How lawmakers tweaked amendment meant to help disabled first responders

In 2016, voters overwhelmingly passed Amendment Three to give a property tax exemption to totally and permanently disabled first responders living in Florida. Then, after it passed, the legislature disqualified many totally and permanently disabled first responders living in Florida.  

Pasco Property Appraiser Gary Joiner said he and other property appraisers across the state were blindsided. 

"I can tell you I thought I missed something," said Joiner, whose office could only approve six of 52 applications in his office due to the legislature’s exclusions. “I think it is kind of misleading to everybody."
The legislature unanimously passed a bill stating only those injured while working for a Florida-based agency can qualify. They excluded all injured while working for agencies out-of-state, no matter how many years they have been living and paying taxes in Florida. 

Disabled first responder Joe Johnson is a totally and permanently disabled former police officer from New York. A garbage truck rammed his patrol car, and as he was on his way to receive treatment for injuries from that crash, another driver plowed into him.

"A woman ran a stop sign doing about 50 or 60, hit us broadside. We hit a tree and flipped three times. I sustained about 80 to 90 fractures, my lungs were punctured, my hips were broken, my shoulder and collar bones were broken," Johnson recalled. "Why would you turn around and deny me a benefit the people of Florida overwhelmingly approved?"

After he was denied property tax relief under Amendment Three, Johnson found a couple of hundred other disabled Florida residents -- who were injured responding to fires, shootings, and terrorist attacks -- who were also denied.  

“When they went in those buildings and found people, they didn't say, ‘Excuse me, where do you live? Oh you live in Florida. Sorry, I can’t help you,’" he said. 

Lawmakers like State Senator David Simmons said they did not intend to deny first responders like Joe, and did not realize they had until after the exclusions passed, because they did not realize the bill -- based on the language -- excluded out-of-state responders who subsequently moved to Florida.

State representative Larry Metz of Lake County added the line stating injuries must be sustained while serving in this state or authorized 'by' it. Metz denied our interview request, but sent us a letter noting they intended Florida-based service to qualify because, he stated, homeowners should not have to subsidize those injured out of state, and because he stated service to another state or city is not considered service to Florida.

"That was never the intent of the amendment,” countered Bob Brown, a former police officer from who was shot and disabled by a gunman in New Jersey. “The people were behind it, but the lawmakers tinkered with it the wrong way."

Senator Simmons said he believes Representative Metz acted appropriately and in good faith, and said he looks forward to the opportunity to file legislation to provide coverage to first responders living in Florida who were injured in out-of-state service. 

Three candidates for governor -- Democrats Gwen Graham, Chris King and Philip Levine -- say all disabled first responders living in Florida should get the break as written on the ballot.   

LINK: Full letter to FOX 13 from state Rep. Larry Metz (PDF)

Editor's note: This version of the story has been updated to include Sen. Simmons' response.