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Amendment drives wrongly let arrogant legislators off the hook

By HOWARD TROXLER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 2, 2002

After 20 years of watching the process, I am in doubt. Maybe we need to get rid of petition drives for amendments to our state Constitution.

Not for the obvious reason, that there are too many trivial ideas that shouldn't be part of the Constitution, although that's a darned good argument.

Instead, maybe we need to get rid of petitions so that we citizens will have no choice but to reclaim our power over the Legislature.

I understand that the idea sounds backward at first. We are taught to think that petitions are our trump card over the Legislature. If politicians don't obey us, we still have petitions as a last resort.

But petitions have made us spoiled and lazy in Florida. Anybody with a gripe or a pet peeve can get up a petition.

As a result, we short-circuit our democracy.

The normal, broad-based, healthy dissatisfaction that ought to build up against a unrepresentative Legislature never happens.

Think of a tea kettle with a loose lid. Pressure never rises. Heck, we never even get a good whistle going. Any time a little heat occurs, it just hisses out the hole.

Successful political change in a democracy happens because many citizens, across a broad spectrum, come to agreement. Maybe they even get mad. But with petitions as an outlet, that broad spectrum never forms. Each individual group of citizens goes its own way.

The main beneficiary of petitions turns out to be the Legislature itself. The citizens are perpetually diverted.

Think of all the energy spent on pregnant pigs, or class size, or any other amendment over the past few years. Now think about all that energy put toward electing a better Legislature.

Besides -- once the citizens do pass their amendment, the Legislature just ignores it anyway.

Where's the bullet train?

We voters declared that polluters in Florida should pay for their cleanup -- where's the danged law? The Legislature wickedly refused to enforce it.

What has the Legislature done to make English our official language? (I didn't vote for that one, but it's on the books and ought to mean something.)

No. Amendments are a lousy way to command the Legislature to do anything.

Here is the only way to make the Legislature do what the citizens want:

Elect a different Legislature.

I know what the backers of petitions will say: That's impossible! They have too much money! They have rigged things in their favor!

But it is possible. History shows us time and again that no amount of money, and no amount of influence in Tallahassee, can stand up to a truly angry, aware public.

Over the years, a lot of smart people have suggested that Florida go in the other direction and allow more petitions, petitions for laws as well as constitutional amendments.

True, allowing petitions for laws would solve our problem of constitutional clutter. But it would bring a whole new set of headaches.

Look, we just nearly choked on a ballot with 10 amendments. Do you really want to wrestle through a ballot on Election Day with 10, 20, 30 proposed state laws to consider?

Besides, putting laws on the ballot by petition will only accelerate the growing trend of special-interest groups buying their way into an election. These amendments are becoming increasingly duplicitious, more and more murky. Tell me right now that you perfectly understood Amendment 1, that long monstrosity that dealt with the death penalty.

As long as petitions are in our Constitution, I defend the right of the citizens to use them, and oppose attempts by the government to thwart or disobey them.

But I hope the citizens will consider this argument. When the Legislature is out of step with the interests of Floridians, especially in the areas of education and environmental protection, the lack of change is almost inexplicable.

Maybe this is the explanation. I say, plug the holes in the kettle, let the pressure rise, and let's blow the lid off the joint.

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