Supporters of ballot question face quandary


Published: Wednesday, January 10, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 9, 2007 at 11:23 p.m.

TALLAHASSEE — A group sponsoring a citizen initiative designed to give voters a bigger voice in local planning and development decisions may face an unintended consequence from its argument Thursday before the Florida Supreme Court.

Facts

FYI: Proposedamendment

  • It is designed to give voters a bigger voice in local planning and development decisions.
  • It will go on the 2008 ballot if the group collects at least 611,009 signatures.

The high court previously approved the ballot language for Florida Hometown Democracy's proposed state constitutional amendment, which would require local referendums on changes to city and county comprehensive plans.

It will go on the 2008 ballot if the group collects at least 611,009 signatures. Hometown Democracy has obtained 85,235 so far.

Now, the justices are separately considering a financial impact statement written by the state. It predicts the amendment would cause local governments to "incur significant costs (millions of dollars statewide)" although acknowledging "expenditures cannot be determined precisely."

Hometown Democracy attorney Ross Burnaman argued the high court lacks authority to review the statement.

The justices suggested if Burnaman is right, the statement then may go on the ballot without their approval although he also argued it is inaccurate and misleading.

"I'm darned if I do, and I'm darned if I don't," Burnaman told them.

On the other hand, Hometown Democracy could win by losing if the justices rule they do have jurisdiction. They then could reject the statement and send it back to the state's Financial Impact Estimating Conference to be revised.

At least a couple of justices supported Burnaman's view that the statement is inaccurate.

Chief Justice R. Fred Lewis said it is based on an assumption there would be frequent referendums although the initiative's intent is to discourage comprehensive plan amendments.

"To me, it seems like it's a scare tactic to keep our citizens from taking a look at the control of growth matters," Lewis said.

Acting Solicitor General Louis Hubener disagreed, saying the statement refers only to "millions of dollars."

"It doesn't say tens of millions or hundreds of millions," Hubener said. "I don't think there's an intent to exaggerate."

Justice Barbara Pariente also questioned the statement's accuracy, but Justice Raoul Cantero suggested the amendment would increase costs because special elections would be needed for changes that cannot wait until the next regular election.

Doubts about the Supreme Court's jurisdiction emerged after the Legislature revised a law dealing with the financial statements, required for all citizen initiatives, in 2004. Apparently, lawmakers inadvertently left out a provision that had allowed the attorney general to ask for Supreme Court reviews, Hubener said.

He argued the justices still could check the statements based on constitutional requirements for the attorney general to seek reviews of citizen initiatives and the Legislature to provide "a statement to the public regarding probable financial impact."

The reference to the attorney general applies only to the initiatives, not the financial statements, and providing a statement "to the public" doesn't mean it goes the ballot, Burnaman argued.

He also contended the law requiring the statements on the ballot is unconstitutional.

"You really have dropped — I hesitate to call it a bomb — a rather dramatic statement on us," said Justice Harry Lee Anstead. The justices, though, were reluctant to consider that issue in this case.

Burnaman said he probably first should challenge the law in trial court although it is unlikely to be considered there until enough signatures have been collected to get on the ballot.

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