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Prudent populism

The drive to reform the rules for tacking on amendments to the Florida Constitution offers a way to keep the electoral process from going to the highest bidder.

Published November 30, 2003

The game of constitutional gotcha may finally have gotten people's attention. With the creation of a Select Committee on Constitutional Amendment Reform, Senate President Jim King is offering a serious and long overdue look at how to remove the For Sale sign from the Florida Constitution.

King, in announcing the committee, acknowledged the political minefield ahead. "It is not my intent to eliminate citizen initiatives," he said, "as I understand and respect the voters' right to have their voice heard. But . . . I feel that, in order to preserve the integrity of the Florida Constitution, we need to make meaningful reforms to the amendatory process."

The problem is the method by which Florida lets citizens fight back. Of the 24 states that allow citizen initiatives to reach the ballot, only Florida and Illinois restrict them solely to the Constitution. That means, for example, if people think the law should protect pregnant pigs or that schools should have smaller classes, they have only one recourse to an unsympathetic Legislature: They petition to change the Constitution.

Worse, the constitutional amendment process has fallen captive to the very types of special interests that it was created to overcome. With the advent of paid signature gatherers, the power of the people has instead become the power of money. Want an issue on the ballot? All you have to do is write a big enough check. How else would Floridians have been asked three separate times in less than two decades to legalize casino gambling? (Voters rejected it all three times.)

The Legislature itself has been captive to some of these powerful interests, which partly explains why it has steered clear of the issue. Six years ago, the appointed Constitution Revision Commission also blew its chance, ducking from the controversy. But a funny thing has happened as the ballot in recent years has been used by environmentalists to attack the sugar industry, education groups to demand a bigger slice of the budgetary pie and a businessman who demanded a high-speed rail system. Enough politicians and business executives have seen the potential for harm that they are ready to support a change. The Florida Chamber of Commerce, a consistent advocate for change, has ranked it Priority No. 1 for the 2004 session.

Coalescing support for change is the first step. The trickier one may be coming up with a solution that respects not only the Constitution but also voters. After all, they will have to approve any change in the constitutional power that is vested in them. Toward that end, the most persuasive argument may be the simplest one: Pigs and trains don't belong in the Constitution.

"The reality is, we've got to go back to Civics 101," says Sen. Rod Smith, D-Gainesville, an attorney and constitutional scholar who was named to lead the select committee. "We need to talk about it all. The checks and balances and the use of direct democracy and the role of a Constitution are all in play and are all very important."

Smith favors a higher threshold, perhaps a three-fifths majority, of voter approval for any constitutional change, which is lower than the threshold required of states to pass an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The other possibilities include: offering voters a viable alternative to constitutional reform by letting them petition to change laws; increasing the number of signatures required to place an issue on the ballot (currently 8 percent of those who voted in the last presidential race); and bringing better oversight to the process of signature gathering and the groups that spend money on initiative campaigns.

The point is not to disenfranchise voters but to protect the Constitution. This is a document that is the blueprint for how government works, and it ought not be up for sale.

[Last modified November 30, 2003, 01:16:37]


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