TALLAHASSEE, Fla. Florida’s November ballot will be shorter by three proposals one that would have traded a huge property-tax cut for other tax increases and two others designed to expand school-voucher programs.
The Florida Supreme Court unanimously removed the proposals on Sept. 3. The seven justices did not immediately explain their decisions, but during oral argument earlier in the day, they fired tough questions at lawyers who supported the proposed amendments to the state constitution.
The state Taxation and Budget Reform Commission, which meets once every 20 years, had offered the proposals. The justices ruled quickly because today is the deadline for finalizing the Nov. 4 ballot. Six other proposed amendments have not been challenged.
The high court affirmed Circuit Judge John C. Cooper’s decision to remove Amendment 5, the tax swap, after he found its title and ballot summary misleading.
The justices, though, reversed a separate decision by Cooper, of Tallahassee, to keep the two voucher amendments on the ballot.
Amendments 7 and 9 would have undone court rulings that struck down former Gov. Jeb Bush’s voucher program, which had let students from failing public schools go to private schools at taxpayer expense.
No. 7 also would have repealed a provision that bars state financial aid to churches and other religious organizations. Another part of Amendment 9 would have required school boards to spend at least 65% of their budgets in the classroom.
“In rejecting the measure, the court backed clear, unambiguous constitutional amendments not proposals that mask their true meaning,” said Florida Education Association President Andy Ford.
The statewide teachers union opposed all three amendments, partly on grounds they were deceptive. Ford and others argued the amendments failed to mention vouchers, although they would have protected such programs from legal attack and opened the door for creating more.
Although the failing-school program was struck, two others for disabled and low-income students remain.
But those, too, may be in jeopardy, Bush said in a statement.
“These programs, as well as 350 charter schools in our great state will remain in limbo, under the real threat of litigation from individuals who want to centralize all education decisions within government bureaucracies,” Bush said.
The tax swap involved cutting property taxes about 25% by repealing most of the levy that goes to schools. The Legislature then would have been required to replace that money from other sources, potentially a higher sales tax or budget spending cuts elsewhere.
Those “hold harmless” dollars, though, would have been mandatory only for the 2010-11 budget year. After that, lawmakers could have cut school spending, but the title and summary didn’t say that.
The voucher amendment opponents included Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the American Civil Liberties Union.
“It’s naive to think this is the end of the battle,” said ACLU of Florida executive director Howard Simon.