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OUR VIEW: The amendments

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  • | 4:00 a.m. September 23, 2010
  • Sarasota
  • Opinion
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Here we are again, on the cusp of another round of voting on amendments to the Florida Constitution.
There are no “pig-cage” amendments on this year’s ballot, but as always, there are controversial proposals. In the past two months, Florida judges have struck three of nine proposed amendments from the ballot, and those rulings all are being appealed.

Meantime, six proposed amendments are still on the statewide ballot, although even three of those are awaiting final state Supreme Court approval.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll analyze the amendments and provide recommendations. Our analysis always applies a fundamental question that serves as the basis for our recommendations: Does the proposed amendment protect and expand individual freedom, or does it restrict freedom? Almost always, if the answer is it protects and expands freedom, we recommend a yes. If not, vote no.

In this week’s installment, we address Amendments 1, 2, 5, 6 and 8.

Amendment 1
Article VI, Section 7. Summary: This proposes the repeal of the provision in the state constitution that requires public financing of campaigns of candidates for elective statewide office who agree to campaign spending limits.

Back in 1998, the Constitution Revision Commission put on the ballot a sweeping amendment that included six changes related to elections. This was on top of 11 other proposed amendments on the ballot. Voters were overwhelmed.

Of the six changes in the elections amendment, four were good. The mangy dog in the pack was the creation of taxpayer-financed campaigns. As usual, there were all kinds of prattle about big-money buying elections and how public campaign financing would “level the playing field” for the little guy/gal running against the rich guy/gal.

We advocated against public financing of political campaigns back then. Talk about criminal looting and a horrible transfer of wealth. Worse, we all know the saying about “voting for the lesser of two evils” — two candidates you don’t support. It makes no sense for your tax dollars to help elect evil.

When put to the freedom test, Amendment 1 passes. It will give us more freedom by taking power away from government bureaucrats to waste your money on enriching sleazy advertising agencies and political hatchet men who produce those slimy, mudslinging campaign ads. Vote yes.

Amendment 2
Article VII, Section 3, Section 31
. Summary: To require the Legislature to provide an additional homestead property-tax exemption for members of the U.S. military or military reserves, U.S. Coast Guard or its reserves or the Florida National Guard who receive a homestead exemption and were deployed in the previous year on active duty outside the continental U.S., Alaska, or Hawaii, in support of military operations designated by the Legislature. The exempt amount will be equal to a percentage of the taxable value of serviceman’s homestead property. The applicable percentage shall be calculated as the number of days during the preceding calendar year the person was deployed on active duty outside the United States, Alaska, or Hawaii, in support of military operations designated by the Legislature divided by the number of days in that year.

Typically, subsidies of any kind should be despised; they’re an unearned benefit.

But it’s difficult to reject a subsidy when it comes to those who voluntarily sacrifice and put their lives at risk in defense of our freedom and nation.

They volunteer to give up a lot — their families and personal safety and security, topping the list. There often is an opportunity cost. Many service men and women postpone their ability to advance in the private-sector work place.

As part of paying our debt to our armed forces for protecting our freedom, this subsidy would be a small price.

To some extent, you could argue Amendment 2 adds to our freedom. It rewards those who protect us, our nation and our freedom. Vote yes.

Amendments 5 & 6
Article III, Sections 20 and 21.
Summary: Legislative and congressional districts or districting plans may not be drawn to favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party. Districts shall not be drawn to deny racial or language minorities the equal opportunity to participate in the political process and elect representatives of their choice. Districts must be contiguous. Unless otherwise required, districts must be compact, as equal in population as feasible, and where feasible must make use of existing city, county and geographical boundaries.

Before examining these amendments, we have to wonder about them, particularly when we see some of the names behind the group sponsoring the amendment,

The group’s honorary chairs include a mix of Democrats and Republicans, an obvious attempt to make the amendments appealing to both sides. The Democrats: former Gov. and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham; former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno; and former Miami Mayor Manuel Diaz. The Republicans: former George Bush lawyer Thom Rumberger; and former Florida Comptroller Bob Milligan. And let’s not forget Nat Reed, founder of 1000 Friends of Florida (mostly a liberal group). In a head count, the Democrats outnumber the Republicans. That may suggest motivations — such as Democrats tired of Republicans controlling the Legislature and Florida’s congressional seats.

