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    A Times Editorial

    Legislature's unfinished work

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 20, 2002

    The budget battle in Tallahassee has taken such a bizarre turn as to call into question whether Florida is ready for self-government. Only the House had passed an appropriations bill, but the budget committees in both chambers have now proposed new versions, substantially different from each other, that are to be voted on Friday as take-it-or-leave-it ultimatums to each other. If neither flinches, the Legislature will have to go into overtime or schedule a special session.

    This high-stakes game of "competing, dueling, three-day budgets," as Republican Sen. Jack Latvala described it, turns on the Florida Constitution's requirement that the final version of the budget be on everyone's desk 72 hours before they vote on it. To change even a dime would mean restarting the clock. The Senate proposed to meet the deadline when it took up the House budget bill and rewrote it with floor amendments Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning. House leaders, meanwhile, drafted and circulated a new budget of their own Tuesday morning, sending it to senators' desks before it had even been discussed on the House floor.

    Under such circumstances, it would be impossible even for the leaders to fully understand important details of either bill. All that most senators knew, as the clock started ticking Tuesday morning, was that their proposal is better for education and social services and that the House's embraces an unconscionable $270-million corporate tax giveaway.

    Not so many years ago, when relations between the House and Senate were traditionally civil, it was taken for granted that major differences between the two, whether on budgets or anything else, would be worked out in conference committees that met and voted in public. This year, the first conference committee has yet to be appointed. Compromise, such as it may be, will be up to the whims of a handful of leaders and bill managers. Everyone else will be expected to do as they're told.

    * * *

    Direct democracy is carried too far when it results in proposals to amend the Constitution for such issues as smoking, elbow room for pregnant pigs and high-speed rail. But as Florida voters are most unlikely to give up the right of initiative, the Legislature should be looking for another way to protect the Constitution from being cluttered with issues that, however popular, simply don't belong there.

    Legislation pending in both houses (CS for SJR 940, CS for HJR 1131) would accomplish that result by requiring more petition signatures and a two-thirds vote at the polls for initiatives that would amend the Constitution. In exchange, voters would be able to write their own laws, and fewer signatures would be needed to start the process. These laws, like those originating in the Legislature, would be subject to revision by the Legislature and to the governor's veto.

    Though 26 states have the petition-initiative process, Florida is one of only three restricting it to constitutional amendments. Before adjourning, lawmakers should be sure to give voters the less drastic alternative of a statutory initiative.

    * * *

    Legislation passed by the House Monday (CS HB 1275) would partly clean up the mistake lawmakers made last year in requiring Bright Futures scholarship holders to take up to five examinations that could exempt them from required college classes in such basic subjects as English, mathematics, sciences, social studies and history. On the plus side, the new bill shifts the administrative burden from the individual colleges to the Department of Education, and it extends the testing requirement to Bright Futures scholars who attend the state's private colleges. But a major flaw remains: Students must take the tests even if they don't want to skip freshman English, math or whatever. Enabling those who wish to do so is a fine idea, but the motive in this instance is sheer stinginess; it's to push them through college faster. The Senate shouldn't pass this without making the test-taking optional. It should also pay close attention to a requirement that management of the program be outsourced. Such provisions are usually written with a specific vendor in mind.

    * * *

    For unrelated reasons, a federal court decision has voided the Florida law that prohibits making a campaign contribution in someone else's name. That's an invitation to corruption. Legislators have had all session to close this loophole, but they haven't come close. SB 1350 would do the job; failure to enact it would be inexcusable.

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