Wednesday, January 25, 2006

STATE AMENDMENTS

STATE AMENDMENTS
Two proposals close to ballot spotsTwo petition drives to change Florida's Constitution -- one on anti-tobacco education, another on redistricting -- are closer to having spots on November's ballot.
BY MARY ELLEN KLASmeklas@MiamiHerald.comTALLAHASSEE
- Two citizens' groups announced Tuesday they have the signatures to strike back at the Republican-led Legislature by putting constitutional amendments on the November ballot that would enact what lawmakers have rejected: money for anti-tobacco education and an independent commission to draw legislative district lines.Floridians for Youth Tobacco Education proclaimed their place on the November ballot is all but secure with the verification Tuesday by state elections officials of 682,000 valid signatures.The group's proposed constitutional amendment would require the Legislature to spend 15 percent of the money Florida receives from its 1998 settlement with the tobacco industry on anti-smoking programs aimed at youth.The amount spent would be based on the 2005 budget and, adjusted for inflation, would amount to about $54 million a year. That is significantly more than the amount lawmakers have spent in the past several years, when they whittled back tobacco education money from a high of $70 million a year to about $1 million in each of the past three years.The signatures were collected by volunteers and paid signature gatherers over five months, ''a testament to the wide-ranging public support for this amendment,'' said Cheryl Forchilli, campaign manager for Floridians for Youth Tobacco Education. The coalition includes Florida chapters of the American Lung Association, the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society.The number of validated voter names exceeds the 611,000 required by law to bring the measure to the next hurdle: having the petition language approved by the Florida Supreme Court. The court is scheduled to hear arguments March 8.''It's going to pass overwhelmingly, and it's going to be a margin large enough for the Legislature to take notice,'' Forchilli said. ``The public is angry they have fallen down on their commitment.''Another group, the Committee for Fair Elections, believes it, too, has harnessed an issue that voters support and legislators turned down: a proposed constitutional amendment to create a nonpartisan, independent redistricting commission.The committee announced Tuesday that it has submitted more than 900,000 petitions to the state supervisor of elections for approval and has already had 580,000 of the signatures validated.The measure, backed by Florida Common Cause, Democratic legislators and a handful of former Republican leaders, would take the once-a-decade redistricting process out of the hands of the Legislature and give it to an independent commission. Every 10 years, in a politically charged debate, the Legislature uses Census figures to redraw boundaries for state House and Senate districts as well as congressional districts.''This is a terrific step forward for all Floridians,'' former Republican State Comptroller Bob Milligan said of the signature-gathering success. ``The process will mean that voters will be selecting their politicians, as opposed to the current process of politicians selecting their voters.''Republican legislators and Gov. Jeb Bush see it differently.They have aggressively opposed the proposed amendment and have financed an effort to persuade the Florida Supreme Court to declare the measure unconstitutional when justices hear arguments on Feb. 9.The measure's opponents argue that a bipartisan committee is likely to remain deadlocked over redistricting, throwing the job of drawing district lines to the Florida Supreme Court.''I don't think the Supreme Court should be drawing the lines,'' Bush said Tuesday. The committee would be ``independent until there's not a consensus and when there's not a consensus, which is almost guaranteed . . . then who draws the lines? The Supreme Court.''Democrats acknowledge they face obstacles to winning approval for the measure even if it makes it to the ballot. They fear the Republican-led Legislature will attempt to weaken support for the plan by putting a rival redistricting amendment on the ballot.''I know zilch about that,'' said Rep. Dudley Goodlette, a Naples Republican who has headed the legal team challenging the language of the redistricting commission proposal. He said Republicans are focused now on getting the proposal rejected by the high court.

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