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Put your stamp on Fla. Constitution

Voters will have six chances Nov. 2 to change the Florida Constitution, plus a voice on the federal budget. If that sounds like a lot, take comfort that two of them share a subject — redistricting. Constitutional amendments require 60 percent approval to become law. Half of the amendment proposals this election came from the state Legislature, while the other three grew from citizen efforts Florida Hometown Democracy and FairDistrictsFlorida.org. A summary of the measures:

Amendment 1

Repeal of public campaign financing requirement: Since 1987, statewide political candidates have received tax money to help cover campaign costs, as long as they stick to spending limits. The idea was to encourage qualified but underfunded candidates to run for state office.

During the last statewide cycle in 2006, candidates for governor and the state Cabinet got $11.1 million — with $7.4 million for the governor's race alone.

Last year, Republican lawmakers proposed abolishing the subsidy system, with state Sen. Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, calling it "welfare for politicians." Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, the Sierra Club and Florida PIRG defended it as a way to make races more competitive.

Amendment 2

Property tax break for troops: About 25,500 military personnel who call Florida home were deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2008. They didn't get any special property tax relief. This would create an additional exemption for those deployed outside the 50 states, based on the number of days they were deployed the year before.

The extra exemption would be a percentage of the taxable value of a home, reached by dividing the number of days deployed by the number of days in the year. A Senate bill analysis said this would have cost cities, counties and districts $14.9 million in 2010-11 fiscal year.

Amendment 4

Local government land use plans: Brought to the ballot through a four-year petition drive by a group called Florida Hometown Democracy, Amendment 4 would require a public vote before a local government could adopt or change a comprehensive land use plan.

Hometown Democracy, founded by Palm Beach lawyer Lesley Blackner and Tallahassee lawyer Ross Burnaman, has spent nearly $2 million since 2003. Backers include Sierra Club of Florida, other environmental groups and some cities and civic associations. Opposition group Citizens for Lower Taxes and a Stronger Economy has spent around $7 million, backed by the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the Florida League of Cities and the Florida Association of Counties.

Defenders say voters "deserve a 'seat at the table' on growth decisions." Florida chamber president Mark Wilson says the change "will make managing growth unmanageable." Opponents say it would deter investment and cost local governments millions statewide to hold extra elections, but the state Supreme Court said the costs can't be estimated precisely, because votes could be held during normal elections and the amendment's goal is to limit land-use changes.

Amendments 5 & 6

Legislative and congressional redistricting: With fresh population data from the 2010 census, the Florida Legislature will be drawing new districts.

The group FairDistrictsFlorida.org has spent about $4 million putting two proposals on the ballot intended to fight the creation of districts that help politicians protect their seats. The group is run by Miami lawyer Ellen Freidin, a Democrat, and Tallahassee lawyer Thom Rumberger, a former Republican legislator. Opponents include Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, and Haridopolos, who will lead the Legislature as it prepares for redistricting.

The two measures differ by just a word: one refers to federal "congressional" districts, and the other to state "legislative" districts. Each proposal says the boundaries may not be drawn to favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party, or to deny racial or language minorities equal opportunity. To discourage the creation of odd, strategically drawn boundaries, the two amendments specify that districts must be compact, be near equal in population and take into account city, county and geographic boundaries.

The effect on minority representation is a matter of debate, and has split the state's legislative black caucus.

The financial impact statements of the two measures say costs can't be determined precisely, but state government and courts may spend more if court battles go beyond the traditional redistricting process.

Amendment 8

Class size requirements for public schools: The class-size amendment, a citizen ballot measure limiting class sizes, passed in 2002. So far the state has spent about $16 billion out of about $477 billion in total state revenue to reduce class sizes — about 3 percent. Now, as phased-in limits are coming into full effect, a legislative proposal would ease the caps.

Instead of strict limits for each class of 18 students in pre-K through Grade 3, 22 students in Grades 4-8 and 25 students in Grades 9-12, the amendment would enforce averages. As long as a school kept an average of 22 students per teacher in Grades 4-8, for example, a 23rd kid could join a full class. Limits per class, then, would be a few students higher: 21 students in pre-K through Grade 3, 27 students for Grades 4-8 and 30 students for Grades 9-12. The change would apply retroactively to the beginning of the 2010-11 school year.

Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and members of the School Boards Association and administrators cite schools creating combo classes or forcing new residents to go to different schools. Ingrid Olsen, a spokeswoman for the "No on 8" campaign backed by the Florida Education Association teachers union, says schools are struggling to meet the caps because lawmakers did not adequately pay to reduce class sizes. If the amendment were passed, it is estimated to save the state between $350 million and $1 billion.

Referendum

Balancing the federal budget: Florida legislators want to know what you think about the federal budget. This is a "nonbinding referendum," an expression of voter opinion. Nothing happens if it passes, other than a message to Congress. The proposal originated with Republican state Senate President Jeff Atwater. Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, called it "more of a push poll" meant to sway voters' thinking. It cites "excessive borrowing" and "uncontrolled growth of our national debt," and advocates amending the U.S. Constitution to require a balanced budget without raising taxes.

Information from Times files and the Collins Center for Public Policy was used in this report.

Put your stamp on Fla. Constitution 10/07/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 12, 2010 5:08pm]
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