Floridians On Verge Of Boosting Minimum Wage To $15

Law360 (October 29, 2020, 5:13 PM EDT) -- The minimum wage in Florida could eventually shoot up to $15 an hour if voters approve a hotly contested measure that appears to be polling well enough to pass, one of six proposed additions to the state constitution that also include changing to a top-two primary election system and extending homestead property tax exemptions.

The minimum wage proposal, which appears on the ballot as Amendment 2 and would increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour over the course of six years, has been hovering in public polls right around the 60% threshold to make it into the constitution.

"It was right on the margin," Michael Binder, the director of the University of North Florida's Public Opinion Research Laboratory, said of an early October poll where the proposal got exactly 60% support. "Historically ballot measures poll better than they do on Election Day. A lot of them are written in a way that's supportive, but as you get closer to the election, you start to hear from opposition campaigns."

And this proposal has certainly drawn opposition from a coalition of business groups, led by the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, that say the increased wages will cost jobs, force small businesses to close, and wreak havoc on a hospitality industry that is already struggling due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"This amendment as written, and in this time when COVID is already impacting businesses so severely, is the wrong solution for Florida," said Amanda Bevis, a spokeswoman for the FRLA-backed campaign Amendment 2 Hurts You. "It would be devastating."

If passed, the initiative would raise Florida's minimum wage from $8.56 per hour to $10 per hour in 2021, and then increase the hourly pay by $1 per hour each year until it reaches $15 per hour in 2026.

The proposal is on the ballot thanks primarily to John Morgan of personal injury firm Morgan & Morgan PA, who a few years ago spearheaded a successful medical marijuana initiative.

"I did it because I felt in my bones, and I still do, that what is the greatest problem in the country today is income inequality, and that it's getting worse and worse and worse," he said.

His group, Floridians for a Fair Wage, says increasing the minimum wage would lift thousands of Floridians out of poverty and inject new capital into the economy to stimulate growth.

But business groups argue that the increased costs will cripple businesses that have been hit the hardest by the pandemic, and that the one-size-fits all solution for the entire state does not make sense given the disparities in the costs of living.

"You're treating Marianna the same as Miami, which are worlds apart," Bevis said.

The business groups also have put out ads warning voters that the fine print in the amendment says the additional wage costs to the government will be $16 million in 2022 and about $540 million in 2027 and beyond, which could negatively impact the state budget and result in higher taxes or loss of government services.

Morgan scoffs at the doomsday scenarios.

"They say that, but it's just not so," he said. "We fought a civil war in America because Southern farmers said the economy would go all the way under without slaves."

If passed, the proposal would be the second minimum wage amendment in the Florida Constitution, which was amended by voters in 2004 to raise the minimum wage to $6.15 per hour and then index it to inflation after that. The measure was passed with approval from 71% of voters.

Citizen-Only Elections

If Amendment 2 is a get-out-the-vote vehicle for liberals, Amendment 1, which would change the wording in the Florida Constitution's section on voting eligibility from "every citizen" can vote to "only a citizen" can vote, is red meat for conservative voters, according to Susan MacManus, a retired political science professor at the University of South Florida.

While a dozen municipalities in the U.S. — San Francisco and 11 cities in Maryland — allow non-citizens to participate in local elections, no jurisdiction in Florida does, so the amendment would technically change nothing. But it would prevent any cities or counties in the state from allowing non-citizen residents to vote in local elections.

This limited expansion of the franchise to non-citizens has gotten play in conservative news outlets and from personalities like Tucker Carlson, and the ballot initiative likely was meant as a vehicle to get right-leaning voters to the polls, MacManus said.

"It's important to ideologues that are very strong on citizenship and non-citizenship," she said. "There's a real reason they wanted to push it."

But MacManus added that no one has been pushing any educational campaign or spending money on the initiative, as conservatives now have bigger battles like Amendment 2 to fight against. Even without the campaign, the proposal had support of 78% of respondents in a UNF poll from early October.

The measure is sponsored by Florida Citizen Voters, a group that spent millions to get it on the ballot. Erika Alba, a Jacksonville attorney who helps lead the group, did not respond to a request for comment.

