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Constitution under attack!

MARTIN DYCKMAN
Published January 18, 2004

TALLAHASSEE - A quick quiz: What is the greatest danger to Florida? (a) Terrorism. (b) Flooding from global warming. (c) The Legislature. (d) Voter initiatives.

If you answered (a), (b) or (c) you were wrong. Or so would say the Florida Chamber of Commerce, which regards voter initiatives as "the No. 1 threat to Florida's future."

This came from a chamber consultant the other day at a press conference aimed at making initiatives harder to pass.

The chamber and allied business groups want the Constitution amended to require two-thirds voter approval - rather than the simple majority that has sufficed since 1868 - for all amendments that come after. Not just initiatives, but all amendments, including those the Legislature frequently proposes.

The anti-initiative alliance, which calls itself VoteSmartFlorida, also wants the Legislature to put this on the August primary ballot to handicap the chances of any initiatives that might qualify for the November election, which include petitions proposing referendums on all land-use changes, a billboard ban and periodic sunset of most sales tax exemptions.

Obvious motives aside, the business coalition happens to be right on several points. The Constitution ought to be about basic rights and powers, not fish net bans, comfort for pregnant pigs, bullet trains or turf wars among special interests. The petitions should reveal, in plain language, who's paying for them. There need to be more than 91 days between the qualification deadline and the election.

But it is not necessarily too easy to get proposals on the ballot. It is too easy only for deep-pocket promoters, like the gambling lobby, who can pay professional canvassers $1.50 for each of the 488,722 signatures currently required. For genuine citizens' groups that care only about good government, the signature process is as tough as it needs to be.

There are better ways to protect the Constitution, but that's a subject for another day. For now, let's talk about those poll numbers the chamber touted as proof that public opinion is on their side.

The most striking, the one that legislators probably will hear the most about, found 81 percent agreement that there is a problem with initiatives.

Here's how that question was put: "If you knew there could be 50 constitutional amendments on next year's ballot, would you say that (1) this could be a problem because it will take everyone so long to vote, and most people will not have enough information about most of the issues or (2) it would not really be a problem (3) unsure." Considering how that was loaded, it's a wonder that only 81 percent said yes.

But the reality is that of those 50 petitions, fewer than 10 represent enough money or popular interest to be taken seriously. Most of the rest are, to put it politely, crackpot ideas that wouldn't even be listed by the secretary of state if the sponsors had to pay to file them. One of these would require every legislator to spend four days a year as a substitute teacher, which would be a truly fearful idea if this weren't the last you'll hear of it.

Another of the chamber's questions asked respondents to agree or disagree with this statement: "Usually, people just sign petitions because they want the person who is gathering the signatures to leave them alone, not because the person signing the petition believes in the cause." What impressed the chamber was that 50 percent said they "strongly" agree or "somewhat agree." Given how that was worded, it's just as impressive that 50 percent did not agree.

However, the supposition is probably true. I recall a casino solicitor, 10 years ago, pursuing me even after I told him I didn't want casinos in Florida.

"If you're against casinos you should sign our petition," he insisted. "This doesn't allow them where voters don't approve."

That was a half-truth serving as a lie. Without his petition, there would be no casinos anywhere. But of course the initiative process is not the only political venue that exploits half-truths. There is nothing the Constitution can do about that.

* * *

There's a rule that politicians disregard at their peril: Don't fire an employee who knows too much. For ignoring this, George W. Bush has Paul O'Neill confirming what many suspected about his administration's ideological incompetence.

There's a Florida example as well that I need to report to correct the record. Last Aug. 31 I reported that the Department of Juvenile Justice said it had not disseminated or acted upon written instructions from the governor's office to favor nonstate employees in hiring. Soon after, an employee who had been fired for refusing a random drug test - he's suing over that - said that simply wasn't true and provided names and other information to refute it. Subsequently the department conceded that the "Hiring Guidelines" had in fact been given to six of its administrators along with the advice that "We need to follow this whenever possible." As it happened, the agency's next major hire was an assistant public relations director who hadn't worked for the state.

I learned also that the memo had been distributed to all of the governor's other agencies, which are presumably just as diligent in following orders.

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