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Tax change faces obstacle of legislators' own making

Published June 13, 2007


TALLAHASSEE - If and when the Florida Legislature asks voters to create a much bigger homestead exemption, the overhaul of the property tax system faces a major hurdle - one that was initiated by the Legislature itself.

Lawmakers recommended two years ago that it should be more difficult to amend the Constitution by requiring a supermajority of 60 percent for all future amendments, and voters approved it.

In Florida, a simple majority is no longer enough.

On the flip side, it's now easier to defeat a ballot initiative, by a minority of 40 percent plus one.

The change - believed to be unique among the 50 states - was pushed by business interests who argued it was too easy for interest groups to change the Constitution. Florida voters approved the higher threshold in November with 57 percent of the vote.

Two years ago, the Legislature's first proposal was to make the 60 percent threshold apply only to citizen-led ballot initiatives - not those amendments proposed by lawmakers. Facing criticism that they were creating an unfair double standard, legislators made the change apply to all proposed amendments - beginning with the tax-cut proposals now being debated.

The 60 percent standard passed the Senate, 37-3, and the House, 80-36, and voters passed it as Amendment 3 in the 2006 general election.

But in the opening days of this week's special legislative session, some South Florida Democrats say the proposal may be doomed to failure because state figures show that it would not clearly benefit most homeowners in the counties of Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach, home to about a third of the state's voters.

The proposed spending cuts have already sparked a local government revolt across Florida, but they also could mobilize teachers, firefighters and other public employees to actively campaign against the amendment.

Critics of the higher threshold, such as labor unions, workers' rights groups and election-reform advocates, said it was unfair to subject ballot initiatives to a different standard than elections for governor or president. They're now savoring the irony of a Legislature forced to confront the 60 percent to win passage of its own tax cut proposal.

"The irony is rich, " said Daniel Smith, a University of Florida political science professor who tracks initiative and referendum campaigns and who worked for a coalition that opposed the 60 percent standard. "I have to snicker at this."

But several lawmakers who championed passage of the 60 percent threshold say it was the right thing to do.

"That's what the amendment was designed for. It was meant to make a constitutional amendment harder to pass - not impossible to pass, " said Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, a sponsor of the measure in the 2005 session. "You need to make it a little more difficult."

Said Sen. Carey Baker, R-Eustis: "If we can't make the case strong enough to convince 60 percent of the people, it deserves to lose."

UF political scientist Smith said the Legislature's proposals would face a challenge even if a simple majority were needed for passage. Despite overwhelming sentiment that government spending is out of control, Smith said property owners may decide they would rather keep the existing Save Our Homes exemption.

He also said a steady stream of political ads on TV featuring teachers and firefighters could undermine public support.

"What they legislators don't have is the human face that schoolteachers and first-responders can provide, " Smith said.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at or (850) 224-7263.

Fast Facts:

Falling short of 60 percent

Here are some constitutional amendments in Florida that passed with less than 60 percent approval:

Require 60 percent approval for future amendments (2006): 57.8

Prevent confinement of pregnant pigs (2004): 54.8

Mandatory class-size reduction (2002): 52.4

Voluntary prekindergarten education (2002): 59.2

Save Our Homes property assessment cap (1992): 53.6

Source: Division of Elections

[Last modified June 13, 2007, 00:33:58]

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