State Politics

2010 FLORIDA LEGISLATURE Constitutional amendments crowd Nov. 2 ballot box

When voters head to the polls Nov. 2, they’ll be judging the handiwork of the Republican-led Legislature: six proposed constitutional amendments and one straw poll.

Add in citizens’ initiatives and the total number of ballot issues stands at 10.

Seven of the items are from a Legislature that, grousing about government-by-referendum, persuaded voters to change the Constitution in 2006 so amendments now must be approved by at least 60 percent of the voters.

When considered together, the Legislature’s seven new ballot measures offer an unofficial vote of confidence on the Republican political agenda.

The Legislature’s constitutional amendments end public financing of political campaigns; change the standards for drawing legislative seats; scale back the state’s class-size amendment and send a message to Washington over its healthcare programs and spending. Two more would expand some property-tax breaks.

“This is about good policy,” said future House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park. “It’s about reducing the role of government, and preserving the separation of powers in our Constitutional system.”

Democrats like Ronald Brisé, of Miami, say the amendments show how Republicans failed to fix problems during the legislative session that ended Friday. He pointed to the high number of uninsured Floridians — 4 million — and the fact that the state anticipates using up to $3.4 billion in federal stimulus money, Republicans nationwide bashed because it helped increase deficit spending.

Even as they included the federal money in their calculations for next year’s state budget, Republicans pushed a non-binding referendum through the Legislature that asks for a U.S. Constitutional amendment to balance the federal budget and to stop “the uncontrolled growth of our national debt.”

“The Republicans want to change the subject,” Brisé said.

Pollsters and pundits predicts relatively easy passage for the three amendments the Legislature passed last year for the 2010 ballot. Those measures end public financing of campaigns give property tax credits to soldiers deployed overseas and property-tax breaks to first-time homesteaders and owners of non-homesteaded properties.

The Legislature’s three amendments approved this session will likely have a tougher time at the ballot box because they take on special interest groups. Two — redistricting and the class-size scale back — directly take on the Florida Education Association, an Democratic-leaning union that successfully backed the existing class-size amendment.

Along with trial lawyers, the union also helped underwrite the group Fair Districts Florida, which placed two of the citizen-initiated amendments on the ballot. The other citizens initiative on the 2010 ballot concerns growth management and was sponsored by a group called Hometown Democracy.

In anticipation of the Hometown Democracy amendment, the Republican leadership persuaded voters four years ago to make it tougher to amend the constitution. Legislative leaders have proposed their own initiative in response to the Fair Districts amendments, which could weaken the Republicans leadership’s ability in 2012 to draw congressional and legislative districts that benefit the GOP.

Known also as “redistricting,” the once-a-decade process of drawing new political boundaries happens after every Census to make sure that each state legislative district and each congressional district has the same number of residents.

Redistricting gives incumbent legislators broad power to choose the types of voters who would elect them. Throughout the process, the majority party tries to remain in control by packing a disproportionate number of the minority party’s voters into fewer districts statewide. The minority party inevitably sues.

After a court helped redraw districts in the 1990s, Republicans took control of the Legislature. Right now, Republicans control about 64 percent of the seats in the Legislature. But Republicans account for just 36 percent of registered Florida voters.

“Why aren’t the Democrats in control?” asked incoming Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island. “Candidates — who the candidate is — matters. Elections matter.”

The Fair Districts proposals could change that. The amendments explicitly ban the Legislature from drawing boundaries “with the intent to favor or disfavor a political party or an incumbent.”

The two amendments — one for legislative seats, the other for congressional seats — also say the Legislature cannot draw districts with the intent to deny, abridge or diminish minority voting rights.

But the amendments are still a threat to minorities, says Haridopolos, who led a committee that bashed the Fair Districts amendments as unworkable and fodder for lawsuits by Democrats.

Haridopolos helped propose another amendment — also on the ballot — that says lawmakers shall “take into consideration the ability of racial and language minorities to participate in the political process and elect candidates of their choice.” The amendment also says “communities of interest other than political parties may be respected and promoted.” That brings the number of redistricting amendments to three on the ballot.

Haridopolos said the new amendment “clarifies’’ the Fair Districts proposals.

Opponents say it causes confusion, in part because “communities of interest’’ isn’t clearly defined.

Senate Democratic leader Al Lawson and Democratic Sen. Gary Siplin, leader of the black caucus, sided with Haridopolos. In the House, Rep. Darryl Rouson of St. Petersburg was the only black Democrat who supported the Republican initiative.

Siplin acknowledged that he helped draft the amendment to “protect’’ senators like him. During redistricting, Haridopolos says, it’s also “possible’’ that a minority-heavy congressional seat in the Orlando area might be drawn with Siplin in mind.

This session, class size also returned as an issue now that the Senate reversed itself and approved the scale-back to the 2002 amendment. Republicans have opposed the amendment for years, saying it’s too costly in these lean times.

“Class size is all about finances,” said Rep. Juan Zapata, R-Miami.

Assuming that a school met the current average class-cap limitations, the maximum number of students in some classes would increase under the amendment to:

n 21 in prekindergarten through third grade. The current cap is 18.

n 27 in grades four through eight. The current cap is 22.

n 30 in grades nine through 12. The current cap is 25.

The FEA and its allies have vowed to fight the new amendment. “If it wasn’t for class size, there would have been no guarantee that schools were getting the money they deserved all these years,” said Sen. Alex Villalobos, R-Miami.

The Legislature is also saying no to health reform initiatives it doesn’t propose.

In response to President Barack Obama’s health reform mandate that nearly everyone purchase private insurance, Republicans passed the “Health Care Freedom’’ act. It says government can’t “compel, directly or indirectly, any person, employer, or health care provider to participate in any health care system.”

Rep. Scott Plakon, a Longwood Republican who sponsored the amendment, acknowledged that federal law trumps state law. He said the amendment would, however, block a future state Legislature from passing a state mandate, as Massachusetts did.

“People want freedom to make their own choices about buying health insurance,” Plakon said.