In any event, look at the language of the amendments: What they offer sounds great and fair. Everyone would agree that legislative and congressional districts should favor no one, especially political parties. And the wording of the amendments sounds as though they are intended to protect your freedom, i.e. make sure your vote counts.

But as they say, the devil is in the details. In a report to the Legislature on these proposed amendments, Florida lawyer George Meros of the Gray Robinson law firm wrote:

“ … The requirement that every district be drawn so as not to favor or disfavor any incumbent or political party will spawn challenges to virtually every district, census tract by census tract, without guidance on what ‘favor’ or ‘disfavor’ means in this highly specialized context.

“… The court will be required to create new legal standards for evaluating the intent of the Legislature and the political influence of minority groups to define the concept of compactness and to engage in a completely subjective analysis of whether the use of existing boundaries would have been feasible.

“… The new subjective and fact-specific inquiries will subject each district individually to attack, whether by political parties, incumbents, challengers or interest groups, and will invite a proliferation of experts to analyze each district according to the new constitutional standards.

“Adversary interests can be expected not only to assail the legislatively drawn plan but to present plans that each purport to comply with the constitutional mandate. The 30-day period allotted to the court will likely require it to appoint special masters to evaluate the evidence and argument presented by adversary interests.

“The Legislature … will be required to defend every boundary of every district against every attack … ”
Then multiply all of those challenges by 25 congressional districts. Aye-yi-yi.

The Legislature’s fiscal analysis of the amendments indicate they will increase litigation costs at least seven to 10 times those experienced in the 2000 apportionments. That would mean between $43.4 million and $62 million.

Suffice it to say the intentions of these amendments are good. But their practicality will be nightmarish. An avalanche of lawsuits requiring taxpayer funds to pay for them will constrict freedom, not increase it.
What’s more, as we look back over three decades of elections, there haven’t been constant complaints, injustices or lawsuits that Floridians are being denied proper representation because of the boundaries of their voting districts.

The authors of these amendments made a valiant attempt to depoliticize political redistricting. But their solution is one that will create a plethora of legal ambiguities. Under their model, draw a new district anywhere on the Florida map, and you can be sure anyone can — and will — claim to be an aggrieved voter.

Florida’s redistricting system — for all of its faults and albeit not to the minority party’s satisfaction — has been working for more than a century. Vote no on Amendments 5 and 6.

Amendment 8
Article IX, Section 1; Article XII, Section 31
. Summary: The Florida Constitution currently limits the maximum number of students assigned to each teacher in public-school classrooms in the following grade groupings: for pre-kindergarten through grade three, 18 students; for grades four through eight, 22 students; and for grades nine through 12, 25 students. Under this amendment, the limits on the maximum number of students assigned to each teacher would become limits on the average number of students assigned per class to each teacher, by specified grade grouping. This amendment also adopts new limits on the maximum number of students in an individual classroom: for pre-kindergarten through grade three, 21; for grades four through eight, 27; and for grades nine through 12, 30. This amendment specifies that class-size limits do not apply to virtual classes, requires the Legislature to provide sufficient funds to maintain the average number of students required by this amendment and schedules these revisions to take effect and to operate retroactively to the beginning of the 2010-2011 school year.

The original amendment limiting public-school class sizes never should have passed to begin with in 2002.
It took Floridians eight years to figure out the consequences that opponents spoke of then, namely it would be cost prohibitive. Yes, small class sizes are good. But they are not the magic elixir that automatically results in better student performance.

This amendment is a step toward more freedom. Let school districts decide their own class sizes. A better amendment would eliminate limits on class sizes altogether. Vote yes.

Next installment: Amendment 4, “hometown democracy.”


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