Amendment 8 a fundraiser for community colleges?

09/23/08 Seán Kinane
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On Nov. 4, Floridians will vote on several amendments to the state’s Constitution, including one forbidding partnership rights for everyone except people in heterosexual marriages.

One lesser known amendment, Amendment 8, would allow counties to raise their sales tax in order to increase community college funding. It was placed on the ballot by the Florida Taxation and Budget Reform Commission.

Allan Bense, chairman of that committee, explained the amendment.

“What Amendment 8 does, it basically provides another way for community colleges to raise money. If this amendment passes, then every community college will have the option of having a local referendum to increase the sales tax by up to a half cent. Now, if a community college is located in more than one county, all of those counties would have to participate and it would have to pass in all three counties. Basically it is an alternative method of funding community colleges, which we feel are just really one of the fundamental bedrocks of our education system in Florida.”

Bense was the speaker of the Florida House of Representatives from 2004 to 2006. The title of Amendment 8 is “Local Option Community College Funding.” If the amendment passes and if a county’s voters approve by referendum the local option sales tax, it would have to be reauthorized every five years. Bense said that among his 24 colleagues on the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission, support for putting Amendment 8 on the ballot was very strong.

“I think it was unanimous. Frankly, I think it was about the only unanimous vote that we had. The members of the commission were of many conservatives, many liberals, from South Florida, from North Florida, but clearly I think all 25 agreed that the needs that our community college system has and the great job it does in educating students is important and we felt this would help that mission.”

Dominic Calabro is president of Florida Tax Watch, which he described as an independent statewide watchdog. Calabro said Tax Watch supports Amendment 8 “... because it gives communities an opportunity to make the added investment if they so choose.”

Asked if he had concerns that some of those communities might not vote to raise their taxes in order to provide funding for community colleges, Calabro said this:

“Yes, we do. With the voters – we have confidence that the voters will know that and make that choice accordingly. We would like that in time to make sure that there is better integration and it’s got all the necessary features of accountability built in, but we think it could be a good – actually it could be a very sizeable investment.”

WMNF attempted to speak with the Florida League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan group that, according to its website, “promote[s] political responsibility through informed and active participation in government,” but we were unable to reach them.

One potential criticism of Amendment 8 listed on their website is that its funding source is regressive -- “sales taxes impose a greater burden on lower-income families.”

WMNF asked Taxation and Budget Reform Commission chair Allan Bense if that was a concern to him.

“Number one, it has to pass in November to authorize a local referendum. And I’ve always sort of been one of those folks that, if the people have the option to vote on a tax, then put it up for a vote, let the people decide if they want to support their community college or not. I could almost argue every tax is regressive. To me no taxes are good taxes. If people feel it is regressive then they can vote no.”

Last week the Board of Trustees of Manatee Community College voted to oppose Amendment 8, said Lars Hafner, president of MCC. One reason was the regressive nature of the tax, and another is that it could create an unequal playing field for community colleges in the state, Hafner said.

A supporter of Amendment 8 is Carl M. Kuttler Jr., president of St. Petersburg College.

The deadline to register to vote is Oct. 6. Early voting for the Nov. 4 election begins on Oct. 20.

Full text of Amendment 8

The six amendments on November 4th ballot plus the three that were thrown off by the Florida Supreme Court

Hillsborough Community College

St. Petersburg College

Manatee Community College

Florida Taxation and Budget Reform Commission

Florida’s community colleges

Allan Bense

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