Lawmakers push limits on adding state amendments
The state Constitution is too cluttered, they say. But legislators still want a few amendments of their own passed into law.
By CARRIE JOHNSON
Published April 20, 2005
TALLAHASSEE - Blame it on the pregnant pigs.
When voters decided in 2002 to amend the state Constitution to protect pregnant pigs, the issue immediately became Exhibit A for lawmakers who argue that the recent proliferation of citizen initiatives is out of control.
So for the second year, the state's Republican leaders, backed by the influential business lobby, are trying to make it more difficult for citizens to amend the state Constitution, a right since 1968.
The most controversial is scheduled for a vote in the House today. It would add new restrictions to the petitioning process, including creating criminal penalties for failing to wear an ID badge while collecting signatures.
Two other proposals working their way through the Legislature this session are leftovers from last year and would require voter approval.
Supporters say the measures are needed to stop cluttering the Constitution with unnecessary or costly initiatives.
But legislators have no qualms about their own amendments. The first question on the November 2006 ballot will be a legislator-driven proposal to extend term limits from eight years to 12.
Others could follow, including:
A plan to change the Constitution to scale back the voter-mandated class size amendment and add a $35,000 starting teacher salary.
Requiring an election before tax money is used for a professional sports team.
A provision barring local governments from increasing real estate taxes for low-income, elderly residents.
An amendment repealing a measure that would yank a doctor's license after three charges of medical malpractice.
Lawmakers say their own amendments are more carefully analyzed for potential fiscal impact than the citizen initiatives.
They also argue that the process has been hijacked in recent years by special interests, such as the $36.7-million fight between doctors and trial lawyers that put three measures on the ballot in 2004.
But opponents say the Legislature is trying to deprive citizens of the only available method for circumventing politicians who ignore the public will. Several successful citizen initiatives, such as a ban on smoking in public places, the cap on class sizes and a ban on commercial fishing nets, came only after the Legislature refused to approve similar measures.
"Florida voters are using the amendment process because it's the only way for them to get their voices heard in Tallahassee," said Ben Wilcox, executive director of Common Cause Florida. "It's almost shameful that the Legislature is trying to take that away from them."
Lawmakers could put two of their ideas on the 2006 general election ballot.
One would ask voters to require 60 percent approval for all constitutional amendments, including those proposed by the Legislature, instead of a simple majority. The other would limit citizen petitions to issues affecting basic rights, government structure or items already in the state Constitution.
But citizens groups are most outraged by the bill scheduled to be heard by the House today. It would make it a first-degree misdemeanor for someone to gather petitions without a prominent ID badge. Paying people for each signature collected also would result in a criminal charge.
The bill would require groups to turn in signatures to local elections supervisors every 30 days. Late signatures would be thrown out. Only Florida residents could collect signatures for a petition, excluding college students and seasonal residents.
Supporters say the bill, sponsored by Sen. JD Alexander, R-Winter Haven, and Rep. Dudley Goodlette, R-Naples, will cut down on election fraud by deterring out-of-state organizations from using paid petition gatherers.
They point to an effort by the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, a nonpartisan group that bills itself as the nation's largest community organization of low- and moderate-income families.
ACORN and other groups raised enough money and collected enough signatures to add to the 2004 ballot a proposed constitutional amendment to raise the state's minimum wage.
But then reports of missing or late voter registration forms poured in, including more than 2,500 Pinellas residents and another 1,500 in Hillsborough. The majority of the late forms came from ACORN.
Similar voter registration problems involving ACORN were reported this year in Fort Lauderdale, New Mexico, Colorado, Ohio and Illinois.
Mark Wilson, senior vice president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, said Goodlette and Alexander's bill would eliminate such problems.
"Fraud is going on right under our noses," Wilson said. "All we're suggesting is that we simply close some of the loopholes in the petition laws. They're like Swiss cheese right now."
The petition laws in Florida are among the most permissive in the country, Wilson noted. Citizen groups have four years to gather enough signatures to get on the ballot - far longer than any other state, he said.
But critics say the bill creates unnecessarily harsh penalties. They accuse lawmakers of overreacting and say reports of abuse are exaggerated.
"You must have a fair balance," Sen. Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton, said at a recent committee meeting. "You don't want to make it more difficult, including treating everyone who is doing this like they're almost a felon."
Alexander said tougher penalties would prevent special interest groups from misleading the public.
"It's difficult to get at," Alexander said. "You get a bunch of kids from out of state coming in here, it's easy for them to fudge the lines. In the end, I believe this is about doing what we swore to do: to uphold the Constitution."
The measure has been approved by several committees in both chambers and is nearing the floor of the Senate.
But at a Senate Republican Caucus meeting last week, several senators worried that the public didn't understand the proposed bill.
"They really believe we are taking away their right to amend," said Sen. Nancy Argenziano, R-Dunnellon.
They asked the majority leader's office to launch a public relations campaign, including talking points for each Republican senator.
Times staff writer Alisa Ulferts contributed to this report. Carrie Johnson can be reached at 850 224-7263 or firstname.lastname@example.org
[Last modified April 20, 2005, 02:56:36]
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