Finally, something scares big business

By STEVE BOUSQUET, Tallahassee bureau chief
Published August 25, 2007

It's not easy to intimidate the business community in Florida, but big business seems truly terrified of the Florida Hometown Democracy ballot initiative that may be headed to voters in November 2008.

Simply put, Hometown Democracy is a proposed constitutional amendment that would require a vote on any land-use changes that conflict with a local government's plan for growth. If a developer wanted to put a Wal-Mart Supercenter in a spot designated for agriculture, it would be the voters - not local officials - who would have to okay it.

"Ballot-box zoning," critics call it.

The co-founders of Hometown Democracy, lawyers Ross Burnaman and Lesley Blackner, see a state dominated by the development industry. They want a statewide referendum on growth.

Backed by the Sierra Club and other slow-growth forces, Hometown Democracy is more than halfway to its required goal of 609,000 signatures.

Builders, developers and their allies know that the antidevelopment push will be unstoppable if it gets to the ballot, so their mission is to stop Hometown Democracy.

Here's how: by persuading people who have signed Hometown Democracy's petitions to change their minds.

Business lobbying helped persuade the Legislature to pass a bill this spring that, for the first time, allows voters to revoke signatures on initiative petitions. Several other states have similar laws.

Hometown Democracy this week filed a lawsuit in state court challenging the constitutionality of the revocation provision. But the law, signed by Gov. Charlie Crist on May 21, is already having an effect.

Associated Industries of Florida has birthed a political committee called Save Our Constitution, which will soon start handing out Florida's first state-approved petition revocation form.

Also, it has hired Randy Nielsen, a West Palm Beach political consultant, to run the revocation effort - proving, as some predicted, that petition revocation will become a cottage industry for consultants.

The strategy is obvious.

As AIF's chief executive, Barney Bishop, says, it's much cheaper to fight Hometown Democracy over signatures than at the ballot box.

What Bishop won't say is how many revocations he's trying to collect. (Hometown, unofficially, has 326,098 signatures so far).

The Florida Chamber of Commerce, equally against Hometown Democracy, has adopted a different strategy. The chamber, home builders and others have launched a ballot initiative, called Floridians for Smarter Growth, to convince voters that there's a smarter way.

Something else is at stake here as well: money, of course.

If Hometown Democracy gets on the ballot, business groups expect to have to spend tens of millions to fight it (estimates range as high as $65-million).

That means that money wouldn't be available to help pro-business candidates.

Bishop says AIF is not about to see Florida taken over by what he calls "no-growthers and some radical environmentalists."

Blackner delights in seeing a business community truly petrified by what she is doing.

"The developers run this state, and this goes to the heart of their power," she said. "We're seeing how they react when their power is threatened."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.