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Column

Florida math isn't simple anymore

By STEVE BOUSQUET, Tallahassee bureau chief
Published January 26, 2008


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When it comes to amending Florida's Constitution, there is no such thing as a "simple majority" any more. That greatly complicates Gov. Charlie Crist's efforts to pass the property tax amendment on the ballot Tuesday.

Crist could win and lose at the same time. He could win by persuading a solid majority of voters - say 57 percent - to support Amendment 1.

That's a mandate by any definition.

But Crist could still lose, because a constitutional amendment needs 60 percent approval to take effect in Florida. A simple majority won't cut it.

Crist says his side's overnight tracking polls show the question hitting the magic number of 60, but not one independent poll has found that much support. A poll by the St. Petersburg Times, Miami Herald and Bay News 9 has it at 55 percent, with 30 percent opposed and 14 percent undecided.

That's within striking distance, to be sure. Crist's saturation TV advertising for the "Yes on 1" campaign - funded largely by Realtors and Florida Power and Light and reminiscent of his bid for governor - might be enough to produce a margin of victory.

John Balderson, 52, an unemployed computer networker who voted for the tax plan earlier this week in St. Petersburg, said he did so after seeing Crist's TV ad: "He's the governor. That little sound bite of his was good."

The underfunded opponents - cities, firefighters, labor unions and liberal grass roots groups - have only enough money for a hard-hitting series of mailings and a radio ad.

Crist is in the position of having to persuade Florida voters to cut their own taxes. But the cut is small, about $240 a year for the average homeowner, and it does not help renters and businesses. Opponents warn the modest cut is not worth risking the quality of essential government services.

The high threshold was approved by voters in 2006 at the Legislature's insistence for one reason: to make it much harder to amend the Constitution. It just so happens that Crist and his allies in the Amendment 1 fight are the guinea pigs who must try to clear the threshold for the first time.

"I'm not a strong proponent of it," Crist said of the 60 percent standard, as he campaigned in Jacksonville Thursday with a friendly group of real estate agents at Watson Realty's offices. "I like straightforward democracy at the 50-plus-1 level. But I understand those who felt that way."

Those who felt that way included leading business groups, and one of their strongest allies was Sen. Jim King, a Jacksonville Republican who pushed the 60 percent proposal for three years before it finally got enough votes to pass.

He still believes it was the right thing to do.

"We wanted people to have access to the Constitution," King says. "We just didn't want it to be easy."

It isn't easy, as Gov. Charlie Crist is finding out.

Ironically, the 60 percent rule was approved by 57 percent of voters on the 2006 ballot. Crist, who was elected governor with 52 percent in a three-man race, will clear the threshold Tuesday night - or realize how difficult it is to amend the Constitution.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com.

[Last modified January 26, 2008, 00:11:23]


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