Editing The Constitution – Developing News

July 10, 2010

Note: The Florida Constitution series of posts is officially veering slightly off course with this post on developing news.  However, upcoming posts on all the individual amendments are still planned.  Stay tuned.

In Florida we saw major developments this week regarding constitutional amendments on this year’s ballot. A gubernatorial candidate has sued to block the disbursement of funds under Florida’s constitutional public financing system. Meanwhile, a judge kicked a misleading legislative initiative off the ballot while arguments were being made in court regarding two other amendments. Finally, a special legislative session has been scheduled to add an amendment to the ballot to ban oil drilling off of Florida’s coasts.

Public Financing Challenged

Florida’s sickly public campaign finance system is on its least legs, with a legislative amendment on November’s ballot expected to deliver the final blow and end all public campaign financing in Florida.

In 1998, voters enshrined into the constitution a bare bones public financing system for some statewide offices. Unfortunately, despite the will of the voters, the system never gained much legislative support and now the Legislature is tired of spending perfectly good public money to help candidates compete when it’s stunningly obvious to everyone that raising private cash from corporations and wealthy influence peddlers or just outright buying the election for oneself is teh shit.

Unfortunately, the program that Jeb Bush referred to as “welfare for politicians” is probably doomed. The system is so broken and full of loopholes that it does little to help underfunded candidates compete, and the tide of special interest and corporate money has been rising in Florida just like elsewhere despite the public system.

There is absolutely no uprising in opposition to this bill, and with even public campaign financing stalwarts like Common Cause singing the death knell of the current system, this may be the last year for public financing in Florida.

But a funny thing happened on the way to amending the constitution:  Self-funded and now front-running gubernatorial wannabuy Rick Scott has decided that even the moribund and half-hearted system that is currently in place is too much to bear during this election cycle and he wants it all gone. Now.

The provision lets traditional candidates such as McCollum get tax dollars to subsidize their campaigns when they are being vastly outspent by independently wealthy candidates like Scott.

Scott must agree to limit his campaign expenditures to $24.9-million in the primary or else the state will give McCollum $1 for every dollar Scott spends over the cap. As Scott inches ever closer to that total, his lawsuit argues that the cap is a violation of his First Amendment rights because it restricts his free speech by benefiting his opponents’ speech.

“The (U.S.) Supreme Court has concluded that a Legislature cannot enact laws that provide benefits to a candidate’s opponents triggered by the candidate’s exercise of the right to use funds for campaign speech,” the suit says.

“The Supreme Court has also consistently concluded that restrictions on a candidate’s ability to spend his own funds, or funds raised from others, cannot be justified either by the government’s interest in reducing corruption or … equalizing the relative financial resources of candidates.”

Scott sued the Secretary of State, a state agency, and the case has political implications beyond the lawsuit itself. It literally could put McCollum, the state’s chief legal officer, on the defensive, because the attorney general routinely represents state agencies in court.

The legal action also highlights how McCollum is seeking help from taxpayers to fortify his campaign at a time when he is calling for fiscal austerity, budget cuts and a two-year freeze on local property tax increases on the campaign trail.

Scott wants an expedited hearing and a court injunction to block McCollum and the leading Democratic candidate for governor, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, from getting state matching money. The checks are scheduled to start flowing July 23.

That last bit is really important.  Scott may or may not be able to stay under the cap that automatically triggers state matching funds, but he’s more concerned with having to spend his personal funds to offset the state money that many candidates, including Democratic gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink, will get in a couple of weeks.

Scott told reporters he planned to limit his overall spending to keep from handing McCollum the matching money. “I believe we’ll be within that limit,” he said – though he also said he’d raise money for a so-called 527 group whose spending won’t count against the cap.

But another part of the law gives public money directly to candidates, based on the number of Floridians who gave $250 or less since last September. For gubernatorial candidates, there’s a two-for-one match of the first $150,000 in those contributions and a dollar-for-dollar match above that until the spending cap is reached. In 2006, candidate Charlie Crist collected more than $3.3 million in public funds.

That’s the money set to be distributed on July 23 regardless of any caps, and all the eligible campaigns are counting on it.  Rick Scott wont benefit from these funds and wants the possible lifeline yanked from both McCollum and Sink.

Amendment 7 Fail

If you’ve been following my still in progress series on Florida’s Constitutional Amendments this week, you may have noticed that we haven’t yet touched on the dueling redistricting amendments including the legislative initiative dubbed Amendment 7.

You read right: dueling amendments.  3 ballot positions.  At dawn.  Tuesday, November 2 2010.

Amendment 7 is a legislative initiative designed to undo the 2 citizen initiatives amendments 5 and 6 that immediately precede it on the ballot.

All three amendments deal with redistricting.  Amendments 5 and 6 reached the ballot via petition and include language that the Florida Supreme Court has already signed off on.  These amendments aim to bring a little fairness and sanity to the process of drawing political districts.

Our present system permits politicians to choose their voters instead of voters having a fair chance to choose their representatives. Legislators use sophisticated computers, voter registration data and past election returns to predict how particular voters will vote in the future. Then they choose which voters are most likely to vote for them and their party and place just enough of those voters in “safe” districts — ones they are sure they can win. Those in charge also pack large numbers of unfavorable voters in into a few districts so the unfriendly voters will have a chance to win in fewer districts.

