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In Florida, the Perfect Time for a Populist Uprising on Development?

A ballot measure in Florida would create new obstacles to development. It's opposed by many business groups, unions, developers, planners, local governments and newspaper editorial boards. But, with the esteem of many of those groups at an all-time low, could it pass anyway?

I first became acquainted with Florida's Hometown Democracy movement a couple of years ago when I was reporting a story on the relationship between elected officials and the ballot measure process. To summarize 2,000 words in about five, it's a love-hate relationship. Elected officials sometimes find it convenient to use ballot measures to achieve their policy objectives, but often they view initiatives as usurping power that is rightly theirs.

Hometown Democracy was a multi-layered illustration of this point. Hometown Democracy is a citizens' group that is pushing an initiative to require changes to local land-use plans to be approved by a majority vote of the public before they can go into effect.  In other words, the group is trying to use direct democracy to expand direct democracy.

Lawmakers in Florida responded by using direct democracy to fight an expansion of direct democracy. State legislators put a measure on the ballot to change the standard by which constitutional amendments can be approved by the public, pushing the threshold froma simple majority to a 60% vote. Voters approved the change (with 58% of the vote) in 2006. Legislators' motive, in part, was to make the Hometown Democracy Amendment less likely to pass.

That was only the most dramatic of many efforts by the political establishment in Florida to block the measure. Supporters have been trying to get the measure on the ballot sine 2003, but have been tied up in legal battles and have struggled to get the needed signatures. Finally, the measure will appear on the ballot this November as Amendment 4.

Something occurred to me while I was reporting a story on Amendment 4 today: It's possible that by delaying the measure's appearance on the ballot, opponents actually made it more likely to pass.

Amendment 4 is opposed by pretty much the entire political establishment in Florida. Many business groups, unions, developers, planners, local governments and newspaper editorial boards are against it. But, in the current political climate, it strikes me that the esteem of those sorts of organizations is at an all-time low. Likewise, what better place and time could there be for a measure that's really about creating obstacles to new development than a state that's being devastated by foreclosures, arguably because it was over-built?

I doubt Amendment 4 will pass. The opponents seem much better-funded than the supporters. But, if there's any year when it could pass, it's this one.

Josh Goodman is a former staff writer for GOVERNING..
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