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Have we forgotten what initiatives are for?

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© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 2, 2001

Petitions are being urged upon Florida voters to limit class sizes in public schools, bail out the sagging race tracks by giving them a slot-machine monopoly, provide a smoke-free workplace to everyone who doesn't work in a bar, and decriminalize drug abuse under the rubric of "right to treatment."

Oh yes, there is also a proposal to protect pigs from being penned in small cages during their pregnancies. Do I hear you laughing? The sponsors aren't. They're serious, and so is the money behind them.

If a couple of these initiatives are superficially appealing, the others are not only daffy but dangerous. What they have in common is this: Not one belongs in the Constitution.

But money can talk louder than common sense in the initiative process. To get something on the ballot and gull voters into approving it is easy, especially if you have pockets as deep as those of billionaire George Soros and two other rich out-of-staters who are bankrolling the "right to treatment" initiative.

Undoing the damage would not be easy at all. As lawyers and legislators often say, laws are written on paper but the Constitution is written in stone.

And so it would be written in stone, if Sen. Kendrick Meek's class size initiative succeeds, that within eight years there could be no more than 18 pupils in classrooms through grade three, 22 in grades four through eight, and no more than 25 in high school.

Think this through. Though the initiative obliges the Legislature to make "adequate provision" for this, it does not say how, and so the unintended consequences could easily be double or even triple sessions. Math at midnight. History at 2 a.m.

The proposal exempts "extracurricular" classes. Think this through, too. The inevitable result would be to award no more credit for chorus or band, where classes are necessarily large, or cancel them altogether.

I hate to have to take sides against any restriction on smoking. But a Constitution is at stake. The Constitution is no place to make a painful distinction between "stand-alone" bars and other job sites. What makes bartenders expendable?

What's more, no one needs protection more than infants and children in their own homes, especially if their carcinogenic parents are to have nowhere else to smoke. But this initiative is not about that.

The real sleeper is the Soros group's "right to treatment and rehabilitation" initiative, which would replicate California's Proposition 36 mandating treatment rather than jail for nonviolent first- and second-time drug offenders.

I am one who believes there is too little medicine, too much law and much too much hysteria in this country's drug policies. But I agree with James R. McDonough, who directs Gov. Jeb Bush's Office of Drug Control, to this extent: The initiative, as a constitutional amendment, is a bad bet.

Among other things, it provides that "if more than one qualifying offense . . . occurs during a single criminal episode, it shall be considered a single offense." Might "episode" be stretched to cover a year-long binge?

It also allows up to 18 months to complete "successful treatment." McDonough contends that's a license to stay on drugs for 18 months and a disincentive for addicts to cooperate with Florida's drug courts.

"It would really hurt treatment," he argues.

Whether he's right or wrong is almost beside the point. If this stuff gets into the Constitution, there is no changing it even if it turns out to be worse than he fears.

So please think about that before signing anyone's petition.

McDonough wouldn't be having his anxiety attack if the petition process were restricted, as it should be, to matters that are appropriate for a constitution, which of course does not describe such successful initiatives as the net ban and the bullet train.

It bears remembering why Florida has the initiative process. For half a century, the Legislature had blocked fair reapportionment. It took the U.S. Supreme Court to depose the Pork Chop gang. Their successors, in the first heady flush of freedom, determined that Floridians should never again be slaves to a brutish Legislature. But they had in mind grand constitutional debates, not such picky details as who can smoke, who can gamble, who can do drugs, or whether some animals are, in the Orwellian phrase, more equal than others. For goals like that, there is an older and safer remedy: Elect, if you can, lawmakers who will enact what you want. If you can't elect them, then maybe you shouldn't.

Though the initiative is long since out of hand, no one in Tallahassee has had the guts to do anything about it. I suggested to McDonough that Bush ask the Legislature for an amendment excluding objectives "capable of statutory enactment." Term limits would still have qualified by that standard.

There's one initiative circulating that deserves to be on the ballot -- the one providing for an independent commission to redistrict the Legislature and Congress. That does have constitutional dignity, but as there is no money behind it you will never get to vote on it. More's the pity.

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