To amend or not amend? It depends

Voters can change the state constitution Tuesday, Nov. 3, by voting up or down 13 proposed amendments, most of which are offered by a constitutional revision commission that convenes just once every 20 years. But the ballot questions are complex, sometimes larded with unrelated elements, and little-known outside the small group of policy wonks and interest groups that assembled them. As the commission has virtually no budget to explain the proposals to the mass of voters, we offer this guide.

1. Historic Property Tax Exemption. What it does: Old buildings are protected from demolition by a patchwork of ordinances, one of which is a tax break. This extends the property tax break to the owners of historic property even if they are not actively renovating it. Who is for it: the preservationist lobby. Critics say it could slightly reduce the tax base.

2. Preservation of the Death Penalty. What it does: permits any method of execution not prohibited by the U.S. Supreme Court. Would reduce Floridian's' constitutional right to be free from "cruel OR unusual punishment" to the U.S. standard "cruel AND unusual punishment." Who is for it: Death penalty advocates worry that the electric chair's penchant for setting peoples' heads on fire could be ruled "cruel" if not unusual. Some death penalty opponents note that the proposed revision opens several avenues for litigation. Critics, like Amnesty International, say the revision preserves nothing and needlessly diminishes all Floridian's' constitutional protections.

3. Additional Homestead Tax Exemption. What it does: It extends the existing $25,000 homestead exemption, at local option, by another $25,000 to poor senior citizens. Who is for it: Some seniors groups who worry about the ability of people on fixed incomes to keep up. Critics: Policy analysts and tax groups remind you that an exemption for one group puts a burden on the rest -- young families with children, for example.

4. Recording Instruments in Branch Offices. What it does: allows property conveyance and other public records to be filed outside the county seat, saving drive time. Who is for it: Anyone who has driven 20 miles in from the sticks just to sign their name. Critics: You kidding?

5. Conservation of Natural Resources and Creation of Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. What it does: Two things. First, it extends Preservation 2000, the natural-lands purchasing program, indefinitely. Second, it combines the Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission with the Marine Fisheries Commission. Who is for it: Florida Audubon Society, the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Nature Conservancy, the Sierra Club. Critics are mainly commercial netters who fear their lobby power over the salt-water regulators will be diluted, leading to stricter net regulation.

6. Public Education of Children. What it does: adds language to the constitution declaring education a "fundamental value" and calls "adequate provision for education" a "paramount duty," and requires "efficient, safe, secure and high quality" public school system. Who is for it: Lawyers and progressives seeking to improve Florida's dismal public education system see here ammunition for lawsuits. They hope to sue the state to provide truly adequate schools. Critics think such lawsuits do little or no good.

7. Local Option for Selection of Judges and Funding of State Courts. What it does: Two things. First, it removes from local property tax payers their part of paying for local courts, which is about one-third to one-half the cost. The cost shifts to the state. Second, it gives counties the option of ending their tradition of elected judges. Who is for it: Florida Association of Counties and the Florida Bar say it would save state property taxpayers almost $600 million a year. Good-government groups point out that elected judges take thousands of campaign dollars from the lawyers who practice in their courts. Critics, such as Citizens for Judicial Reform and the Christian Coalition, say turning over the choice of local judges to the governor is potentially worse than letting local lawyer-contributors manage it.

8. Restructuring the State Cabinet. What it does: merges cabinet offices of treasurer and comptroller into a single office and eliminates attorney general, agriculture commissioner, secretary of state and education commissioner from the ranks of elected cabinet members. Who is for it: Backers say the measure would streamline government and give the governor more ability to assert his or her agenda. Critics don't want a stronger governor, preferring instead the public's ability to elect all seven members.

9. Basic Rights. What it does: inserts six words into the Declaration of Rights and changes one (in caps:) "All natural persons, female and male alike, are equal before the law. … No person shall be deprived of any right because of race, religion, national origin, or physical DISABILITY." ("Disability" replaces "handicap.") Who is for it: Politically correct types say "natural persons" isn't explicit enough. Critics, like the Christian Coalition, say this would open the door to same-sex marriage.

10. Local and Municipal Property Tax Exemptions and Citizen Access to Local Officials. What it does: (1) Bestows further tax exemptions on municipal and special-district land, such as airports or seaports. (2) Grants new exemptions to mobile-home owners and to land set aside for conservation. (3) Makes it easier for public officials to discuss issues outside of public forums. Who is for it: airport officials, airlines. Critics, like Orange County Tax Appraiser Richard Crotty, say it undermines his four-year effort to make the Airport Hyatt pay its taxes, as well as gives a free ride to the owners of the Colonial Promenade properties next to the Orlando Executive Airport. Crotty says it would exempt $150 million of currently taxable Orange County property. Others argue the mobile-home exemption is just streamlining -- the collection process costs more than the amount collected. Supporters even say this will open up more communication with public officials. Critics say it's special interests locking in their deals.

11. Ballot Access, Public Campaign Financing, and Election Process Revisions. What it does: provides that ballot-access requirements for minor-party candidates cannot be greater than those for major-party candidates; opens primary elections to all in cases where the winner will have no opposition; extends public campaign financing to statewide candidates; makes school-board elections nonpartisan. Who is for it: the Libertarian Party is big on this. It gives them a fighting chance. Critics are mostly of the right-wing, anti-public finance variety.

12. Firearms Purchase: Local Option for Criminal History Records Check and Waiting Period. What it does: authorizes counties the option of requiring a criminal-history checks and authorizes a waiting period in the sale of any firearm, unless the buyer already has a concealed-weapon permit. Applies to flea markets and gun shows. Who is for it: Jim Brady has spoken on behalf of this. Critics, like the NRA, say that a patchwork of county ordinances is not the best method of regulating gun sales.

13. Miscellaneous Matters and Technical Revisions. What it does: Supposedly, these are "noncontroversial" housekeeping provisions, such as removing gender-specific references in the constitution, clarifying the National Guards' right to court martial, stuff like that. Who is for it: the 37-member revision commission. Critics, like Florida Tax Watch, note that the constitutionally required review of the state's tax structure would be postponed from 2000 to 2007, and future reviews would occur every 20 years instead of every 10. Says executive director Dominic Calabro: "Why would voters willingly want to give up the opportunity to review their government?"