Each district is rigged to accomplish a particular result. Districts are set up to be either Democratic or Republican and opposing party candidates do not have a chance. Only 7% of Florida’s legislative elections are really competitive. Voters do not have a real choice in selecting their representatives because the elections are rigged before they even start.

The Republican led Florida Legislature, known for neither fairness nor sanity, but being pretty good at dirty tricks designed to thwart the will of the people, threw together Amendment 7 which is deceptively designed to sound benign while ripping the guts out of the Fair Districts initiatives.

Luckily for the people, the fairly insane dirty tricksters that slapped Amendment 7 together are not very good at actually writing amendments that conform to the law which states that each initiative must cover only a single subject and that it must contain a clear ballot summary.

A judge on Thursday struck down the Legislature’s proposed constitutional amendment concerning political districts because, he said, it is too confusing for voters to understand.

Amendment 7 was drafted by the Republican-led Legislature in response to two other proposed amendments that a liberal-leaning citizens group placed on the ballot to make it tougher for lawmakers to draw political districts that favor a political party or an incumbent.

But the Legislature’s proposal — which lawmakers said would “clarify” the amendments of the Fair Districts Florida group — created far more confusion, Tallahassee Circuit Judge James Shelfer said in a ruling from the bench.

“I can hardly think that the average voter going in the voting booth would be able to make an informed decision,” Shelfer said. “It took me three days — in reading all of these cases, reading all of these briefings, hearing all of your arguments — to get a handle on what this amendment did and its effect on the existing laws and the Constitution.”

A written ruling by Shelfer is expecting in the next few days. The case will likely be appealed to the state Supreme Court.

One paragraph from Amendment 7 stood out as being particularly complicated. It says “the state shall take into consideration the ability of racial and language minorities to participate in the political process and elect candidates of their choice, and communities of common interest other than political parties may be respected and promoted, both without subordination to any other provision of this article.”

In a word, Amendment 7 was “gobbledygook,” said Ron Meyer, an attorney who argued against the Legislature’s plan on behalf of the NAACP, which supported the Fair Districts proposals.

Plaintiffs say they will appeal and try to get Amendment 7 back on the ballot. Meanwhile, a challenge to Amendments 5 and 6 brought by lawmakers, including a Democrat, who fear running in Fair Districts is getting under way.

Attorneys for the Legislature, losers in their effort to protect their proposed amendment in court earlier in the day, were back later Thursday before a different judge, arguing that the other two amendments also should come off . They argued that the Supreme Court’s OK of the amendments for the ballot – which must precede any citizen-backed initiative going to the voters – was merely advisory and didn’t take into account any factual arguments over what the amendment might do.

But the Florida Department of State, joined by FairDistricts.org and former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, who intervened in the case, argued that there has never been a case where a circuit court has overruled the Supreme Court’s consent to place a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot.

And in another twist, rumors are flying that a deal is in the works between the GOP Legislature (unfair and unsane) and No Party Charlie Crist (late to the party, but recently out of the closet as an open supporter of Fair Districts) to put an amended Amendment 7 back on the ballot in exchange for allowing Crist’s drilling amendment a spot.

Oil Drilling Amendment?

No Party Governor and Senate Candidate Chrlie Crist first raised the possibility of a special session to consider placing an amendment on the ballot to ban drilling off of Florida’s coasts in May.  Now he has exercised his constitutional powers and called the Legislature into session specifically to consider his proposal.

Crist, who is running as an independent candidate for the U.S. Senate, took the unusual step of invoking his power as governor to unilaterally call lawmakers into a four-day special session on July 20-23.

Normally, governors call special sessions after reaching an agreement with legislative leaders on the agenda. But facing an Aug. 4 deadline to get the amendment on November ballot, Crist decided to act on his own after being ignored by House leaders.

And now the political calculations begin on who will win or lose if lawmakers reject or accept the governor’s ultimatum. The outcome of the session could impact fall elections, ranging from the Senate race to the governor and Cabinet races to the legislative races.

The measure needs to pass both houses with 60 percent to earn a spot on the ballot, and although many Republicans hate the idea of a constitutional ban, right now, with the Gulf turning into a cesspool, not too many politicians are willing to commit to voting against it.

House leaders are generally cool to adding a proposed constitutional amendment banning drilling to the ballot. They point out that Florida law already bans drilling in state waters. They call the governor’s move a political stunt.

“It’s not productive to talk about re-banning something that’s already illegal,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Republican from Fort Walton Beach.

But lawmakers also know that banning drilling is a political slam-dunk in an election year with images of oiled pelicans, tar balls and empty beachfront hotels on voters’ minds.

“I congratulate the governor for at least giving the members a chance to vote on it before Election Day,” said Sen. Dennis Jones, a Seminole Republican who supports Crist’s independent bid for the U.S. Senate. “That way, the general public will have a sense of where their representative stands.”

A “no” vote poses a political risk to Republicans whose districts include sugar-white sand on the Panhandle, fragile estuaries on the Nature Coast or South Florida beaches vulnerable to the loop current.

Most of those lawmakers said they would vote for a ban or are leaning toward it.

Developing.

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