Florida Supreme Court explains Amendment 5 decision
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Sept. 16, 2008 – The state Supreme Court delivered a message Monday to drafters of amendments to Florida’s constitution: Stop trying to mislead voters.The justices, in a 15-page opinion explaining their decision to strip a multibillion-dollar tax initiative from the ballot, said that case is just the latest example of “misleading ‘wordsmithing’” in ballot language.“Sponsors attempt to use phrases and wording techniques to persuade voters to vote in favor of the proposal,” said the unanimous opinion, written by Justice Fred Lewis. It warned amendment supporters to prepare summaries that are “straightforward, direct, accurate.”On Sept. 3, justices knocked off the ballot the Amendment 5 tax swap, which would have eliminated at least $8 billion a year in school property taxes in exchange for likely higher sales taxes. Justices, though, hadn’t explained their reasoning until Monday’s opinion.The Taxation and Budget Reform Commission, which meets every 20 years, drew up the tax plan and two school voucher amendments the state Supreme Court also removed from the ballot.Since 2000, the courts have struck down 18 ballot initiatives, often for vague or misleading summaries – compared to just one case in which voters rejected a plan at the ballot box. That came in 2002, when voters defeated an amendment authorizing revisions to Miami-Dade County’s home-rule charter.“Voters need to know what they’re voting for,” said John Sebree, vice president of the Florida Association of Realtors. His group supported Amendment 5 but also has turned to the courts to torpedo unfriendly initiatives in past years.In the tax case, justices said that voters would be misled or confused by a claim that local school property taxes would be replaced with an “equivalent” amount of state funds. In fact, the replacement revenue was only guaranteed for one year.Budget commission panelist John McKay, the architect of Amendment 5, called the opinion an “affront” to the group of appointed legal and legislative luminaries who crafted the 90-word ballot summary.“There was never any effort to try and pull the wool over anyone’s eyes, which is what they’re intimating,” said McKay, a former Senate president.But to Barry Richard, the attorney who argued for the amendment’s removal, the ruling strikes at what he sees as a broader issue of a “heavy dose of political rhetoric” being injected on the ballot.
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