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New group opposes curtailing amendments

Trust the Voters' politically diverse leaders say a ballot proposal aims to discourage petitions to amend the Constitution.

By ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published September 16, 2006


TALLAHASSEE - Former Democratic Gov. and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, the chairman of a conservative think tank and a Republican ex-legislator joined Friday in forming a group opposed to a ballot proposition that would make it more difficult to amend the Florida Constitution.

Amendment 3, placed on the Nov. 7 ballot by the Legislature, would require at least 60 percent of voters casting ballots instead of a simple majority to approve any amendment to the Constitution. That includes those proposed by lawmakers as well as citizen initiatives.

Graham called it one of the most important decisions voters will make this year. "That is whether to take away part of our rights in this great democracy to be active participants through Florida's initiative process," he said at a news conference.

He said the 60 percent requirement would discourage citizens from even trying to use the petition process.

Panama City businessman-lawyer Charlie Hilton, chairman of the James Madison Institute, former Republican state Rep. Bill Sublette of Orlando and Graham are co-chairing the group, called Trust the Voters.

The Florida Chamber of Commerce has created a political committee dubbed Protect Our Constitution to support passage of Amendment 3.

Both sides claim to be aligned with Florida's citizens against special interests.

While most constitutional changes are offered by the Legislature, the debate is focused on citizen initiatives.

Mark Wilson, chamber executive vice president, said the amendment would discourage special interests from trying in effect to "buy" an amendment by paying petition gatherers to promote it to voters.

"They want to keep our Constitution for sale," Wilson said. "We want to return the process to the citizens."

Successful initiatives have included a ban on smoking in public places, class size limits for public schools, limits to tax increases on homes, creation of a universal prekindergarten program, limits on legal fees in medical malpractice cases and a minimum wage increase.

"The initiative process serves a useful purpose of riding herd over the Legislature and encouraging them to do things," Hilton said. "If they don't do it, the people can, if they feel strong enough about it, take it into their own hands."

An initiative that passed to protect pregnant pigs is often cited as the "poster child" for limiting amendments, University of Florida political scientist Dan Smith said. He said it has gotten a bad rap - in reality, it has kept environmentally harmful factory farms out of Florida.

The chamber's Wilson said Graham has a vested interest in keeping it easy to amend the Constitution.

Graham pushed a successful initiative to create the Board of Governors that oversees the state's university system. He also is backing a proposal for the 2008 ballot that would strip state lawmakers of their redistricting power and give it to an independent commission.

Sublette suggested businesses backing Amendment 3 are afraid of other future citizen initiatives dealing with growth management and sales taxes.

He opposes the measure even though he is chairman of No Casinos Inc., which failed to prevent passage of an initiative permitting limited casino gambling.

Sublette said Amendment 3 is an attempt by lobbyists and money interests to thwart the ability of citizens to bypass the Legislature. "The Tallahassee legislative process is dominated by lobbyists, special interests and big money," Sublette said.

The issue has put Hilton at odds with an old friend and business partner, House Speaker Allan Bense, R-Panama City.

"Pregnant pigs is the perfect example of things we don't need in our Constitution," Bense said. "It should be hard to amend the Constitution."

AMENDMENT 3 BALLOT SUMMARY

"Proposes an amendment to Section 5 of Article XI of the State Constitution to require that any proposed amendment to or revision of the State Constitution, whether proposed by the Legislature, by initiative, or by any other method, must be approved by at least 60 percent of the voters of the state voting on the measure, rather than by a simple majority. This proposed amendment would not change the current requirement that a proposed constitutional amendment imposing a new state tax or fee be approved by at least 2/3 of the voters of the state voting in the election in which such an amendment is considered."