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A 'price' on ballot items is more than we can afford

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By HOWARD TROXLER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published May 1, 2002


In the election of 2000, Florida voters overwhelmingly approved a high-speed rail system. The idea got on the ballot by a citizen petition. The ballot did not give voters the slightest idea of the potential cost.

This coming November, if new petition drives succeed, Florida voters might be asked to require smaller classes in public schools, universal pre-kindergarten care and who knows what else, again with no price tag.

It's easy to be in favor of an idea in general, without thinking about the cost. High-speed rail? Sounds really cool. Smaller classes? Who could be against that?

But in the real world, before you buy something big, you have to decide how much you can afford, and what else you might have to give up to pay for it.

This is Gov. Jeb Bush's argument. This week, he is asking the Legislature to change the rules. From now on, he suggests, Florida's ballot should include an estimated price tag for any measures that come from citizen petitions.

"It's a good, common sense proposal," Katie Muniz, the governor's communications director, told me in an interview.

"It's a fair and honest approach to give the citizens some idea of how much the proposal would actually cost."

And yet, I have to be a brat here and pull the fire alarm. Without some big-time strings attached, there are dangers in this idea even if it is well-intentioned.

Remember that the purpose of a citizen petition is to force the government to do something the government does not want to do.

The right of petition is a safety valve. The people of Florida have used it time and again to force their will on a stubborn, prideful or lobbyist-controlled Legislature.

But now we are talking about giving the government -- the same government that didn't like the idea in the first place -- the power to stamp its own number on top of any citizen proposal. The number will be cooked up by a mechanism to be determined by "experts" from, no doubt, the government. (You don't think the Legislature will let the citizens come up with the number, do you? Or require the same kind of price tag for any measures it puts on the ballot itself?)

Listen:

The right place to debate an idea's expense is the public square.

That debate is the stuff of speeches, and debates, and soapboxes, and protest marches, and rallies, and letters to the editor, and Internet sites, and newsletters, and citizens' groups, and brochures, and commercials, and even, sweet heaven help us, the newspapers.

But not the ballot itself -- especially not with government-calculated content.

Having said all this, I admit Bush's idea will probably pass. The Democrats of Florida are trying to get smaller classes and other feel-good stuff on the ballot by petition. This would make life much harder for the Republican governor and Legislature, who actually have the responsibility of governing and making tough budget decisions.

Therefore, in the spirit of surrender and constructive suggestion, here are elements that any such law should include:

An independent calculator. The state already uses "estimating conferences" to create many of its official predictions. No one agency or branch of the government should be able to dictate the number.

An avenue of appeal. Some neutral referee, probably the Florida Supreme Court, should be able to hear a complaint from the citizens that the state has cooked the books and order changes.

A seat at the table. The citizens who have proposed a ballot measure should be able at least to observe, if not take part, in the estimating process.

A chance for equal time. In the end, if the citizens' group still disagrees with the government's calculation, it should be able to explain why in its own rebuttal space on the ballot.

Does all this sound clunky, inefficient and easy to screw up? You bet.

But if we are going to allow the government into the business of ballot-writing, then we ought to make it as tough as possible for the government to stack the deck.

It is the conservative thing to do.

-- You can reach Howard Troxler at (727) 893-8505 or at troxler@sptimes.com.

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