Money pours into Florida merit retention, amendment campaigns

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - As money floods into campaigns and ballot issues, a group that supports three targeted Florida Supreme Court justices has collected -- and spent -- $1.45 million, according to newly filed campaign-finance reports.

The group, Defend Justice from Politics, spent almost all of the money this month on advertising as it tries to help justices R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince win merit-retention elections. The executive board of the Republican Party of Florida and some conservative groups oppose retention for the justices, arguing they are too liberal.

Lisa Hall, a spokeswoman for the justices' supporters, said Defend Justice from Politics has started running television ads in the Tampa, Orlando, Miami and West Palm Beach markets. The ads describe the effort to defeat the justices as a "political power grab." Defeating justices in merit-retention elections would be unprecedented in Florida.

Along with the money spent by Defend Justice from Politics, the three justices also raised a combined total of $209,617 between Sept. 29 and Oct. 12, according to the new reports. That gave them an overall combined total of $1.36 million, with much of the money coming from attorneys and law firms across the state.

Defend Justice from Politics is one of numerous groups that are pouring money into campaigns before the Nov. 6 election. That spending shows up in finance reports that candidates and political committees filed this week before a Friday deadline.

Some of the biggest money is coming in battles about constitutional amendments.

As an example, a group fighting an abortion amendment on the November ballot raised another $684,426 between Sept. 29 and Oct. 12, bringing its overall total to about $3.1 million, according to the new reports. The group, Vote No on 6, received most of its money during the two-week period from Planned Parenthood organizations, which contributed $590,380.

Meanwhile, a pro-Amendment 6 group, Citizens for Protecting Taxpayers and Parental Rights, reported raising $133,923 between Sept. 29 and Oct. 12, bringing its overall total to $380,348. It has been heavily backed by dioceses of the Catholic Church and groups such as the Knights of Columbus, which contributed $100,000 this month.

Amendment 6, which the Republican-controlled Legislature put on the November ballot, includes a change that would say the Florida Constitution can't be interpreted to create broader rights to an abortion than those that exist in the U.S. Constitution. The state constitution has a right to privacy that led to a landmark 1989 court ruling that blocked a law requiring parental consent before minor girls could receive abortions. Amendment 6 also would make other changes, such as creating a constitutional prohibition on public funding for abortions.

As another example of money flowing to constitutional amendment fights, a group called the Public Education Defense Fund, which is affiliated with the Florida Education Association, received $750,000 from national teachers' union organizations between Sept. 29 and Oct. 12, the records show. The fund has received a total of $2.25 million this year, with much of the money going to fight two proposed constitutional amendments on the November ballot.

The fund this month sent $250,000 to a group opposing Amendment 3, which would place new limits on state tax revenue. Earlier, it provided $1 million to a campaign to defeat Amendment 8, which would repeal part of the state constitution that bans public aid to faith-based organizations --- a change the FEA fears could help lead to taxpayer-funded vouchers to send children to religious schools.

On the other side of the Amendment 8 debate, a group called Citizens for Religious Freedom & Non-Discrimination raised $133,823 during the two-week period and reported an overall total of $365,648. Like the group supporting Amendment 6, it is heavily backed by the Catholic Church.

Also, a national organization that supports school vouchers, the American Federation for Children, recently contributed $290,000 to a related Florida group that is sending out mail pieces, according to the campaign-finance reports. The contribution, dated Oct. 1 on the state elections website, went to the Florida Federation for Children, which is headed by prominent school-choice activist John Kirtley.

In July, the American Federation for Children also sent $300,000 to the Florida group. The records show that between Sept. 29 and Oct. 12, the Florida group spent $265,638, with almost all of it on direct mail.

In another big-dollar amendment issue, the Florida Association of Realtors and an industry political committee plowed $215,000 during the two-week period into a campaign to pass Amendment 4, which would further limit property taxes, according to the newly filed records.

The money was funneled through a group known as "Taxpayers First," which is helping spearhead the campaign. Taxpayers First has collected an overall total of about $4.27 million --- all of which has come from state and national real-estate industry groups.

Amendment 4 would prevent property assessments from going up when the value of property goes down, an issue related to the state's Save Our Homes law. Also, it would reduce from 10 percent to 5 percent the cap on annual assessment increases on non-homesteaded properties, such as vacation homes.

Copyright 2012 by The News Service of Florida. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.