Port St. Lucie voters may not spot it easily, but an issue on the Nov. 6 general-election ballot concerns a new neighbor.
The Florida Department of Veteran Affairs, which will staff and manage the under-construction Ardie R. Copas State Veterans’ Nursing Home, is mentioned in Amendment 10.
“The amendment is changing ‘may’ to ‘shall’ to codify even more our department’s existence under Florida statutes,” explained Steve Murray, communications director at the state veterans department.
The department is neutral about whether voters should or should not adopt Amendment 10. Murray agreed to explain the mechanics of the amendment as they relate to the FDVA and the history of the state’s veterans department.
The state is now constructing the Copas nursing home in Tradition. When opened in 2019 or 2020, the 121,000-square-foot facility will employ more than 150 and add about $20 million a year to the local economy.
The ballot amendment summary reads: “Requires legislature to retain department of veterans’ affairs.”
The referendum for requiring the legislature to maintain the existence of a cabinet-level reporting veterans department didn’t emerge from a widespread grassroots effort. There are also no visible moves afoot in Florida to close the department.
The 37-member Florida Constitution Revision Commission authored Amendment 10, along with seven of the other 12 amendments on the general-election ballot. Six of those amendments are “bundled,” meaning they have multiple provisions. Amendment 10 is one of them.
In addition to shifting the Florida Department of Veteran Affairs from permitted to mandated in the Florida Constitution, the amendment, if passed by voters, would mandate that the legislature meet in January on even-number years, create the Office of Domestic Security and Counterterrorism within the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and mandate the elections of constitutional officers – such as sheriffs – in chartered counties, including Brevard, Volusia and Orange.
This is the second time the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs has been put before the voters.
During the 1988 session, the State Legislature approved putting a proposal on that year’s general-election ballot asking voters if they wanted to approve the opportunity for the state to create the Florida Department of Veteran Affairs. There was already a veterans division within the Department of Administration, which some at the time held was sufficient. But, the state’s services to veterans were spread across three agencies, which advocates said created inefficiencies and confusion.
Florida was mirroring the nation in 1988. At the time there were moves in Congress to upgrade the former Veterans Administration into the Presidential Cabinet level Department of Veteran Affairs to give veterans a greater voice and fewer complications for getting medical care and other benefits. President Ronald Reagan, a proponent of the proposal, signed the Department of Veterans Affairs Act of 1988 into law on Oct. 25, 1988.
The idea of a state veterans department was popular. More than two-thirds of the about 4 million voters who cast ballots on the state referendum in ’88 approved giving the legislature the option to create the state veterans department. The department’s existence is owed to the voter-approved Article IV Section 11 of the Florida Constitution.
“The legislature, by general law, may provide for the establishment of the Department of Veteran Affairs,” the section reads.
As Murray pointed out, the key word is “may.” However, he noted that during the 1989 session the State Legislature acted on that allowance and created the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs. It opened on July 1, 1989 and has operated continuously since. Among other things, it has opened six state veterans nursing homes, and is working on the seventh and eighth now.
If voters approve Amendment 10, that section of the Florida Constitution will be revised to read: “The legislature, by general law, shall provide for a Department of Veterans’ Affairs and prescribe its duties. The head of the department is the governor and cabinet.”
With that change, any efforts to shutter the department would necessitate another amendment to the state constitution. As things are, the State Legislature can close the department with a floor vote. In either case the state would have to transfer the veterans department activities and duties to other departments — including the state veterans nursing homes.
Florida has about 1.5 million veterans according to the federal Department of Veteran Affairs.