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Don't use our money to oppose our rights

Published October 30, 2005

I have only good wishes for Allan Bense, the honorable speaker of our state House. He seems like a nice enough guy. He sure seems to be doing a fairer job so far than the last speaker, Johnnie Byrd.

Nope. No personal ill will whatsoever.

But what he is doing ought to be illegal.

Bense is spending up to $50,000 of taxpayer money to fight a citizen petition to amend our state Constitution. The House has hired lawyers at public expense. They already have filed arguments with the Florida Supreme Court.

This is the opposite of "conservative." It is the government claiming the power to fight the citizens in their most fundamental exercise of democracy - and to use the power of taxation to do it.

Somewhere, the ghost of King George III is smiling.

"I feel it is my responsibility," Bense explained in an e-mail to his fellow House members, "to protect our institution and the people of Florida."

Notice the choice of words. He has a "responsibility" to protect "our" institution. He threw in "the people of Florida," but, you know, it is those same "people of Florida" who are petitioning.

The petition in question (actually, three petitions) would take away the Legislature's power to draw its own voting districts, as well as the voting districts for Florida's members of Congress. An independent board would draw fair, competitive districts.

A lot of people think this is a good idea. The district maps in Florida are rigged. They are so rigged that not a single member of the Legislature was defeated in the last election in 2004.

No incumbents defeated, not a single one across Florida! We have lived to see the Russians hold more competitive elections than we do.

It is a problem across America. You might have read that California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is leading a fight for fair districts. Remember, too, the shenanigans in Texas, where U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay redrew voting lines at will.

On the other hand, some people are mighty threatened by the idea. They tend to be the people who have power now.

Republicans have the majority in the Florida Legislature, and many of them don't want competitive districts. Believe me, a lot of Democrats are happy with their own safe little fiefdoms and don't want to lose them either.

Even if you think the petition is a bad idea, please consider the separate issue of the government trying to block it.

It doesn't matter what particular petition we're talking about, and it doesn't matter whether the Legislature thinks it is a good or bad idea. The government still has no "right" to take a side.

It doesn't matter if the petition is to abolish the Florida House, or end the members' salaries and pensions, or make them hold their meetings buck naked with paper bags over their heads, or make the speaker wear fuzzy pink slippers.

The citizens are entitled to petition to change their government. Period. The citizens are the boss of the government. Period. It says so in the U.S. Constitution, and it says so in the Florida Constitution.

If Allan Bense thinks a petition is a bad idea, he too has fundamental rights under the Constitution as a private citizen. He can file private legal challenges if he wants. He can campaign against it on his own time. Who knows? He might convince a majority of Floridians to agree with him.

But he should not be permitted to fight it with my money, money that I am forced to pay to him by the power of law.

Once again, the noble exception in Tallahassee has been Tom Lee of Hillsborough County, the president of the Florida Senate. Understandably, many senators oppose the petition. But Lee said it wouldn't be right to spend tax dollars.

The temptation of power exists at every level of government, from City Hall to the White House. At no time is this temptation more dangerous than when the government seeks to block elections or to influence their outcome. When it comes to his role as House speaker, Allan Bense has exactly one "responsibility," which he took a solemn oath to fulfill, and that is to obey the Constitution, as the citizens of Florida see fit to enact it.

[Last modified October 30, 2005, 01:12:10]

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