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Ghost of Jeb wins: Vouchers is on the ballot

With their hallmark piece of tax reform safely on the  ballot, opposition melted Friday against a proposal to enshrine into the state Constitution a protection for private school vouchers.

The Taxation and Budget Reform Commisison voted 19-6 to give voters a chance in November to

undo a 2006 court ruling that struck down a school voucher program. The citizen panel meets every 20 years and has the power to put amendments directly on the ballot. Its vote Friday followed a hard-fought debate on Thursday when it agreed to place a major tax reform before voters: to ask them to eliminate property taxes that pay for schools and force the legislature to expand and raise sales taxes to replace them.

This will be the second amendment on the ballot designed to reverse the court ruling. The panel already approved an amendment that would remove the constitutional ban on using taxpayer money for religious-based or church-run schools and institutions.

Three members of the panel reversed their vote on the voucher element from two weeks ago, when it failed to get the 17-vote margin needed to get onto the ballot.

Supporters called it a "measured and limited" proposal, saying it would have a positive impact on the state's balance sheet and open the door to innovation and options in education for decades ahead.

Opponents scolded the commission for not exercising self-restraint, bringing an ideological proposal, first sought by former Gov. Jeb Bush, into the budgetary mission.

"I don’t know why you think it’s within your mandate or your mission when this exact same legislature has the ability to put things on the ballot,'' said Rep. Dan Gelber, a Miami Beach Democrat and non-voting members of the commission. He warned it tainted the commission's mandate with something that is "really a frolic and ideological pork.''

Opponents attempted and failed to get protections in place to make sure vouchers only go to school that are safe, efficient and high quality while the proponents attempted to narrow the amendment to make sure it does not create an entitlement for people have their private education funded with public money.

"A free public school system is the corndersotne of a free society,'' said Martha Barnett, a commission members and Tallahassee lawyer. "I understand different people require different kinds of educaitonand we need to accmodate that but I believe that public dollars should be spent on public ecducaiton and I bleive the people of the state of Florida agree with me on that.''

The panel has already placed six amendments on the ballot, including the tax swap plan. It next will vote on requiring schools to spend at least 65 percent of their budgets in the classroom. That could be its last action until it meets again in 20 years.