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Florida's 60 percent rule may doom amendments on ballot

Floridians might have made the biggest decision of the 2010 election already — back in 2006.

Four years ago, we decided that future amendments to our state Constitution would need more than 60 percent of the vote to pass.

Students of irony, take note: That change passed by only 57.8 percent.

But it passed fair and square under the rules at the time. That 57.8 percent in 2006 decided that today, even 59.99 percent of us cannot change our Constitution.

In the following election in 2008, four out of six amendments passed anyway. Three of them were property tax breaks (always popular), and the fourth was the hot-button issue of a ban on same-sex marriage. Two others would have lost anyway.

But this year, the 60 percent rule is a major factor. It's possible that none of the controversial items on this year's ballot will pass.

Take Amendment 4, better known as "Hometown Democracy." This idea, which would require local elections to approve many growth decisions, so far has only 33 percent support, according to a St. Petersburg Times-Miami Herald-Bay News 9 poll.

True, 32 percent of the voters polled were still undecided about Amendment 4. Under the old rules, it would have a fighting chance. But if this poll is anywhere in the ballpark, Hometown Democracy now has to capture nearly all the remaining undecideds.

Somewhat closer are Amendments 5 and 6, which would require "fair districts" for our state Legislature and our seats in the U.S. House. They're running at about 45 percent, with 31 percent undecided — still a possible win if the undecideds split, but they likely would have passed easily under the old rules.

And make no mistake: This was exactly what folks in Tallahassee intended.

Our Legislature put the 60 percent rule on the ballot in 2006, and Florida's biggest business groups bankrolled the campaign to get us to approve it.

Florida voters had petitioned for, and passed, a series of ideas that business didn't like, such as a higher state minimum wage and a broad ban on public smoking. In fact, the backers of the 60 percent rule had Hometown Democracy precisely in their sights.

On the other hand, in two other cases this fall, the 60 percent rule might backfire on the Legislature.

Amendment 8 is the Legislature's attempt to relax the rules on classroom sizes that the voters passed in 2002. The rules are supposed to take full effect this year.

The poll shows, however, that 40 percent of Floridians are opposed to relaxing the rules, with only 17 percent undecided. It might still have been possible to eke out a victory of 50 percent, but it seems unlikely that Amendment 8 will reach 60 percent.

Amendment 1, which was not included in the poll, would repeal Florida's public financing for political candidates, which the Legislature has criticized as "welfare for politicians." I have no idea whether it will pass, but it too has to get 60 percent.

Philosophically, I have no problem with the higher bar. It should be hard to amend the Constitution.

But if Amendments 4, 5 and 6 all go down, winning a majority but less than 60 percent, it will be a tremendous victory for the status quo in Tallahassee.

And it will be thanks to a deliberate plan set in motion years ago.

Florida's 60 percent rule may doom amendments on ballot 10/25/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 26, 2010 12:12am]

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