Big spenders: a look at who is financing the constitutional amendments

When people look at the Florida ballot, their eyes glaze over as they come to the constitutional amendments. That’s understandable. The ballot is laughably long.

But the Florida amendments matter — at least they do to the people who are spending millions trying to sway your vote.

Take Amendment 8. It’s titled “Religious Freedom” and it would bar the government from denying funds to organizations or institutions based on “religious identity or belief.” The proposal also strikes the current state ban on using state money “directly or indirectly in aid of any church sect or religious denomination, or in aid of any sectarian institution.”

The Archdiocese of Miami is all in on this one. It has donated $84,195 in support of the amendment, according to an analysis by the Florida Center for Investigative Journalism, which looked at the money lining up for and against each of the 11 amendments. The archdiocese’s sister dioceses in St. Pete, Orlando and Palm Beach have each also kicked in tens of thousands of dollars. Knights of Columbus, the Catholic fraternal organization, forked over $100,000.

And yet, that’s tip-jar money compared to what opponents of the measure are pushing into the pot. The ACLU of South Florida dug deep, anteing up more than $180,000 to fight Amendment 8. Something called The Public Education Defense Fund (an arm of the Florida Education Association, says FCIR) has outdone the ACLU, throwing in a cool $1 million.

Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, acknowledged his outfit is “dipping into our reserves” to fight Amendment 8, but says it is actually part of a three-pronged attack on that amendment and two others: 5 and 6. Amendment 5 would give lawmakers greater sway over the makeup of the state Supreme Court while Amendment 6 expressly prohibits the use of taxpayer funds to pay for abortions or insurance that covers abortion (except in the case of rape, incest or when the health of the mother is in danger).

“This is really unusual for us,” Simon said. “We have a ‘rainy-day fund’ for emergencies.... Well, if you look at the Florida ballot, you know it is pouring. Three core civil liberties values — the independence of the courts, women’s rights and separation of church and state — are on the ballot for repeal.. We can’t stand idly by and let it happen.”

Simon said the ACLU is particularly irked by the title “Religious Freedom,” calling it a deliberate effort by lawmakers to hoodwink the public.

“Who’s going to vote against something called ‘Religious freedom?’ ” he asked. “You have to be a thoughtful person to realize that it’s not about religious freedom, it’s about money.”

As for the Miami Archdiocese, it is not only waging a battle for Amendment 8, but it has also joined the push for Amendment 6, the abortion amendment.

The archdiocese has matched its pro-Amendment-8 contribution, as have the dioceses in St. Pete, Orlando and Palm Beach, kicking in a total of $308,000 to support Amendment 6.

Explained Mary Ross Agosta, spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Miami, in an email: “It is not very often that we [do] this for ballot issues, but this is not the first time. We never promote a political party or candidate [but] we do talk about issues. The Catholic Church of the United States has always spoken out about issues — most recently, its opposition to the HHS Mandate [on insurance coverage for women’s contraceptives] due to its overlapping into our First Amendment right [to] religious freedom.”

She said the money to wage the political campaign comes from investments and not from the Sunday collection plate.

With so many constitutional amendments on Tuesday’s ballot, the FCIR thought it important to explain who was backing what.

“[Amendments] tend to be one of the most underreported items on the ballot,” said Trevor Aaronson, associate director of the center, in an email. “Yet these measures can have real and almost immediate effects on Floridians. In my view, one of the best ways to determine what a ballot measure would mean is to look at who’s supporting and opposing it and how much money they’re kicking in.”

For example, one of the big-dollar items is Amendment 4, which would rein in property-tax increases by taking protections now afforded to homeowners and extend them to commercial properties.

Opponents include the Florida Association of Counties, which says the measure will deprive its members of badly needed revenue.

But the deep pockets are on the other side. Supporters and their donations include the Florida Association of Realtors Advocacy ($2.05 million), Florida Association of Realtors Advocacy Fund ($1.7 million), National Association of Realtors ($500,000) and Realtors Political Issues Committee ($15,000).

For passage, an amendment must receive 60 percent of the votes cast on that measure. If a voter skips an amendment because he or she doesn’t know or care anything about it, it gives proponents — in this case, the real estate industry — more of a say.

“Real estate agents say Amendment 4 will invigorate the state housing market by increasing demand,” said Aaronson of FCIR. “That may well be true, but I’m not sure we need more demand. In Florida real estate right now, with the current shadow inventory backlog of foreclosures and would-be short sales, supply is the problem — not demand. So I think it’s hard to see how Amendment 4 will help the real estate market, while it’s pretty easy to see how it’ll make it more challenging for local governments to function.”

If you don’t know a lot about the amendments on the Tuesday ballot, you might want to find out. They could be important if folks are willing to spend this much money to influence the outcome.