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Gambling, malpractice top amendment list

Voters will face eight questions on the ballot next Tuesday asking them to amend the Florida Constitution.

Times staff writers
Published October 26, 2004

The issues involved range from abortion to transportation to the minimum wage. Three of the amendments relate to medical malpractice and are part of an continuing clash between the medical profession and trial lawyers in Florida. Another amendment asks all the voters of Florida to allow voters in two South Florida counties the chance to expand gambling there. Some of the amendments have been the subject of expensive campaigns to influence voters.



Requires notification of parents of minors seeking an abortion

State lawmakers are asking voters to spell out in the Florida Constitution that a minor's privacy isn't violated by notifying her parents that she is seeking an abortion.

The strategy comes after the Florida Supreme Court, citing the state Constitution's right to privacy, has twice in 15 years struck down laws mandating parental involvement.

The proposed amendment also will require that the Legislature provide a mechanism for judges to waive the notification requirement in special cases.

Exactly what would qualify as a special case, however, would be left up to the Legislature. If the amendment passes, lawmakers are expected to write a law implementing the requirement during their regular session next spring.

Opponents, including the Florida Association of Planned Parenthood Affiliates and the American Civil Liberties Union, have said the notification requirement could endanger girls' lives.

They say the requirement would dissuade teenagers in less-than-ideal family situations, or those who are victims of abuse or incest, from seeking help. They say they fear the girls would take "drastic actions" to cope with their pregnancy that could result in death or injury. - JONI JAMES, Times staff writer


Earlier deadline for constitutional amendments proposed by initiative

Legislative leaders planned this election year to ask voters to overhaul how citizen-backed initiatives get on the statewide ballot.

But as the regular legislative session lurched to an ugly close May 1, lawmakers emerged with only one proposed reform.

Amendment 2 would move up the qualification deadline for submitting signatures for citizen-proposed constitutional amendments. The date would move to Feb. 1 instead of 91 days before a general election.

Legislative leaders tired of grappling with expensive citizen initiatives such as the class-size cap and the bullet train are joined by the Florida Chamber of Commerce in saying the change would provide more time for voters to digest the full implications of ballot measures before casting a vote.

They say most citizen measures concern issues more appropriately handled by the Legislature, not as amendments to the state Constitution.

But opponents, including a broad coalition of public interest groups, oppose the change, saying it would strip power from the public. They say moving the deadline will make it harder for grass roots efforts to collect enough signatures to place a measure on the ballot. - JONI JAMES, Times staff writer


Reduces lawyers' fees in injury cases

This amendment would limit the share of damages that patients' lawyers would receive in medical malpractice cases.

It's one of three medical amendments on this year's ballot, part of a fight between lawyers and doctors over malpractice laws.

In such cases now, patients' lawyers generally take no money up front, but receive 30 to 40 percent of any money the patient collects. The amendment would restrict that amount to 30 percent of the first $250,000 of an award and 10 percent of money above that, excluding court costs.

The amendment was proposed by a group backed by state doctors. They say lawyers already get far too much of the take when a patient is injured.

Doctors say lawyers could still get a hefty fee. One ad backing the amendment features a woman in a wheelchair, saying she was hurt by a doctor, but her lawyer took almost half the $1-million she won. The change would allow a lawyer to collect $150,000 in such a case.

A group started by state trial lawyers opposes the amendment. Many lawyers will no longer be able to afford the risk of taking cases on contingency if their fees are limited, it says. In the end, patients who are hurt won't be able to hire a lawyer.

Florida Supreme Court Justice R. Fred Lewis opposes the amendment for the same reason. The state Supreme Court agreed 5-2 to put the amendment on the ballot, but Lewis and Justice Harry Lee Anstead said the measure's real purpose is to restrict patients' abilities to pursue malpractice claims.

"This is truly a wolf in sheep's clothing," Lewis wrote. - LISA GREENE, Times staff writer


Slot machines in parimutuel facilities in Miami-Dade and Broward counties

If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.

Ten years after Florida voters, for a third time, rejected state-sanctioned casinos, a group of seven South Florida parimutuels are lowering their sights.

Amendment 4 would permit slot machines at existing jai alai frontons and dog and horse tracks in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, but only if local voters in each county also approve the expansion in subsequent elections. Any taxes collected would be dedicated statewide for education.

The group Floridians for a Level Playing Field has secured the endorsement of former state Education Secretary Jim Horne, who said it would improve school funding in a state where gambling is already prevalent, thanks to offshore cruises and Indian casinos.

Opponents, including Gov. Jeb Bush, say gambling is bad for Florida and the state doesn't need any more of it. - JONI JAMES, Times staff writer


Creates Florida minimum wage, starting at $6.15

An estimated 300,000 Florida workers would see a $1-per-hour pay hike next May if voters approve a $6.15 state minimum wage.

It would be the first time since Congress increased the federal minimum wage in 1997 that Florida's minimum wage increased.

But Amendment 5's impact is far more than a one-time increase. The measure also would require the state to reset the minimum wage every Jan. 1 based on inflation.

