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Once again, politicians are meddling busybodies

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By HOWARD TROXLER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published July 17, 2002


It is unfair for the government of Florida to try to thwart citizen petitions by making up its own "price tag" for what the idea would cost, and putting it on the ballot.

It is dirty pool, no matter whether the citizens have proposed a good idea, or a bad idea. Whether an idea is good or bad, costly or prudent, is entirely a matter for debate in the private sector.

The outcome of an election is none of the government's business.

The government is our hired help. The government exists to do what we tell it to do. The government does not exist to tell us how we are supposed to vote, even when sweetly disguised as mere "information" intended to "help" the voters.

This is not to say that elected leaders can't have opinions about public issues. Of course they can. They can speak out all they want. But things quickly get murky when you start talking about spending tax dollars or using government power to influence an election.

Being opposed to government meddling in an election is profoundly conservative. The opposite viewpoint -- that the government has a "duty" to "inform" the voters in an election campaign -- is profoundly and radically statist.

My opinion has been consistent over the years, regardless of whether the meddlers in question were Democrat or Republican. In 1994, I wrote that Gov. Lawton Chiles was wrong to use the power of his administration, including ordering up bogus "reports" from every state agency, to fight a casino gambling referendum.

Earlier this year, the officeholders of Tarpon Springs used tax dollars to try to convince the voters to repeal their term limits. They lost. Last fall, the Legislature proposed, oh so innocently, placing a poster in each voting booth lecturing to voters that they should "study and know candidates and issues."

It was too short a step away from "educating" the voters on how to vote -- which, a few months later, is exactly what happened.

In the case now being debated in Florida, Gov. Jeb Bush and the leaders of the Legislature did not like an amendment to our state Constitution, requiring smaller class sizes in public schools, that will be on this year's ballot. So they rammed through a law allowing the state to attach its own cost estimate to the ballot.

The class-size amendment would require no more than 18 students per class in grades K-3, 22 students in grades 4-8 and 25 students in high school classrooms. It would be phased in by 2010. Previous estimates put the cost at up to $12-billion. Armed with its new law, the state produced an estimate of, presto, change-o, up to $27-billion.

Make no mistake, the class size measure is a Democratic plan to bypass the Legislature, which is run by Republicans.

It is a plan to sell an easy, snap answer to the voters, regardless of the consequences.

It is a plan to drop a multibillion-dollar skunk in the governor's lap.

Like the governor, I am not crazy about the class-size amendment. I am not sure it belongs in the Constitution. I am not convinced of the idea on its merits, not convinced that one size fits all, regardless of setting or subject or student or parent.

Unlike the governor, however, I say the citizens are entitled to their election, totally unencumbered by the government.

The Constitution gives the citizens a right to petition. Enough citizens signed the petition to force an election. They met all the rules for getting on the ballot. They are entitled to hold their election, fair and square.

To say that the Legislature can then come back and doctor up the ballot renders the right of citizen petition meaningless.

On Monday, a state judge in Tallahassee blocked the state from enforcing its price tag law. The governor declared that "common sense" would prevail, and promised to appeal.

Common sense would be for the governor to drop the appeal and use his bully pulpit to campaign against the idea on its merits.

If the governor of Florida honestly believes that he is entitled to rewrite the Florida ballot to "inform" the voters as he sees fit, then he has caught the very Tallahassee disease that he campaigned against.

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

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