In a swift ruling, with opinions to follow, the Florida Supreme Court today just threw out three controversial amendments relating to property taxes and school vouchers on the grounds that they were improperly placed on the November ballot and are misleading to voters.
The ruling comes just four hours after the court finished hearing oral arguments on challenges to Amendments 5, 7 and 9 in a fast-tracked hearing Wednesday, intended to produce a ruling in time for the Friday deadline for the Secretary of State to certify the official ballot.
In an animated one-hour session, the justices left no doubt that they had numerous questions about whether the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission, which meets every 20 years, exceeded its authority when it voted to place the voucher amendments, Amendments 7 and 9, before voters.
The court also pummeled the attorneys with questions about whether Amendment 5, which would reduce property taxes by an average of 25 percent and force lawmakers to replace the money with sales and other taxes, is misleading.
Opponents to Amendment 5, including a large coalition of business, health care, education and other interest groups, argue that the ballot language misleads voters into thinking that if they eliminate property taxes that pay for schools, schools will be protected from budget cuts. In fact, the amendment specifies that the legislature must protect school spending only the year the amendment takes effect -- in 2010-11.
Proponents say the first year is the most important year since that is when lawmakers would have to come up with replacement money. They say the guarantee is not implied beyond that single year.
But Leon County Circuit Court Judge John Cooper disagreed and last month declared Amendment 5 unconstitutional on the grounds that the language was misleading. Several justices repeated his reasoning Wednesday that the title and summary could confuse voters.
''The average person is going to read this and say, `Okay, those property taxes are gone but the state is going to put that same amount of money back into the school system -- I don't have anything to worry about,'' said Chief Justice Peggy Quince. ``What will put them on notice... that this isn't a feature of it?''
Mark Herron, the attorney representing the Florida Association of Realtors and other proponents, disagreed and said the amendment ''doesn't imply or infer'' that the money will be replaced.
But Justice Wells disagreed. The amendment implies that replacement money for schools is guaranteed, he said and, ``unfortunately, like I find with some warranties, it's not a lifetime warranty and I don't have any recourse.''
Cooper also heard challenges to Amendments 7 and 9 in July but left them on the ballot. The Florida Education Association and a coalition of education and civil liberties groups appealed the ruling. Their argument: the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission had no authority to place on the ballot proposals designed to constitutionally protect state-paid tuition vouchers at private schools and end the ban on state aid to religious groups.
At least four of the seven justices appeared to be persuaded by the opponents' reasoning that the commission must limit what it can place on the ballot to issues relating to the budgetary process, not just those that have a budgetary impact.
Florida Solicitor General Scott Makar, defending the commission, argued that its scope was not supposed to be limited to ''cramped, narrow reform'' but was ``supposed to be broad and remedial.''
Justices Barbara Pariente and Harry Lee Anstead, as well as Quince and Wells, challenged that conclusion.
''We all know that everything the Legislature does has an impact on the budget,'' Anstead said. By allowing the commission to focus on any issue that simply impacts the budget and is not limited to the process, he argued ``they could do anything.''
Pariente said she was concerned about the sweeping title of Amendment 7, ''Religious Freedom,'' which repeals the 100-year-old ban on direct state funding of religious institutions, including religious schools. She questioned what that had to do with the job of reforming the state's taxation and budget process.
''Seems to be to be as far afield as you can get,'' Pariente said. ``If they had proposed repeal of the class size amendment, which is really impacting the budget, I think they'd have a closer argument.''
Opponents also argue that the title of Amendment 9 -- ''Requiring 65 percent of School Funding for Classroom Instruction'' -- is misleading. They say that because nearly all Florida school districts already meet this standard, the goal of the amendment is really to reverse the Florida Supreme Court decision that threw out the private school voucher program for students in failing schools.
Justice R. Fred Lewis decried what he said was the ''game-playing'' that has increasingly enveloped the amendment process -- in which proponents try to snag voters with misleading or incomplete ballot titles and summaries.
''It's starting to become a game and these things ought to fly on their own merit,'' Lewis said.
''Why not require, if anyone wants to change the constitution, that it not be misleading, that it not engage in all these catchy phrases and political arguing that's popular today?'' Lewis added.
To make the point, Pariente read aloud the ballot title of Amendment 5, which says: ``Eliminating state required school property tax and replacing with equivalent state revenues to fund education.''
''Nobody in their right mind isn't going to think: `Isn't that a great idea','' she said.
Herron responded that voters would read the other 75 words -- beyond the ballot title --which more fully describes the amendment.
Quince then interjected. ``Even if the voter, voting on that title, reads the rest of the 75 words, where does it tell that voter that this replacement of state revenues to fund education is for the year 2010-2011 alone?''
After the hearing, Herron, who has successfully challenged and defended several constitutional amendment proposals, said he agreed with Lewis that the process of ballot wording has become too politicized and needs reform.
As to the prospect of restoring Amendment 5 to the ballot, Herron was more circumspect: ''I've gotten beat up a lot of times,'' he said. ``Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose.''