Economists can’t determine fiscal impact of abortion-rights amendment
State economists have made it official: They can’t tell how a proposed abortion rights amendment could affect Florida’s economy, given uncertainty about how the Florida Supreme Court will rule on the constitutionality of the state’s 15-week abortion ban.
The experts — sitting as the Financial Impact Estimating Conference — had agreed they were unlikely to determine the potential costs or revenue attributable to the initiative the first time they met on Oct. 19, but their final report to Attorney General Ashley Moody and State Secretary Cord Byrd solidified that conclusion.
“If the court upholds the 2022 law, a 2023 law further reducing the 15 weeks to six weeks will take effect 30 days later. This could lead to additional litigation. In order to measure the proposed amendment’s impact on state and local government revenues and costs, a reasonable expectation of what the state of the law will be at the time of the election is required,” the economists wrote on Thursday.
“Because there are several possible outcomes related to this litigation that differ widely in their effects, the impact of the proposed amendment on state and local government revenues and costs, if any, cannot be determined.”
Moody has been vocal about her opposition to Floridians Protecting Freedom’s amendment, which would add language barring state interference in abortion choice. She filed another brief in the Florida Supreme Court on Wednesday. She has criticized the proposed ballot language for being too vague, although the sponsors insist it is perfectly straightforward.
The court must approve that language for it to appear next year’s ballot; if they object, the people won’t get to vote on the measure. The fiscal impact report also would appear on the ballot if the court gives the go-ahead.
Difficult to assess
The economist panel approved a 148-word financial impact statement that would appear on the ballot, plus a 478-word summary that voters could request to see at polling places and a 14-page summary of the factors the economists considered when making their decision. That long-form statement would be available online.
Kara Gross, legislative director for the ACLU of Florida, conceded that the economists faced a challenge. She represented the measure’s sponsor during the Financial Impact Estimating Conference meetings.
“Any day now, the Florida Supreme Court will rule on the constitutionality of the 15-week ban. If the Supreme Court upholds the 15-week ban, a six-week ban will go into effect 30 days later. The stakes could not be higher. Because we don’t know what the legal landscape for abortion access will be in November 2024 when the amendment would appear on the ballot, the direct fiscal impacts of the amendment were difficult for the FIEC to assess,” she wrote in a statement to Florida Phoenix.
“What we do know is that if the Florida Supreme Court were to uphold the 15-week ban, and the six-week ban went into effect, in terms of fiscal impacts, there would be significant detrimental impacts to the state budget. The amendment’s passage would have a significant positive effect on our state budget and economy.”
On the other hand, Katie Daniel, state policy director for Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, blamed the ACLU for creating an uncertain environment through litigation challenging abortion restrictions. Daniel spoke as an opponent of the proposed amendment during the first meeting on Oct. 19 and her organization filed an amicus brief with the Florida Supreme Court opposing the ballot initiative.
“The FIEC’s decision that they cannot make a determination on the financial impact because it’s ‘ambiguous and uncertain’ is exactly what we are arguing to the Florida Supreme Court. A primary reason for this uncertainty is the many lawsuits brought against the state of Florida by the ACLU, the main supporter of the amendment,” she wrote in a statement to the Phoenix.
“Based on their activity in other states, we anticipate many more lawsuits challenging Florida’s laws that ensure medical safeguards for women and protections for their children, preventing abortion after babies can feel pain. If four professional economists can’t determine its impact, the amendment is certainly confusing and misleading to voters.”
The economists insisted they couldn’t determine the impact because of the abortion landscape in Florida, not specifically because of the language of the proposed amendment. However, one of the economists, Brea Gelin, chief analyst in the Executive Office of the Governor, said the ballot initiative is unclear about whether Florida would have to allow Medicaid funds to go toward abortions.
During the last meeting on Thursday, she said she didn’t want the phrase, “The proposed constitutional amendment does not expressly create a new obligation for the state to pay for abortions,” added to the long-form statement.
“I’m not a judge. I don’t know how to interpret that language. It doesn’t directly create a new obligation, but I don’t know how that language is going to be interpreted,” she said.
Ultimately, the other members of the group (Amy Baker, coordinator for the Office of Economic and Demographic Research; Vince Aldridge, staff director for the House Ways and Means Committee; Azhar Khan, staff director of the Senate Finance and Tax Committee) disagreed with her.
“A lot of court rulings we’ve seen over the years where the Supreme Court is very hesitant to tell the Legislature that they have to do something in a certain way,” Baker said.
The group also discussed whether they would use the term “fetus” compared to “unborn babies” and the phrases “live births in the state” or “babies born in the state.” Gelin preferred to use the word “babies,” she said.
“I don’t know that [fetus] is universally understood. I might suggest changing it to unborn baby because it’s the more clearly understood term,” Gelin said.
The rest of the group preferred fetus because that is the term used in statutes, they said.
Other states have their own citizen ballot initiatives to protect abortion rights in the works. Ohio voters approved the ballot initiative to do so on Nov. 7.