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Tallahassee Democrat: Our opinion: Yes on Amendment 4 – in August

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Normally, any proposition containing the words “tax exemption” and “solar” would be a sure winner in a Florida referendum.

But this is not a normal election year. Confusion can kill a constitutional amendment — if people aren’t sure, they tend to vote no, or skip that line on the ballot — and there is great potential for confusion regarding Amendment 4 this year.

For one thing, it’s Amendment 4 but it goes up for a vote first, in the Aug. 30 state primaries. Amendments 1, 2 and 3 will be on the general election ballot next November.

For another thing, the wording of the ballot summary is so boring, voters may be dozing off at the polls. It says:

“Proposing an amendment to the State Constitution to authorize the Legislature, by general law, to exempt from ad valorem taxation the assessed value of solar or renewable energy source devices subject to tangible personal property tax, and to authorize the Legislature, by general law, to prohibit consideration of such devices in assessing the value of real property for ad valorem taxation purposes. This amendment takes effect Jan. 1, 2018, and expires on Dec. 31, 2037.”

If you could bottle that, you could run Sominex out of business in a week.

Lawyer language aside, it’s important. This is the Sunshine State and solar energy is a big deal. Installing solar panels on a rooftop is expensive, to start with, and they add to the value of the properties using them. Residential systems are already exempt, so passage of the amendment would give Florida businesses the same tax break.

There is utterly no prospect of the Legislature appropriating money to subsidize solar systems, so a tax exemption is the next best thing. And who wouldn’t vote for a property tax exemption?

Well, it’s complicated. A little.

“There’s no bogeyman here,” said Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who sponsored the resolution in the Legislature for the past three sessions. The idea is to provide tax relief for large-scale solar farms or commercial installations. Big box retailers like CostCo and Wal-Mart, even smaller strip malls, could lease their rooftops for solar systems, without hiking their property taxes.

However, there are two other solar amendments out there, neither of which has anything to do with this one. One amendment is on the November ballot, while the other didn’t make the Feb. 1 deadline for collecting enough voter signatures. Its backers are aiming for the 2018 ballot.

During the recent legislative session, Brandes and other supporters of Amendment 4 were not sure if their property-tax exemption would have to compete for voter attention with one or both of the other solar amendments. It took a three-fourths vote of the House and Senate to put the “Florida For Solar” amendment on the primary ballot.

Florida hasn’t had a constitutional amendment referendum in the state primaries since 1984, but the early scheduling of Amendment 4 is a smart strategic move.

There appears to be no organized opposition to Amendment 4. Organizations supporting it include the Florida Retail Federation, Restaurant and Lodging Association, Sierra Club, Florida Conservation Voters, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and several other civil, business and environmental groups.

Brandes said the Florida League of Cities and Association of Counties are on aboard with it.

Like all constitutional amendments, the solar tax exemption will require 60 percent public support, not just a simple majority, for adoption.

“I have two months to educate people what this amendment does,” Brandes said in an interview with the Democrat editorial board. “I have to overcome challenging ballot language.”

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