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Tough choices for voters in November

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By MARTIN DYCKMAN, Times Associate Editor

© St. Petersburg Times
published May 5, 2002

TALLAHASSEE -- There may be some tough choices on the ballot this November, and I'm talking not about the candidates but about ballot questions. None of the circulating initiatives has enough verified signatures yet, but it's not too soon to be thinking about how to vote in the event they do. So far, only three amendments are actually on the ballot, all proposed by the Legislature.

Amendment 1, titled "excessive punishments," would change Florida's Declaration of Rights, which forbids "cruel or unusual" punishment, to read "cruel and unusual," the same as the federal Constitution. It would require the Florida Supreme Court to interpret those words as the U.S. Supreme Court does, establish the death penalty as an "authorized punishment" and empower the Legislature to choose "any method of execution" allowed by the U.S. Constitution.

This one is awful. First, it's unnecessary. Nobody at the Supreme Court is even dreaming about doing away with the death penalty. Secondly, it's little more than a legislative hissy fit over the court having struck down a similar 1998 amendment because of a misleading ballot summary. They had put that one on the ballot for fear that the court would outlaw the electric chair. This became moot when the Legislature itself got queasy over the chair and opted for lethal injection.

The only remaining effect would be to override a Florida Supreme Court decision barring death sentences against 16 year-olds, which no other civilized nation still allows. Sponsors of the amendment last year promised a law exempting 16-year-olds, but guess what? They neglected to pass it.

Amendment 2 would require the Legislature to provide for preparing and printing cost estimates on the ballot with proposed initiatives.

This is a clunker, too. It's hard to argue that voters shouldn't be told what it might cost them to vote for something like high-speed rail, as they did two years ago. But Amendment 2 applies only to initiatives. I'm waiting to hear one good reason why it isn't a good idea for what legislators put on the ballot, too. The distinction, Attorney General Bob Butterworth has warned with respect to a proposed bill, may be a violation of the federal Constitution's equal protection guarantees.

The Legislature has a bad habit of making rules only for other people. Amendment 1 is a case in point: The ballot summary runs on for 549 words, more than three times as long as the actual amendment. This means enormous trouble and expense for election supervisors and more confusion for the public. Supervisor Ion Sancho in Leon County, which uses optical-scan ballots, says Amendment 1 will take up an entire page, after which many voters will forget about the questions that follow. It apparently will take up four full screens on some of the new touch-screen voting computers.

What about the law limiting ballot summaries to 75 words? It doesn't apply to the Legislature. How convenient. This distinction is probably unconstitutional, too.

Amendment 3 updates home rule for Miami-Dade County. That ought to be their call alone, and I know of no reason why anyone else should oppose it.

As for the initiatives:

The pregnant pig amendment? Sorry, no. Florida has few pig farms, but we allow initiatives, so the national animal rights movement is exploiting us to send a message. There's no way that this belongs in anyone's constitution, and certainly not so long as ours overlooks human health.

On that score, however, the initiative most likely to make the ballot calls for "prohibiting workplace smoking." This is not as easy a call as one might wish it to be. Ideally (but see below) this should be the subject of a law, not a constitutional amendment. Moreover, it doesn't go far enough. Aimed primarily at restaurants, it exempts bars, and it does nothing for those who need protection the most: children whose parents smoke at home. But if the election were today, I'd vote yes because the Legislature on this subject acts as if were a subsidiary of some tobacco company.

It is also obvious that our legislators will never get serious about education (e.g., taxes) without being whacked in the head, which is why so many people seem to like the initiatives for smaller class sizes and universal pre-kindergarten schooling. I know, I know. These probably don't belong in the Constitution either.

But I can not agree, as one newspaper recently did, that we should set our minds instead to electing a better Legislature. This is like being told to find a better electric company. Most districts are rigged to be noncompetitive; one party, most often the Republicans, is sure to win. That's the not-so-well-kept dirty secret of every districting scheme. In the House two years ago, 21 seats went for the filing, mostly to incumbents; another 7 were settled in the primaries, and 32 were won in November with landslides of 60 percent or more. In other words, voters had limited choices or no choices at all for exactly half the House seats. Under the new plan, it can only get worse.

And they wonder why there are so many initiatives?

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