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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Voucher opponents get day before judge

4

August

TALLAHASSEE -- A teacher union and Florida school boards urged a judge Monday to remove two proposed constitutional amendments from the Nov. 4 ballot, claiming both questions use legally flawed means to bring back school vouchers.

The judge indicated he would rule in the case as early as later today or Tuesday morning.

The opponents of amendments 7 and 9 argued that a state panel, the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission, exceeded its authority in asking voters to revive vouchers, which were struck down by the state Supreme Court in 2005 as a result of a constitutional challenge by the same teacher union, which opposes vouchers.

Opponents also argued that Amendment 9 misleads voters by linking the return of vouchers to a second, separate proposal requiring that 65 percent of school districts' budgets be spent in classrooms.

Attorney Ron Meyer of the union, the Florida Education Association, told Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper that the commission was limited under the state Constitution to studying issues related to taxation and the state budgetary proceess and that vouchers are in neither category.

"What's this got to do with taxation or the state budgetary process? Absolutely nothing. Zilch. Nada," Meyer told the judge. "It's so far beyond the reach of the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission that it can't be approved by this court."

Amendment 9 has a second problem, Meyer said, of a "deceptive" ballot title to be put before voters that "hides" the revival of vouchers, a priority of former Gov. Jeb Bush. But lawyers for the state cited cases that require that a brief ballot title and a longer, more detailed ballot summary must be read together.

The powerful, 25-member tax panel, which reviews the tax structure every two decades, is not bound by a state law that requires ballot initiatives to deal with a single subject.

Defending the two amendments was Solicitor General Scott Makar, a lawyer in Attorney General Bill McCollum's office, who said the union's view of the tax panel's scope is too narrow. Makar said state law requires the TBRC be given broad deference that its proposals are constitutional, which limits a judge's power to strike its work from a ballot.

"Where is there a substantive limitation?" Makar asked, gesturing toward a blowup of the law that creates the tax panel. "The TBRC can go wherever it wants to go."

The case is being closely watched by the state's political and educational leadership. Among those who watched Monday's proceedings was Gov. Charlie Crist's legal counsel, Jason Gonzalez.

Judge Cooper said no case exists in Florida jurisprudence dealing with the specific issues raised by the teacher union's lawsuit. His ruling is likely to be appealed by the losing side to state appellate courts.

-- STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer

[Last modified: Wednesday, September 15, 2010 11:05am]

    

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