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It's Fla. voters vs. the True Constituency

By MARTIN DYCKMAN
Published April 3, 2005


TALLAHASSEE - There was a scene in a Senate committee last week that laid bare once again the True Constituency of the Florida Legislature. No, you are not part of it. No mere voter is.

To explain a bill that bears his name, Sen. J.D. Alexander deferred to the lobbyist from the Florida Chamber of Commerce. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, the Senate's majority whip, a capable, respected and occasionally independent legislator, was at that moment just a front man for the True Constituency.

Frank Trippett, this newspaper's first Tallahassee bureau chief, coined that name four decades ago. Alexander's SB 1996 is hardly unique. But it is exceptionally gross.

Its purpose is to abolish the initiative process without a vote of the people to whom that hard-won right actually belongs.

It does that in half a dozen ways. One is to make it a second-degree felony, as heinous as burglary of an occupied dwelling, for anyone to pay or be paid, "directly or indirectly," according to the number of petition signatures collected. Another is to require petitions to be turned in to the supervisors of elections within 10 days after they are signed. These would not necessarily put the so-called "special interests" out of the initiative business, but they would cripple grass roots groups.

"If you were to hand the petitions out at a typical League of Women Voters meeting and come back the next month to collect them, they would be totally invalid," explains Betty Castor, who was nearly elected U.S. senator last year and is now involved in the most important initiative campaign in Florida's history, a fight for fair legislative districting. SB 1996 could kill it, and is probably meant to.

Disclosure is appropriate here: My son Benjamin solicited petition signatures for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) last year in the campaign to raise the minimum wage. He was paid by the hour rather than by the number of signatures he obtained, but each worker had a quota. So the word "indirectly" would have sent him to prison for 15 years. More likely, there would have been no campaign.

Purists pontificate that a minimum wage is not of sufficient "gravity" for the Constitution. Perhaps not. But it could never have happened any other way. The True Constituency never let the Legislature consider it. When it went directly to the people, they passed it in one of the largest landslides ever.

Having failed to destroy the initiative process in time to prevent that, the True Constituency is hell-bent on seeing to it this session that the people are forever put back in their place.

To that end, there are also constitutional amendments in the works. One would raise the approval threshold for all subsequent amendments from a simple majority to 60 percent. Another would limit initiatives - but not amendments proposed by the Legislature - to subjects that supposedly belong in the Constitution. The Supreme Court would decide.

But at least these new amendments are a fair fight - that is, they have to go on the ballot where a simple majority of voters could reject them. The public has no vote on SB 1996. I would not bet anything of value on a veto.

The pretext for SB 1996 is signature fraud. There has indeed been some of that, perhaps even a lot. But that is already a crime, for which the law also stipulates some fairly severe punishments. If catching the perpetrators is a problem, here is the reasonable remedy: Require paid solicitors to identify the petitions they turn in. How they are paid is none of the government's business.

The authors of Alexander's atrocity seem to have overlooked a fundamental fact: Any law that infringes on a constitutional right is subject to strict scrutiny. That means using the least drastic measure to correct a perceived problem.

The U.S. Supreme Court, having held that it is unconstitutional to limit what political candidates and committees spend, is unlikely to uphold any devious limits on how they spend it. Daniel Smith, the University of Florida political scientist who is an expert on initiatives, says Alexander's bill goes beyond what any other state has even attempted.

"It's another effort to insulate the Legislature from the people," says Smith.

The Senate Ethics and Elections Committee approved it 4-1, but its next stop is the Criminal Justice Committee. Rod Smith, the Gainesville Democrat who wants to be governor, is a member there. So is Victor Crist, R-Tampa. They may be your last hope to defeat the True Constituency.

Martin Dyckman's e-mail address is dyckman@sptimes.com