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Crimping citizens initiative, or not?

Amendment 3 makes it harder to change the state’s Constitution and asks how direct our democracy will be.

By JONI JAMES
Published October 8, 2006


TALLAHASSEE — It’s the most-expensive statewide political campaign in Florida you’ve never heard of: Amendment 3.

But with just a month to go before the Nov. 7 ballot and at least $1.2-million set aside by supporters for advertising, that’s likely to change.

Amendment 3 will ask voters in November whether they want to make it harder to amend Florida’s Constitution by requiring a 60 percent approval for future constitutional amendments.

It sounds simple, but it’s not. The measure has created the oddest bedfellows seen in Florida politics for a long time. Consider for example Gov. Jeb Bush, who supports a 60 percent approval . He is on the same side as the state’s biggest teachers union and its most powerful business interests.

But neither man vying to replace him, Democrat Jim Davis or Republican Charlie Crist, backs the measure. Joining them in opposition are groups from the environmental Sierra Club to Florida4Marriage.Org, which is pushing a 2008 ballot question banning gay marriage.

The rhetoric on both sides is the stuff of high school civics textbooks: representative government vs. direct democracy.

The  representative side says the current system subjects the state Constitution to the dangers of an ill-informed electorate duped by ballot language funded by special interests. The  direct democracy side argues the current system is necessary to counter an arrogant Legislature that kowtows to special interests at the expense of voters’ will.

It’s a showdown that has been years in coming.

***

No one paid much attention in 2001 when two new rural state legislators, one Republican, one Democrat, filed bills to make it harder to amend Florida’s Constitution, which can now be done with 50 percent of votes cast plus one.
Rep. Joe Pickens, R-Palatka, and Sen. Rod Smith, D-Alachua, who recently lost his bid to be the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, both thought Florida’s Constitution was being amended too often and with  subjects, such as net bans and high-speed trains, that were better suited for state laws.

The pair’s big plan: Make it harder to amend the state’s Constitution but create a new system whereby citizens could propose and pass state laws through the ballot, rather than the Legislature.

Such a comprehensive scheme, endorsed by public policy groups, never got very far. The same business-backed groups supporting Amendment 3 wanted to block any new direct democracy measures, arguing that is what the Legislature is for.

And supporters of the current process worried lawmakers would ultimately rewrite any laws voters approved at the ballot, meaning voters would lose power.

But the Republican-led Legislature, at the urging of Bush and the business lobby, did eventually embrace three ideas sparked by Smith’s and Pickens’ push. The changes came after citizens initiatives on the 2002 and 2004 ballots added protection of pregnant pigs to the Constitution, forced a reduction in class sizes and required an increase in the minimum wage.

Lawmakers passed a new law requiring that ballot language for citizens petitions include statements saying how much they would cost taxpayers. And they successfully asked voters in 2004 to move up the qualification deadline for citizens petitions.

The result this year: Just one citizens ballot measure is on the November ballot, one that would require the state to dedicate millions each year to anti-tobacco education.

But lawmakers didn’t stop there. In 2005, at the urging of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Bush and others, the Legislature agreed to add Amendment 3 to the 2006 ballot to request the new 60 percent approval .

The reason is sound, even if it’s not the comprehensive reform he and Pickens envisioned, Smith said.

“I do believe one of the reasons the U.S. Constitution has been so venerable is because it’s been so difficult to change,’’ Smith said. “It’s protected minorities time and time again from the passions of any one given moment.”

But supporters of Amendment 3, organized under the banner “Protect Our Constitution,” take a slightly different tack, saying it’s too easy in Florida for well-moneyed special interests to sponsor citizens initiatives that change the state’s course.

Their examples: the 2000 proposal to create a statewide high-speed train, pushed at the behest of a Lakeland millionaire, C.C. “Doc” Dockery; or the gambling-backed 2004 amendment that allowed slot machines in South Florida; and the union-backed 2004 measure that raised the state’s minimum wage.

Low voter turnout means just a few of the state’s electorate can rewrite the state’s supreme document, changing the course of history, they argue.

“This is about preventing future tax increases and protecting our state’s Constitution,’’ said Mark Wilson, executive vice president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, who is overseeing the supporters’ campaign.

But opponents of the measure argue many of Amendment 3’s supporters are groups that have already accessed the citizens petition process and now want to close that door, such as the Florida Education Association, which supported the class size measure and has opposed legislative efforts to put another measure on the ballot to modify it.

Opponents, organized under the label “Trust the Voters,” argue it’s nothing short of a power grab by a Legislature that is already unresponsive to popular will.

Their evidence: Lawmakers for years rejected citizens’ cries to ban smoking in restaurants, raise the state minimum wage and reduce class size. All three have since been added to the state Constitution through the citizens initiative process.

“We decided the leader of the free world with 537 votes, why should we require in most elections a 1.5-million vote (margin) for just a citizens initiative?” said Panama City developer Charlie Hilton, referring to Florida’s razor-thin margin in the 2000 presidential election and a possible vote margin for a winning ballot measure. “That’s a double standard.”

Hilton is one of Florida’s best-known Republicans and a founder of the conservative Club for Growth. He leads the Trust the Voters group, along with the chairman of the anti-gambling group No Casinos and former Democratic  Gov. and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham.

No Casinos successfully thwarted multiple attempts by the gambling industry to expand gambling in Florida through the citizens initiative process, only to lose in 2004 when about 51 percent of voters agreed to allow slot machines in South Florida.

But that doesn’t mean the system should be changed, said No Casinos chairman Bill Sublette, a former Republican state lawmaker from Orlando.

“Those same lobbyists and special interests that block popular measures in Tallahassee now want to make it harder for the people to petition for changes in the law,” he said. “That’s not what democracy is about.”

Times researcher Deirdre Morrow contributed to this report.

[Last modified October 8, 2006, 21:58:19]


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