Top-Two Primaries

Voters are also weighing a measure that would overhaul Florida's closed primary system for state-level elections and switch to an open "top-two" primary system in which all qualifying candidates are placed on a single ballot that is open to all registered voters. If no candidate gets more than 50% of the vote, the top two vote-getters advance to a runoff in the general election. If there are only two qualified candidates, then there is no primary.

Glenn Burhans, a shareholder at Stearns Weaver Miller Weissler Alhadeff & Sitterson PA and the chairman of the measure's sponsor All Voters Vote Inc., said the proposal is a way to address the growing number of voters in Florida who choose to not register with any party. In 1990, only about 7% of voters were NPA, or "no party affiliation," but now that figure is almost 28%.

"That's just about 3.7 million legally qualified, duly registered Florida voters who can't vote in the primaries," he said.

Burhans added that the top-two system is not rare in Florida, where 412 cities and dozens of counties already use it in local elections.

"This amendment is about empowering voters and giving them the freedom and flexibility to choose candidates," he said.

The measure drew support from 58% of likely voters in a UNF poll from early October, but it has already accomplished a significant feat: uniting both major parties against it.

"The Republican and Democratic parties of Florida agree on nothing, but they do agree on one thing: They don't like the top-two primary system," said Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida.

Republicans have criticized the measure, saying it could prevent them from picking their own candidates and potentially allow for their candidates to be locked out of elections.

Democrats meanwhile have expressed concern that the top-two system would diminish the impact of Black voters. The proposal was challenged in the Florida Supreme Court based on two studies that reached that conclusion after analyzing publicly available data from past elections. The Supreme Court dismissed the challenge on Wednesday.

Double Approval for the Constitution

Amendment 4 — not to be confused with the 2018 amendment that granted voting rights to felons — would require that any initiative to amend the constitution would need to be passed by 60% of voters in two separate elections.

The purpose, according to the initiative's backer Keep Our Constitution Clean PC Inc., is to keep frivolous amendments out of the state's constitution and curb legislating through the popular initiative process. The amendment would "ensure that voters are given the opportunity to fully understand the immediate and future impacts of any proposed changes" to the constitution, according to the group.

But opponents argue that it is already an expensive and arduous process to get an initiative on the ballot, and this would make it accessible to only the wealthy.

"It does nothing but add expense and burden," said Patricia Brigham, the president of the League of Women Voters of Florida. "It already costs millions of dollars, hundreds of thousands of signatures and a Supreme Court review to get on the ballot. And then you have to get a supermajority vote."

The process has already become more difficult in recent years thanks to reforms by the Republican-controlled state government in response to successful progressive amendments that legalized medical marijuana and granted voting rights to most felons who have completed their sentences. Earlier this year, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill that increased the signature requirement threshold to trigger Florida Supreme Court review of a proposed measure, decreased the amount of time that petition signatures are valid, and requires petitioners to pay the cost to county elections supervisors of verifying signatures.

Of the 20 states that have some type of petition process to get proposals on the ballot, only Nevada requires initiatives to be approved by voters in two elections, according to Jewett.

Homestead Tax Exemptions

The final two proposals would change the homestead property tax exemption, which Marvin Kirsner of Greenberg Traurig LLP explained cannot be done by the legislature, only through the constitutional amendment process.

Currently, Florida residents who sell their primary homes can take a proportionate amount of their homestead tax exemption up to $500,000 with them to their new homes as long as they buy their new home within two years of selling the old one. Amendment 5 would increase the time period on portability to three years.

The change would take the pressure off of some homeowners, particularly those who sell their old houses and opt to build new ones, which can take longer than two years, according to Kirsner, who co-chairs the firm's state and local tax practice.

Amendment 6, which was also proposed by the Legislature, would extend a homestead property tax exemption for disabled veterans to their surviving spouses. In UNF's poll in early October, this amendment proved to be the most popular, with 89% supporting it.

Kirsner expects the portability language in Amendment 5 might confuse some voters and cost the measure votes.

"A discount for widows to disabled veterans is easy to understand," he said. "But the concept of portability is very abstract, and people may just see it and say, 'I don't understand and I'm not going to vote for it.'"

--Additional reporting by Nathan Hale. Editing by Adam LoBelia.

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