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Florida redistricting standards pass while class-size changes, Hometown Democracy fail

Voters followed the money on citizen-led constitutional amendments Tuesday, narrowly passing two redistricting measures backed by a $9 million campaign and rejecting a dramatically outspent Hometown Democracy effort.

Meanwhile, Florida voters didn't endorse the Legislature's attempt to put some flexibility into the class-size amendment they approved eight years ago.

"We didn't have the money and the organization that our opponents had," said state Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, a former Okaloosa County superintendent and a leading supporter of Amendment 8. "For the teachers union, class size is the holy grail. And the teachers union worked very hard in this campaign. They raised a lot of money."

Having the cash to communicate with voters is especially important on constitutional measures, said Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida.

"Advertising matters when it comes to amendments, because voters find them so confusing," she said.

However, two of three other legislative measures passed without big spending:

• Amendment 2, which gives a property tax break to military personnel deployed overseas, passed easily. "Who would not want to give those folks who are in active service a little bit of a break, right?" said Aubrey Jewett, a political scientist at the University of Central Florida.

• A nonbinding referendum that asked voters if they want to see the U.S. Constitution amended to "require a balanced federal budget without raising taxes" also appealed to voters, though it's merely a survey of public opinion.

• Amendment 1, which would have ended public financing of state political campaigns, attracted a simple majority of voters, but not the 60 percent required to pass. "Most Floridians don't even know we have public financing in campaigns," said Daniel Smith, a political scientist at the University of Florida.

Constitutional amendments from any source have been harder to pass since 2006, when voters approved — what else — an amendment requiring 60 percent approval instead of a simple majority. Still, in 2008, a citizen-led measure defining marriage passed, as did three of five non-citizen-led changes.

Floridians, who generally love citizen-led constitutional amendments, bucked more than a decade of "yes" votes to reject Amendment 4, which would have given voters a say in land use plan changes. Florida Hometown Democracy spent just $2.3 million over several years, compared with nearly $16 million by opponents — $11 million just this year by Citizens for Lower Taxes and a Stronger Economy, backed by Realtors, builders and the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

Ryan Houck, executive director for Vote No on 4, said that in addition to advertising, the campaign built a network of 4,000 volunteers, attracted 15,000 fans on Facebook and worked with 320 business, labor and civic groups.

"It all goes together," he said.

Lesley Blackner, who started the Hometown Democracy movement seven years ago, issued a statement Tuesday night: "Unfortunately, it is very difficult to have a rational discussion of a solution to Florida's horrible growth management problem in 30-second television ads that cost millions of dollars to air."

The redistricting effort, led by Fair Districts Florida, passed the 60 percent threshold with for each initiative. The measures, one for legislative districts and one for congressional districts, had more than a 2 percent cushion with the vote count nearly complete Wednesday morning.

Backers of the measures raised the majority of their campaign cash for Amendments 5 and 6 from traditional Democratic supporters — ultimately putting up $9 million against $3.6 million from primarily Republican sources.

"I'm disappointed that they're passing," said state Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples. "If you follow the money, those amendments are intended to create a more liberal Legislature, and a more liberal Congress, and the money trail tells it all."

Republicans, who will have control as the Legislature prepares for redistricting in 2012 based on fresh census data, will now have standards directing them to create districts that don't favor incumbents or a political party and that consider geographic and community boundaries. They predict extra litigation as Democrats use the amendments to challenge GOP-drawn districts.

"There will clearly be litigation challenging these new districts, but it has the potential of leveling the playing field in Florida, a field that has heavily favored Republicans," said Smith, the UF political scientist.

Tuesday's vote also doesn't end debate over class sizes.

"The Legislature has tried time and time again to tell the people they're wrong (about the original 2002 class-size amendment) and they weren't," said state Sen. Alex Villalobos, R-Miami, a leading opponent.

State education officials will determine later this month whether school districts met the limits imposed by the 2002 amendment — or face potentially millions of dollars in penalties.

Becky Bowers can be reached at bbowers@sptimes.com. Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com.

Florida redistricting standards pass while class-size changes, Hometown Democracy fail 11/02/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 3, 2010 1:14am]
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