Friday, April 20, 2018
Politics

Florida voters reject most constitutional amendments, including 'religious freedom' proposal

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Legislature loaded up this year's historically long ballot with 11 lengthy and confusing constitutional amendments — only to see voters reject almost all of them.

Eight of the amendments failed to get the requisite 60 percent vote, including a massive property tax overhaul, new abortion restrictions and a "religious freedom" proposal.

The amendments made for long ballots, which clogged precincts and caused voters to wait for hours in some cases. It was the worst outcome for constitutional amendments since 1978, when all nine of the state's proposed amendments failed.

Several groups, including the League of Women Voters, called on Floridians to reject all 11 proposals, which they labeled as misleading and inappropriate.

"It's a real tribute to Florida voters that they took the time to research the facts, and they sent the entree back to the kitchen," said Deirdre Macnab, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida.

The most heavily advertised proposal, Amendment 4, failed miserably after Realtors groups spent more than $4.7 million to pass the property tax overhaul.

It would have provided property tax relief to first-time home buyers, second homeowners and businesses, while potentially gutting local governments of billions of dollars in future revenue. Opponents were heavily outspent but argued the tax breaks would go to businesses and wealthy snowbirds, shifting the tax burden onto permanent residents.

Voters rejected it by a lopsided margin, giving it less than 43 percent of the vote.

Other property tax amendments fared much better, with just over 60 percent of voters approving targeted tax relief for veterans (Amendment 2), poor senior-citizens (Amendment 11) and spouses of military veterans killed in the line of action (Amendment 9).

But all the other amendments failed by large margins.

Amendment 10, a $20 million tax cut for small businesses championed by Gov. Rick Scott, failed as well, receiving less than half the vote. Amendment 3, a state-revenue cap backed by Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, received less than 42 percent approval.

In perhaps one the most decisive defeats of the night, nearly 65 percent of voters rejected Amendment 5, titled "State Courts," which would have given the Legislature more power over the state's judicial branch.

Voters, whether they realized it or not, sided with Supreme Court justices in a years-long battle between the Republican-dominated Legislature and the courts. The proposal is widely viewed as an attempt by the Legislature to punish judges who struck down as unconstitutional several of the Legislature's highest-priority laws.

"I think the public got a bit of a taste that the Legislature was trying to interfere with the political system," said Justice Harry Lee Anstead, who retired from the state Supreme Court in 2009. "I do think the tension will be sharply reduced now between the Legislature and the courts."

Some 55 percent of voters also rejected Amendment 6, an anti-abortion amendment that would have enshrined the federal ban on tax money for abortions into the Florida Constitution. The change would have weakened privacy protections for women who want to terminate a pregnancy, possibly paving the way for a requirement that minors get parental consent before an abortion.

The Catholic Church was the driving supporter of the amendment, even as the League of Women Voters and Planned Parenthood urged voters to reject it.

Amendment 8 also failed. Voters rejected the amendment, titled "Religious Freedom," one of the most controversial on the ballot, by 56 percent. The proposal would have repealed the 127-year-old Blaine Amendment, which says state funds may not go to the support of religious institutions.

In truth, the state has long contracted with religious charities to house the poor, educate the illiterate and feed the hungry.

Teachers unions and other groups feared the proposal's real purpose was to clear a path for former Gov. Jeb Bush's school voucher program, which Florida courts struck down in 2006.

Voters also rejected an amendment that would have prohibited the state from requiring people to buy health insurance. The rule would have put the state constitution in conflict with federal law, although proponents argued it would have sent a message to Congress that President Barack Obama's 2010 health care overhaul had overstepped its authority.

Conservative or liberal, voters showed widespread bipartisan disapproval of the Legislature's lengthy amendments.

"I'm probably going to vote no on all of them," said Ashley Williams, standing in line at voting precinct across the street from Tallahassee's state Capitol, where the amendments originated. "They don't make a lot of sense."

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