The result: The state's minimum wage would change, most likely increase, every year without additional legislative or voter action.

Florida's business community - from retailers to restaurateurs - is almost uniformly against Amendment 5, saying it will increase their costs, reduce jobs and drive up prices for consumers.

But don't expect to see any political advertising saying that. With early polls showing Amendment 5 drawing approval ratings as high as 73 percent, business groups statewide largely decided it wasn't worth their money to launch a counter-campaign.

Floridians for All, the St. Petersburg group that partnered with signature-gathering group Florida ACORN to qualify the measure for the ballot, argue the measure is aimed at fixing, once and for all, the lack of leadership in protecting Florida's working poor. They contend the minimum wage has lost 40 percent of its buying power since 1968.

Besides workers making the minimum wage, supporters estimate another 550,000 Floridians who make little more than $6.15 an hour will also see a bump in pay.

Tipped employees, such as wait staff in restaurants, would also see an increase from $2.13 an hour to $3.13. - JONI JAMES, Times staff writer


Repeal of the high-speed rail amendment

Amendment 6 is a question to voters: Did you really, really mean it?

It gives state voters a chance to affirm their decision or change their minds about the new statewide rail system they approved as a constitutional amendment just four years ago.

The amendment was propelled by Gov. Jeb Bush, whose opposition to high-speed rail projects dates back years, and steered through the legal maze by Tom Gallagher, the state's chief financial officer.

There is no question that the price has soared well beyond early, optimistic assessments. Officially, the cost of the first leg of the system, from Tampa to Orlando, is put at $2.6-billion, though opponents say the true cost would be more like $6.4-billion.

Bringing the rail system across Tampa Bay to Pinellas County and St. Petersburg could cost as much as building it from Tampa to Orlando, especially if the train required its own new bridge.

The next leg, from Orlando to Miami, likely will cost more.

Bush says the state can't afford it.

Opponents also argue that because the High Speed Rail Authority chose to put one Orlando stop near the Disney enterprises and the other at Orlando International Airport, the project effectively becomes a tourist train of little use to the state residents who will pay for it.

The citizen drive, Derail the Bullet Train, raised nearly $2.2-million during the first six months of the year to fund the petition drive to put the measure back on the ballot.

The largest contributions came from entities whose interests would not be served by the rail system, including road builders and Orlando-area theme parks in the International Drive area that lost a rail station to Disney.

Proponents of the bullet train say the state cannot continue building new roads and adding new lanes indefinitely, though new transportation initiatives are required by the state's continued growth. A better solution would be an alternative to private vehicles, they say.

And in the middle of a very busy hurricane season, advocates of high-speed rail mounted the additional argument that a bullet train would be an effective device to aid storm-triggered evacuations.

As long as the bullet train remains in the Constitution, the state will be obligated to find a way to build it, although the Legislature has all but cut off funds from the rail authority, slowing progress on the train to a crawl. - JEAN HELLER, Times staff writer


Patient's right to know about medical mistakes

This amendment would require doctors and hospitals to give patients and prospective patients information about mistakes they have made.

Much of that information already is reported to the state, but it is kept confidential. The amendment would require doctors and hospitals to release information about negligence, misconduct and other mistakes that either led or could have led to patients being hurt or killed.

The amendment specifies that patients hurt in such incidents would not be identified.

The measure is one of two sponsored by Floridians for Patient Protection, a group backed by state trial lawyers that also includes victims of medical errors. It is opposed by state doctors' and hospitals' groups.

The group says consumers should be able to use such information to help them choose the best doctors. It also says the measure would help improve patient safety by giving doctors and hospitals more incentive to cut down on errors.

But opponents say the net result would be that doctors and hospitals would try to hide errors by not reporting them, preventing further study of how such problems could be prevented.

They also say the amendment's real purpose isn't to improve patient safety, but to give trial lawyers more access to internal hospital reviews in malpractice lawsuits. - LISA GREENE, Times staff writer


Doctors with three medical malpractice incidents cannot be licensed

This amendment would require doctors to stop practicing if they have three strikes - either legal malpractice judgments or state disciplinary actions - against them.

Like amendments 3 and 7, it's part of a war between lawyers and doctors to change medical malpractice laws. This amendment is sponsored by Floridians for Patient Protection, a group backed by state trial lawyers.

Proponents say the measure is aimed at relatively few bad doctors, and that it's needed to get them out of business. But opponents say those doctors are weeded out already. They say the real impact would be to drive already scarce specialists in high-risk areas, such as doctors who do brain surgery or deliver babies, out of Florida.

The amendment would revoke the licenses of relatively few doctors. The state Board of Medicine has taken disciplinary action against only 13 doctors three or more times for substandard care. Just six of those are still practicing.

Data on doctors' malpractice verdicts is not precise, but one study suggests only a few hundred of the state's 33,000 practicing doctors have three or more judgments against them.

But doctors say the amendment would force them to settle lawsuits, even when they did nothing wrong, to avoid getting a "strike." They say doctors in high-risk specialties are often sued simply because their patients are more likely to die. - LISA GREENE, Times staff writer

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