TALLAHASSEE -- The just-finished legislative session will be remembered for more than the $3.8 billion deficit or the political meltdown that marred its finish. It will also be known for packing the November 2012 election ballot with seven constitutional amendments -- from abortion to religion to property taxes.
The amendments are straight out of the Republican Party playbook: overturn abortion rulings, cap state revenue, lower property taxes, restrict court power, loosen the separation between church and state, and prevent President Barack Obama’s health care law from taking hold in Florida.
Democrats say the amendments are politically motivated and designed to attract conservatives to the polls in November 2012, when Obama faces re-election. Republicans say they are pursuing what they have been attempting for years and what voters elected them to do.
“If we bring people to the polls who oppose abortion, want smarter government, want less taxes and don’t want government to tell them what health insurance to buy, then yes, those are the people we want voting,’’ said Rep. Will Weatherford, the Wesley Chapel Republican in line to become House speaker in 2012.
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It’s a bit of a gamble.
Last year, Florida legislators put four amendments on the November ballot; three were rejected by the Florida Supreme Court because of faulty ballot language. Voters rejected the fourth amendment, which sought to loosen the state’s class-size requirement.
Legislators took a do-over on two of the rejected amendments this year and changed the language to help them pass the court review. SJR 2 says that the state can enact no law to “compel, directly or indirectly,” anyone to carry health insurance, an attempt to block people from purchasing health insurance as required by the federal health care law.
The court had ruled the language was confusing and misleading, so legislators removed the controversial summary and put the entire text of the amendment in its place.
“It is purely a political move,” said Rep. Elaine Schwartz, a Hollywood Democrat. “It is not for the good of the state.’’
Legislators also get a second shot at cutting property taxes. The proposal to give commercial property owners a lower tax cap and to give first-time home buyers a hefty exemption was rejected by the court because the ballot summary didn’t mention the effective date. The Legislature revived the proposal and clarified the dates. Now, the real estate industry is counting on the amendment to lure buyers from out of state and revive the sagging economy.
But if the economy is revived too much, another amendment on the ballot will limit how much revenue the state will be allowed to keep. Under the so-called “smart cap” proposal, state revenues would be capped based on population growth and inflation, and any money above that amount would be held in reserve or returned to taxpayers.
It’s the brainchild of Senate President Mike Haridopolos, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, who denies the proposal is designed to attract voters to the polls.
“I’m not rushing it on the ballot,” he said. “This is long-term. The more people learn about these issues, the more they’ll be supportive.”
Two other amendments are aimed at long-sought attempts by Republicans to limit abortion and strengthen school vouchers.
The abortion amendment would make a federal ban on the use of public funds part of the state Constitution. It would also exempt abortion from the right to privacy in the state Constitution.
Abortion rights groups said the public funds ban is already in place, but they are more concerned with the provision about privacy.
Said Stephanie Kunkel of Planned Parenthood of Florida: “What this does is roll back women’s right to privacy.”
Another proposed amendment would repeal an existing provision that prohibits the use of public money for religious institutions and adds language prohibiting the government from denying funding based on religion.
The change is needed, proponents say, to avoid a lawsuit barring the state from contracting with religion-affiliated agencies that provide public services.
Opponents say nothing in the current law stops organizations such as Catholic Charities, Jewish Vocational Services and Lutheran Social Services from providing drug treatment programs, homeless shelters and adoption services to the state -- so long as they don’t attempt to push their religion on service recipients.
“It is a solution in search of a problem,” said Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida.