Complexity, agenda help defeat 8 of 11 amendments
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) -- Style as well as substance likely played a role in the rejection by Florida voters of eight of 11 proposed state constitutional amendments.
The Republican-dominated Florida Legislature put all 11 on Tuesday's ballot. Most were designed to advance the GOP's conservative social and fiscal agendas.
The three amendments that won 60 percent approval, which all amendments must get to pass, were simple and easy to understand. They offered property tax breaks targeted to groups difficult to oppose: disabled veterans, low-income seniors and spouses of military personnel and first responders who have died while on duty.
The amendments that went down had a different style. Their ballot summaries often were complex, lengthy and written in hard to understand legalize.
Also, their substance was different. Most dealt with high-profile, hotly contested issues including abortion, taxpayer funding of religious organizations such as parochial schools, "Obamacare," capping state revenue and tax breaks for businesses and out-of-state residents who own second homes in Florida.
"It was like a cruise ship buffet that nobody could get through," said Deirdre Macnab, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida. "Florida voters should get an A-plus for doing their homework. For many voters it was like taking the FCAT."
That's the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, the state's standardized exam for public school students.
None of the losing amendments received even 50 percent support, much less the required 60 percent.
The league urged voters to reject all 11 amendments. It initially raised substantive objections, arguing that the proposals didn't belong in the Florida Constitution and that some attacked basic freedoms while others could have harmed the state's economy.
After getting more than 1,000 calls from voters who were confused and frustrated by the lengthy and complex ballot summaries, the league urged that they be defeated, as well, on style points. That would send a message to lawmakers to quit drafting proposals that only a constitutional lawyer can understand, Macnab said.
Supporters of Amendment 4, the broad property tax relief measure, poured $4.7 million into their campaign, led by the Florida Association of Realtors. The proposal, though, drew only 43 percent support at the polls.
"In a way, we were victims of our own success," said Trey Price, the association's public policy representative.
The Realtors and other business interests persuaded Republican lawmakers to increase the requirement for passing amendments from a simple majority to 60 percent and impose other restrictions on amendments offered through citizen-initiative petitions, although not those offered by the Legislature. They also participated in public awareness campaigns that urged voters to be cautious about making changes in the constitution.
They were worried about such proposals as the Hometown Democracy initiative that would have given local voters veto power over changes in comprehensive plans. Voters overwhelmingly rejected it two years ago, but they also resoundingly passed two other citizen initiatives that were strongly opposed by Republicans. The successful Fair Districts amendments, one each for congressional and legislative redistricting, are designed to curtail gerrymandering by the party in power.
The league was part of a coalition that backed the redistricting amendments. Unlike legislative amendments, the initiatives had to undergo review by the Florida Supreme Court to make sure their ballot summaries were clear and accurate and adhered to a 75-word limit.
The justices kicked back the amendments before the coalition got them right. Legislative amendments aren't bound by the word limit and don't undergo court review unless challenged through a lawsuit.
By contrast, Amendment 4's 690-word ballot summary was a "monstrosity," Price acknowledged. He said "shortening it would have been helpful."
Amendment 4 was so complex because it included three separate tax breaks. One would have benefited businesses and owners of second homes. The others targeted first-time home buyers and existing homeowners whose property values decline.
Price, though, noted that voters overwhelmingly approved a more complex tax relief amendment in January 2008. He said the difference then was that the amendment was the only thing on the ballot besides the presidential primary, and a popular governor, Charlie Crist, led the campaign. Gov. Rick Scott this year steered clear of the amendments, but if he had actively campaigned the unpopular Republican may have hurt them.
Besides being long and confusing, Amendment 4 drew strong opposition from local government officials, who argued it could have led to tax increases for longtime homeowners to make up for benefits that would have gone to other taxpayers including out-of-state "snowbirds."
Price argued that voters had been misinformed while Macnab said they simply did their homework.
"Clearly, the Legislature overreached," Macnab said. "I hope and believe this has been a wakeup call for the Legislature."
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)