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Don't repeal Florida's ban on local government 'electioneering'

Now and then the Legislature does something you agree with. This is always a pleasant bonus, like finding old money in a jacket pocket.

An example is the law passed last year that prohibits Florida's local governments from taking sides in elections.

This law was overdue. Local governments in Florida have been spending money, even running full-scale political campaigns, to tell citizens how to vote on referendums, charter amendments, tax issues and so forth.

Yet with the ink on the 2009 law barely dry, there already is an attempt to repeal it in 2010. The other day an important state senator, Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, said he would file a bill to do exactly that.

"I think I made a serious mistake voting for that," Bennett said. His effort will be supported by Florida's local governments.

Here's what's really going on. One of the biggest things on the ballot in Florida this November is "Hometown Democracy," born of a citizen petition drive.

It would change our state Constitution to give voters (and not local government officials) the final say over major growth decisions.

So if local governments and other opponents of Hometown Democracy can use tax dollars to "educate" the public into defeating it, all the better.

I hear the same arguments, over and over, in favor of repealing the law. These arguments are based on a misrepresentation of what it says.

The law prohibits exactly one thing:

Local governments cannot spend public dollars to take a side in elections. That's it.

Your mayor can still say whatever he or she wants.

Your mayor can give speeches, make TV commercials, carry a sign, or organize a parade down Main Street.

So can members of the City Council. So can county commissioners. In the first place, no mere law trumps the First Amendment. But on top of that, the law (Florida Statute 106.113) specifically states:

This section does not preclude an elected official of the local government from expressing an opinion on any issue at any time.

I also hear local officials fretting that the law will turn their staffs into criminals if they even talk about something on the ballot. How unfair, how unreasonable!

How untrue.

The plain wording of the law says that local governments can provide all the "factual information" they want about any ballot issue.

Now, here is what IS illegal:

The government passing a resolution telling people which way to vote.

The government running advertising that tells people which way to vote.

The government forming a political committee to run a campaign that tells people which way to vote.

The government using public resources in any way to tell people which way to vote.

So, to recap:

If the elected officials of Florida's 67 counties and 400-plus cities think Hometown Democracy is a bad idea, they can campaign day and night, yell from the rooftops, parade and preachify all they want.

Meanwhile, local governments can provide all the "factual information" they want.

They just can't use our money to tell us which way to vote. Good grief! How is this a bad idea? What, in fact, is more dangerous in a democracy than the government telling citizens how to vote? That happens in other countries.

The Legislature should let the law stand.

Don't repeal Florida's ban on local government 'electioneering' 01/18/10 [Last modified: Monday, January 18, 2010 8:58pm]
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