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Hometown Democracy Pushing for Crist Veto

Gov. Charlie Crist is being urged to veto the Legislature’s latest attempt at regulating shadowy political committees, with critics saying the measure may give local governments a new weapon to fight a controversial growth management proposal on the November ballot.

Supporters of Amendment 4, dubbed Hometown Democracy, are spearheading the effort to strike down a wide-ranging elections bill (HB 131) approved overwhelmingly by lawmakers last month. The legislation includes a provision that would tighten state oversight of political spending committees, but also relaxes a year-old restriction on campaign activities by cities and counties.

Since many governments have joined developers and business organizations in fighting Hometown Democracy, those promoting the amendment fear the legislation could give opponents added muscle to work against the amendment. On Wednesday, Crist spokesman Sterling Ivey said the governor’s office had received more than 500 emails, calls and letters demanding a veto.

Crist has until May 28 to act on the measure.

“We feel this is aimed specifically at stopping Amendment 4,” said Joyce Tarnow, president of Floridians for a Sustainable Population, among the organizations backing the growth measure. “It’ll give governments a chance to use taxpayers’ money against us.”

The Hometown Democracy amendment would require voters to approve changes to a city or county’s comprehensive plan. Environmental and civic organizations behind the measure say it stems from public anger over city and county commissions routinely overriding plan restrictions and giving the green light to projects -- often over community opposition.

Just as development interests are a powerful political force in most communities, most of the funding for the anti-Amendment 4 political committee, Citizens for Lower Taxes and a Stronger Economy, are business, real estate and builder organizations. The committee had raised just under $1 million, according to the latest campaign finance reports, with the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Associated Builders and Contractors, Publix, Wal-Mart, and commercial real estate associations among the biggest donors.

A poll last week by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, Inc., showed Amendment 4 supported by 61 percent of Florida voters – with only 18 percent opposed. But 60 percent voter-approval is needed for the measure to be added to the constitution, and well-financed opponents are expected to run a scorched-earth campaign against the proposal.

“We’re mostly focused on the fall,” said Ryan Houck, executive director of Citizens for Lower Taxes, saying the group was not aware of the call for a veto of the elections bill. “Whatever Hometown Democracy is doing, our donors are concerned more about the future of Florida’s economy.”

Along with Hometown Democracy supporters, the veto push has drawn support from the ACLU and organizations representing disabled voters. The legislation delays by four-years a planned requirement that counties provide a paper-ballot voting system for disabled voters by 2012.

Hometown’s concerns, however, center on the measure’s rewritten definition of “electioneering communication” – allowing cities and counties to use taxpayer money to send campaign flyers and advertise about ballot measures.

Concerned about heavy-handed promoting of city and county ballot issues by elected officials, lawmakers in 2009 limited such campaigning to messages considered “factual in nature,” although the legislation before Crist imposes no such standard on electioneering.

Those familiar with the legislation say the looser electioneering standard complies with a federal court decision last year that ruled unconstitutional an earlier Florida attempt to regulate political committees, committees of continuous existence, or CCEs, and so-called 527s that allow lawmakers and issue advocates to skirt state campaign finance laws.

Crist has already vetoed another measure (HB 1207) that would have imposed similar standards on political committees. But what doomed that effort was its tie to another provision that would have reestablished “leadership funds” – giving party leaders in the House and Senate absolute control over campaign contributions for legislative races, money that is now held by the state parties.

Vetoing that campaign finance bill and, later, a bill setting up a teacher merit pay system (SB 6) effectively dissolved Crist’s relationship with Republican legislative leaders and led him to break with the party. His campaigning as a no-party candidate for U.S. Senate has made this season of bill and budget action unpredictable for most lawmakers.

Hometown Democracy advocates, though, think Crist can appeal to a new constituency with a veto of the elections bill. They fear the new standard will allow local governments opposing them to send hard-edged messages to voters aimed at defeating Amendment 4.

Crist can further imprint himself as free from established political forces with a veto, they said.

“Otherwise, these governments will be able to do everything but tell you to vote `no’ and it will be considered appropriate electioneering under this bill,” said John Hedrick of Hometown Democracy.

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