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Packaging, wording key for ballot proposals

With 25 potential changes to the state Constitution before it, a committee Thursday began debating how to group and define the proposals that may be headed to the November general-election ballot.

The Style and Drafting Committee, which is part of the state Constitution Revision Commission, has the complicated task of handling the 25 proposals, which were endorsed this week by the full commission.

Commissioner Brecht Heuchan, a Tallahassee political consultant and lobbyist who chairs the committee, said the primary focus will be deciding what proposals to group together, revising some of the proposals, deciding their order on the ballot and writing a title and ballot summary for each amendment.

“In my mind, I think we need to deal with the grouping and fixing before we can go to the ballot (language) drafting,” Heuchan said.

The task is daunting in the sense the committee will have to consider 25 proposals that range from an oil-drilling ban to a judicial retirement age to greyhound racing to health-care regulations to government ethics standards.

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But Heuchan said it was not an “impossible” challenge noting the last time the Constitution Revision Commission met in 1998, the Style and Drafting Committee had to wade through 36 proposals. The committee ended up grouping those into 10 amendments, with nine placed on the ballot and eight ultimately approved by voters.

The commission, which meets every 20 years and has the authority to place constitutional changes directly on the ballot, is facing a May 10 deadline for deciding what to present to voters this fall.

Commissioner Patricia Levesque, who leads a Tallahassee education-policy group, offered her advice to the committee based on helping develop a constitutional ballot package for the state Taxation and Budget Reform Commission in 2008.

Levesque said ultimately the most important job for the Style and Drafting Committee will be writing the title and ballot summary, which cannot exceed 75 words, for each amendment.

“Words matter,” Levesque said. “I would argue that the ballot summary is the most important thing to work on because the ballot summaries are the only things that the voters will read and see in order to know what they are voting on.”

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Levesque said the ballot language needs to be “clear and unambiguous” while meeting the word limit.

“It needs to be an explanatory statement. It’s not a campaign slogan,” she said.

Levesque said opponents of ballot amendments will argue the summary is misleading or “hides the ball,” implying it does not clearly state the true intent of the measure. And she said those issues can be raised in court after the commission finishes its ballot package.

“Even though the proposals we will end up voting on can go directly onto the ballot, it doesn’t mean that they will go directly on the ballot,” she said.

Another consideration for the committee is that there are already five constitutional amendments on the November ballot, including three placed there by the Legislature and two by citizens’ initiatives. They include measures on gambling, homestead tax breaks, restoration of felons’ rights and a requirement for supermajority votes by the Legislature on future tax and fee increases.

Several committee members questioned how many amendments the Constitution Revision Commission should advance.

Commissioner John Stargel of Lakeland noted that in the committee’s preliminary discussion of proposal groupings, the panel was still looking at more than a dozen ballot measures.

“I think that’s too many. I think there would be a pushback” from voters, said Stargel, a former lawmaker who is now a circuit judge.

Heuchan said he had no “preconceived notion” of how many amendments should be on the ballot, while saying the committee will have to try “to ensure that the ballot doesn’t get so long that it is hard to consume.”

The Style and Drafting Committee is scheduled to meet again on April 3, with the goal of finishing its work by April 13. The full commission is scheduled to begin debating the ballot package on April 16, with the goal of making its final decisions by May 4.

Any proposals advanced by the Style and Drafting Committee will require support from at least 22 of the 37 members of the commission to be placed on the November ballot.

The News Service of Florida provides journalists, lobbyists, government officials and other civic leaders with comprehensive, objective information about the activities of state government year-round.

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