their former address. We opposed the earlier version of this amendment in 2006, largely because of the inequity of basing a tax break on whether someone was a Florida resident many years ago. If one wounded veteran who owns a Florida home deserves tax help, they all do. If this amendment passes, more questions will follow. What about the surviving spouse of a combat-injured veteran? What about injuries that happened just outside of combat? What about disabled heroes who own a vacation home? Voters tired of the increasing complexity of tax laws and the steady expansion of the constitution can justify voting no, even though they honor the sacrifice of wounded veterans. Amendment 9 raises similar issues. It would allow the Legislature to pass a law to give the surviving spouse of a military veteran or first-responder a tax-free homestead, with a few limitations. The veteran must have died from service-related causes while on active duty. Likewise, a first-responder must have been killed while responding. A first-responder is a law enforcement officer, firefighter, paramedic, emergency medical technician or correctional officer. Voters can't be sure exactly what the new law would say. What if a spouse remarries? Should there be a limit on the value of the property? What about the spouses of first-responders killed in other states — can they relocate to Florida with a lifetime exemption on taxes? Can voters expect more amendments later to include other public servants killed while doing their duty? Amendment 11 allows the Legislature to allow counties and cities to grant an additional homestead tax exemption to a low-income senior who has lived in the same house a very long time. The exemption is limited to a home value of $250,000 or less. The same person must have owned and lived in the home for at least 25 years and must be at least 65. Low income is currently defined as $20,000 a year. The main problem with this amendment is the unfairness of the long residency requirement. Some of the neediest homeowners have been forced to move or downsize. And the law considers annual income, not total assets. It would create an incentive to keep household income below $20,000. It could also create a disincentive to move. The Tribune supports a yes vote on Amendment 2, Amendment 9 and Amendment 11, with reservations. Each piece is defensible, but adding more layers of complexity to Florida's confusing property-tax laws is nothing to celebrate.
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