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School vouchers to be on November ballot

SEVEN AMENDMENTS TO BE ON BALLOT

The Taxation and Budget Reform Commission placed seven amendments to the Florida Constitution on the Nov. 4 ballot.

ENERGY/HURRICANE TAX BREAK: Owners of homes and other residential property would get small property tax breaks for improvements in energy efficiency and wind storm protection.

CONSERVATION LANDS: Land held in perpetuity for conservation would be exempt from property taxes, and other conservation lands would be taxed based on their current use rather than their "highest and best," or potential use.

TAX SWAP: A state-required local school tax would be repealed, lowering overall property tax bills by 25 percent. The Legislature would be required to make up the lost school money by raising the sales tax 1 percentage point, repealing sales tax exemptions and cutting other spending. The proposal also would give nonhomestead properties a 5 percent cap on annual assessment increases.

WATERFRONT TAXES: Marinas, commercial fishing facilities and other "working waterfront" businesses could receive a property tax break by being assessed according to their current use rather than potential use.

RELIGION: A constitutional ban on direct and indirect state financial aid to churches and religious organizations would be repealed.

COMMUNITY COLLEGES: Would allow local option sales taxes to support community colleges if approved by voters in each county served by a college.

SCHOOL FUNDING/VOUCHERS: Directs the state to order that 65 percent of school funding go toward classroom instruction. Changes a provision of the state Constitution to allow for public funding for private schools through vouchers.

The debate over school vouchers is about to make a roaring comeback in Florida.

On Friday, a powerful citizen commission voted to put a measure on the November ballot that would provide legal protection for vouchers and could pave the way for the return of the Opportunity Scholarships championed by former Gov. Jeb Bush.

With that, the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission closed down, producing work that fell short of what some had hoped for a group that convenes just once every 20 years.

In nearly 14 months of work, it produced less broad reform than minor and special interest proposals.

The 25-member commission appointed by the governor and legislative leaders needed 17 votes to put measures on the ballot. The bar proved too high for all but seven ideas, including two voucher measures and one that represents broad property tax relief: a plan to eliminate most school property taxes for higher sales tax, the elimination of some special interest tax exemptions and other revenue sources.

"We've got some great ideas out there," said chairman Allan Bense, citing the tax swap, a plan to provide property tax breaks for conservation lands and one that would allow increased local sales tax for community colleges.

Commission member and new state Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, wasn't so sure. "I'm worried we're going to be known as the voucher commission, not the tax and budget reform commission."

Among the ideas discarded: a strict cap on all government revenue and a plan to seek sales tax on Internet sales.

Friday's voucher proposal, which passed on a 19-6 vote, seeks to reverse a 2006 state Supreme Court decision that struck down Bush's program on the basis that the state Constitution calls for a "uniform system of free public schools."

If approved by 60 percent of voters, the Constitution would be amended to say the uniform system is "a minimum, nonexclusive duty."

The measure would allow for public funding of private school alternatives "without creating an entitlement," the ballot reads. Opponents strongly disagreed, saying it provides a mandate for private school funding.

The conflict that arose Friday provided a preview of the debate that will play out in the months to come.

Advocates defended the measure, saying it lets people decide major state funding decisions and the future of the education system.

"We are entering a time of global competition and we have to arm ourselves, our workforce and our students with the best possible education," said commission member Julia Johnson.

In a statement, Bush applauded the move, saying it ensured "Florida voters, not activist jurists, will ultimately decide the best way to provide a quality education for all of our students."

Educators say public opinion polls indicate low support for school vouchers. But a little maneuvering Friday may have alleviated that problem.

The voucher proposal was merged with a far less controversial one that would require 65 percent of all school funding go for classroom instruction.

Most school districts already meet this standard, so the measure is symbolic and, some argued, unnecessary.

"It doesn't do anything. It's almost like a Seinfeld episode," said Democratic state Rep. Dan Gelber of Miami Beach, a nonvoting member of the commission.

But it will be used as a sweetener to get people to vote for vouchers. The innocuous 65 percent language will appear first on the ballot item, overshadowing the language paving the way for school vouchers. Nor does the word "voucher" appear on the ballot.

"It's terribly misleading," said commission member Les Miller, a former state senator from Tampa. He predicted lawyers will challenge it on those grounds.

Fellow commission member Patricia Levesque disagreed, saying the ballot language spelled out both issues clearly. She said they deserve to be combined because both are related to education.

Still, Levesque, who runs Bush's nonprofit education foundation, conceded that the 65 percent mandate could help vouchers.

On Thursday, the tax commission approved a related voucher measure aimed at overturning an appellate court decision on Bush's voucher program. The court said it ran afoul of a constitutional provision on state aid to religious programs.

If voters approve, the long-held "no-aid" Blaine Amendment would be replaced with the following: "Individuals or entities may not be barred from participating in public programs because of their religion."

Critics, including a teacher's union that challenged Bush's voucher program in court, are expected to campaign against the measures.

"For them to dabble in religious freedom and vouchers and not deal with the acute taxation and budget needs of the state for which they were created is a disappointment," said Ron Meyer, the lawyer who brought the lawsuit against Bush.

Alex Leary can be reached at (850) 224-7263 or aleary@sptimes.com.

School vouchers to be on November ballot 04/25/08 [Last modified: Monday, April 28, 2008 4:08pm]
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