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Florida commission oversteps its duties

The Taxation and Budget Reform Commission at work.

The Taxation and Budget Reform Commission at work.

The state's Taxation and Budget Reform Commission is acting as if it were the Jeb Bush Education Agenda Commission. The commission voted last week to put a measure on the ballot that would sharply weaken the state's guarantees of church-state separation.

What has that to do with the state's tax and budgetary policies — issues the commission is charged with acting on? Not much. The action was a political move designed to shield the former governor's school voucher programs from legal challenge, since the vouchers are often used to fund parochial school education.

It took 17 votes from the 25-member commission to move the measure to the November ballot and 17 votes it received, including one "yea" vote from Darryl Rouson, whose current candidacy for a state legislative seat has the support of a group that promotes school vouchers.

All Children Matter — Florida, an affiliate of a nationwide group of political action committees devoted to helping provoucher candidates get elected, sent out a series of three laudatory mailers for Rouson to District 55 voters at a cost of about $17,000. The mailers didn't even mention the voucher issue. Now Rouson, who won last month's hard-fought, three-way Democratic primary, is starting to return the favor. (The group's Florida chairman, John Kirtley, insists he would have been fine with Rouson voting the other way.)

The proposed constitutional amendment would remove the so-called Blaine Amendment from the state Constitution. This muscular protection against church-state entanglement has been part of the state's founding document since the 19th century. It bars taxpayer money from being used "directly or indirectly" in the aid of any sectarian institution, language that goes beyond the Establishment Clause of the federal Constitution in keeping church and state separate.

And while the provenance of the Blaine Amendment is not pretty — it resulted from a campaign of anti-Catholic bias — the resulting strict limits on church-state entanglement have served this state well.

The commission is following the lead of Patricia Levesque, a top education adviser to former Gov. Bush, who now heads up foundations that serve to protect his education legacy. She and 16 of her fellow commission members have misused the power granted them by turning what should be a collegial body doing responsible work on behalf of Florida's fiscal future into an instrument of the culture wars.

On Friday, another provoucher proposal is scheduled to come before the commission. It would go even further by explicitly granting Floridians the "freedom" to choose a religiously affiliated provider of publicly financed services, such as health care and education.

If this amendment makes it onto the November ballot and is approved by voters, it would transform Florida into a state where individuals are forced to pay taxes to support religions that are not their own.

The commission needs to get back to its real job, and in 20 years, the next time this body is constituted, let's hope it will not be loaded with people with narrow political agendas.

How members voted on church-state ballot measure:

For: Barney Barnett, Mark Bostick, Richard Corcoran, Mike Hogan, Julia Johnson, Bruce Kyle, Patricia Levesque, Bobby Martinez, Jacinta Mathis, Bob McKee, Nancy Riley, Darryl Rouson, Susan Story, Greg Turbeville, Ken Wilkinson, Brian Yablonski, Allan Bense.

Against: Martha Barnett, Sandy D'Alemberte, Carlos Lacasa, John McKay, Les Miller, Jade Moore, James Scott.

Florida commission oversteps its duties 04/01/08 [Last modified: Saturday, April 5, 2008 2:16pm]
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