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Florida Legislature's proposed constitutional amendments keep getting bounced off the ballot

TALLAHASSEE — Attempts to use Florida's Constitution to make political statements and policy continue to prove very challenging, even for the Legislature.

In the past month, state judges have knocked off the ballot a trio of Legislature-approved proposals, declaring them misleading.

All have been victims of a legal fight over the word choice of legislative drafters:

Amendment 3 would provide additional tax breaks to first-time home buyers, but was challenged by a group of citizens and labor unions for being misleading.

The court agreed, saying the proposal lacked key details. The amendment gives buyers a homestead exemption on some new property if they haven't owned a home in eight years. The rule applies only to property purchased after Jan. 1, 2010, but the ballot summary didn't mention the effective date.

The court ruled it could have been misinterpreted by voters.

Amendment 7 was put on the ballot in response to two citizen initiatives from Fair Districts Florida, which would make it harder for lawmakers to draw political boundaries in ways that protect incumbents and parties.

Legislators contend Amendments 5 and 6 won't work and could weaken minority protections. Amendment 7, they argue, would have clarified any conflicts.

But the League of Women Voters and NAACP challenged Amendment 7, saying it was misleading, and Circuit Judge James Shelfer agreed, noting it took him three days to figure out what the proposal would do.

Amendment 9 was passed in response to the new federal health care law. It was named the "Health Care Freedom" amendment and was criticized by Democrats as primarily intended to drive conservative voters to the polls in November.

Its lengthy summary promised to "ensure access to health care services without waiting lists, protect the doctor-patient relationship, guard against mandates that don't work," among other things.

But the amendment did not directly address any of those issues, and four citizens challenged it, arguing it makes a political sales pitch. A court agreed. Appeals of those three rulings are pending in higher courts.

Still on the ballot, but awaiting a hearing in the Florida Supreme Court, are the Fair Districts amendments, which were challenged by two minority members of Congress.

One more, an attempt to scale back the voter-approved school class size reductions, is being challenged by a state teachers union. Legislative leaders argue their amendments were worded fairly.

"We put a lot of thought into each of those amendments," said incoming Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island. "This is not like we out of nowhere just threw it out there."

Haridopolos and other legislative sponsors blame activist courts for overreaching when they rejected the amendments. They are appealing all of them to the Florida Supreme Court. (Shelfer, who rejected the redistricting and health care amendments, was first appointed to the bench by former Gov. Jeb Bush.)

Opponents say it's the Legislature's fault. In its zeal to accomplish controversial reform, it failed to clearly explain the impact to voters.

"What you are seeing in this election cycle, and the last election cycle, are amendments that are being deceptive, that don't tell people what they actually do in the hopes of getting them passed," said Ron Meyer, a Tallahassee election lawyer who represents many of the groups challenging the Legislature's amendments.

He added: "In some instances, it's done very intentionally because if you were clear and direct, there is little likelihood the public would ever vote for the amendment."

Lawmakers don't have to follow the same ballot rules as independent groups that gather voters' signatures on petitions to get proposals on the ballot. Petition initiatives must have their proposed wording cleared by the state Supreme Court.

The Legislature can put its proposals directly on the ballot without scrutiny — unless someone brings a legal challenge. This year's rejections follow a pattern.

In 2008, three proposals written by the legislatively controlled Taxation and Budget Reform Commission came under fire from special interest groups and were thrown off the ballot by the Supreme Court for being misleading.

Supreme Court Justice Fred Lewis wrote that the tax commission was particularly misleading when it wrapped two proposals together into one amendment — a plan to legalize vouchers for public schools and a requirement that schools spend 65 percent of their budget on classroom education.

The ballot summary referred only to the 65 percent element and, Lewis wrote, ''constitutes nothing more than word play in an attempt to achieve passage of the proposed amendment." He said that drafters tried to "hide the ball" and that "voters of Florida should not be subject to sleight-of-hand word games when they enter the voting booth. Rather, the title of a proposed amendment to the Florida Constitution should fairly apprise voters with regard to a proposed amendment.

Florida law requires the use of straightforward and direct language in a ballot title and summary, not creative ''wordsmithing" in an attempt to ensure passage.

Bradenton Rep. Bill Galvano, the GOP chairman of the House Rules Committee, said he had been concerned about the wording of some amendments and tried to improve them.

"But you're talking about the Legislature and 160 people who ultimately decide on a final version, so it's hard to predict," he said. "The people who carry these issues oftentimes are focused so much on the substance that the form can suffer."

Galvano said lawmakers can learn from the judges' rulings: "The message is that we need to really look at the language of these amendments and make sure they are understandable."

Times staff writer Lee Logan contributed to this report.

What amendments listed on ballot

Of the nine proposed amendments currently listed for the November ballot, seven have drawn court challenges. Only Amendments 1, 2 and 4 have not been subject to legal objections. Here's a brief rundown:

Amendment 1, repeals system of public financing for statewide elections if candidates agree to spending limits.

Amendment 2, gives an increased homestead tax exemption to members of the military and reserves deployed outside the United States.

Amendment 3, (removed from ballot) says that the tax appraisal on a non-homestead property can't go up by more than 5 percent a year, and it creates a property-tax exemption for first-time home buyers of up to 25 percent of a home's value in the first year.

Amendment 4, known as "Hometown Democracy," placed on the ballot by petition, says voters should have final say over amendments to city and county "comprehensive plans," which control growth.

Amendments 5 and 6, (being challenged) put on the ballot by citizen petition, they say district boundaries for the Legislature and Congress should not be drawn by the Legislature to "favor or disfavor" one party or incumbent.

Amendment 7, (removed from ballot) is the Legislature's response to Amendments 5 and 6. It put certain requirements for redrawing districts in the constitution, regardless of what is required by Amendments 5 and 6.

Amendment 8, (being challenged) is the Legislature's attempt to change the rules for public school class sizes in Florida that were approved by voters in 2002. The amendment would return to using schoolwide average class sizes instead of a strict per-classroom limit.

Amendment 9, (removed from the ballot) is the GOP Legislature's answer to the health care bill passed by the Democratic Congress. It would prohibit the state from participating in any health insurance exchange that compels people to buy insurance.

Sources: News Service of Florida, Miami Herald, St. Petersburg Times

Correction: Amendment 4 is not under court challenge, though the Florida Chamber of Commerce has filed a complaint with the Department of Elections. An earlier version of this story was incorrect.

Florida Legislature's proposed constitutional amendments keep getting bounced off the ballot 08/03/10 [Last modified: Thursday, August 5, 2010 3:03pm]
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