About All Those Constitutional Amendments

Oct 4, 2012 by

The Nov. 6 general election ballot is very lengthy. The culprit — 11 proposed constitutional amendments added by the Florida Legislature.

So before heading to the polls, familiarize yourself with the proposed changes and know how you’re going to vote. You might even want to consider voting by absentee ballot or take advantage of early voting.

I’m often asked for guidance on these complex issues. While I’m happy to share my thoughts, or to try to explain the pros and cons, here’s my general advice: understand the difference between changing the law and changing the state constitution. If approved, these 11 amendments would change our founding document. By contrast, laws can be changed each and every time the Florida Legislature meets in session — 60 days each year as a minimum.

The state’s constitution is the blueprint for how we organize our state government, and changes should not be taken lightly.

There are five ways to put proposed constitutional changes before voters: by legislative initiative, a citizen’s initiative, the Constitutional Revision Commission (CRC), the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission (TBRC) or the rarely used Constitutional Convention.

Until recently, Florida voters generally approved constitutional amendments. Of the 114 amendments proposed between 1997 and 2008, 92 were approved, while 22 were defeated. Of those that passed, the Legislature proposed 54; citizens, 23; the CRC, 10 and the TBRC, 5.

Despite having proposed most of these amendments, in 2006 the legislature led an initiative to make it more difficult to amend the constitution — requiring that changes be approved by 60 percent of voters. Ironically, the amendment passed with 58 percent of the vote.

The change seems to be having an effect [1]on the outcomes. From 2002 to 2006, 31 of 32 proposed amendments passed. In 2008, after the the new threshold came into play, five of six proposed amendments passed. In 2010, only three of six passed. Will the trend continue this year with 11 amendments before voters?

Good, impartial analyses of the amendments are available on several websites. I recommend the analyses by the Collins Center [2], and the Tampa Bay Times’ guide [3].

This year, five proposed amendments deal with taxation. Most sound appealing, but be mindful that counties would take the biggest revenue hit, which could mean a decrease in services.

A health care amendment represents the Republican legislature’s attempt to nullify the individual mandate of the Affordable Healthcare Act, commonly referred to as Obamacare.

An abortion amendment prohibits the spending of public funds for any abortion or for any health-benefits coverage that includes the coverage of abortion.

Another amendment repeals the state’s ban of public dollars for funding religious organizations.

One amendment would allow Florida State University’s student government to compete for the student seat on the Board of Governors without having to join the Florida Student Association. Really. I kid you not.

Two are most troubling. Amendment 3, referred to as TABOR, was tried in Colorado with dismal consequences. Its proposed revenue cap could prevent government services from keeping up with demand. Elected officials should make these decisions based on the current economic climate and the need for services and infrastructure. This is the responsibility of the legislature and legislators should be held accountable for their decisions.

Then there’s Amendment 5, which would further blur the line between two separate but equal branches of government — the legislature and the courts. It would give the Florida Senate the power to confirm Florida Supreme Court Justices, the people who will rule on the constitutionality of laws that senators pass. This change could have a chilling effect on the independence of the court and lead to its politicization.

Before voting, ask yourself these questions:

Do I agree with the intent of the amendment?
Am I sure this amendment does what I think it does?
What might be some unintended consequences?
Then, if you favor the amendment, ask yourself: Does this issue belong in the state constitution?

If you feel strongly about the amendment, by all means vote “yes.” But if you feel it does not meet the threshold for changing the constitution — even if you agree with the issue — vote “No.”

Once changed, it would take a repeat of the process to fix. It cannot be changed through general law.

Voters have a responsibility to be informed. Know how you’re going to vote before you enter the booth. And if in doubt on changing the constitution, know that a “No” vote is the safer choice.

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