Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The Corporate Takeover Of Florida

GROUPS SPLIT ON BALLOT ISSUE
-- BUSINESS BACKS BID TO HINDER AMENDMENTS

Orlando Sentinel by Jason Garcia



Tallahassee -- A coalition of some of Florida's most powerful corporations has
quietly raised almost $1.8 million in support of a November ballot measure that
would make it harder for voters to amend the state constitution.



Led by developers, agribusinesses, utilities and others, the group is promoting
an initiative that would require future constitutional amendments to be approved
by 60 percent of voters. Only a simple majority is needed now.



Dubbed "Protect Our Constitution," the organization is spending the
money on DVDs, bumper stickers and television advertising set to begin airing
next month.



"This is about protecting the constitution and protecting our business
climate," said Mark Wilson, an executive vice president and lobbyist with
the Florida Chamber of Commerce, which established the group.



Opponents argue it's already difficult enough to get an initiative on the ballot
and note that a number of high-profile amendments, including the 2002 mandates
for smaller class sizes and a statewide pre-kindergarten program, would not have
met the 60 percent threshold.



They also question the group's motives. Although the corporations contributing
to Protect Our Constitution have considerable clout in the state capital, they
have been stung by a number of successful citizens initiatives and threatened by
many more.



A host of industries, for instance, unsuccessfully fought the 2004 amendment
that raised the state's minimum wage.



Agribusinesses did manage to defeat a 1996 measure that would have levied a
penny-per-pound tax to raise money for Everglades cleanup, but they had to spend
close to $24 million to do so. And developers are worried about a proposal that
would make it much harder for local governments to rezone land.



"They don't like citizens having the ability to go around the Legislature,
which they can control through their campaign contributions," said Ben
Wilcox, the executive director of Common Cause Florida, which is organizing
opposition to the 60-percent measure, along with groups such as the League of
Women Voters and the AFL-CIO.



So far, the largest donor to Protect Our Constitution is the National
Association of Home Builders, which gave $300,000 in June, according to state
election records. The Foundation for Preserving Florida's Future, a
business-backed think tank set up to oppose the measure that would make it
harder for governments to rezone, gave $250,000.



Five organizations have contributed $100,000 each, including Blue Cross and Blue
Shield, Publix Super Markets, the Florida Association of Realtors and farming
conglomerates A Duda & Sons and Alico Inc. U.S. Sugar Corp. and a subsidiary
have combined to give another $100,000.



Five-figure donors include utilities such as Progress Energy Florida and TECO
Energy, developers such as The St. Joe Company and The Bonita Bay Group,
construction-products maker Rinker Materials Corp. and an executive with the
sugar grower Florida Crystals Corp.



Making it more difficult to change the constitution has been a top priority of
Florida's business lobby for several years and the Republican-controlled
Legislature agreed to the 60-percent idea during its 2005 session. But voters
must also approve the change before it can go into effect.



Self-interest aside, backers say it is simply too easy to amend Florida's
constitution.



They note that it has been amended more than 100 times since 1968, though most
of those measures were placed on the ballot by the Legislature and not by
citizens initiatives.



"Citizens have a right to change the constitution. It just ought not be
easy," said Steven Smith, a lobbyist for Blue Cross and Blue Shield.
"The document needs to be more sacred."





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