Legislature Needs To Stop Stonewalling Citizen Initiatives

Feb 15, 2015 by

Does the Florida Legislature stonewall all constitutional amendments that pass or just the ones started by citizens’ initiatives?

We have numerous ways for our state Constitution to be amended. Of course, the Legislature can propose a change to the Constitution, with a three-fifths vote of both chambers necessary for the initiative to be placed on the ballot. Voters would still need to cast their ballots in sufficient numbers for the initiative to pass and for the Constitution to be amended.

A second, more costly and cumbersome way is for citizens to mount a citizens’ initiative campaign. This method requires ballot language and title to be reviewed by the Florida Supreme Court after the required number of voter signatures are gathered and validated. Then more signatures need to be gathered that are geographically spread throughout the state for the measure to be placed on the ballot. These initiative efforts generally cost several million dollars just to make it to the ballot — an ambitious commitment of time and resources.

There are a couple of additional methods used less frequently — the Constitution Revision Commission, which next meets in 2017; the Taxation and Budget Review Commission, which meets every 20 years, and the rarely used Constitutional Convention.

From 1978 through the last election, 136 constitutional amendments have appeared on the Florida ballot for voters to consider. The vast majority of them — 57 percent — were placed there by the Legislature, 25 percent introduced through citizen initiative, 13 percent by the Constitution Revision Commission and five percent by the Taxation and Budget Review Commission.

Concerned that the Constitution was being amended too frequently — despite the fact that they were proposing the most changes — the Legislature continues to make it more difficult for citizens to get their initiatives on the ballot. Additionally, they proposed an amendment to raise the vote threshold needed for passage to 60 percent. Ironically, it passed by 58 percent of the vote.

In 2014, three constitutional amendments made it to the ballot. The legislative proposal on judicial appointments was soundly defeated. The medical marijuana citizens’ initiative came up just a little short of passing.

Amendment One, on water and land conservation, passed overwhelmingly with 75 percent of the vote — a true mandate. Can those supporters who jumped through all the hurdles to get this to the ballot and then campaigned for its passage count on the Legislature to implement it as intended?

Based on past history, the answer is no.

When legislative leaders are asked to enact certain laws that they oppose, generally they just ignore the request. When citizens take the extraordinary measure of proposing a citizens’ initiative to force the issue, the Legislature generally expresses its opposition and sometimes mounts an indirect campaign to defeat the measure. A few examples come to mind — medical marijuana, casino gambling, and high-speed rail.

If the amendment passes, the Legislature generally drags its feet on the implementation, tries to water it down or tries to repeal or drastically alter it.

When the lottery amendment passed, the Legislature played a shell game of using lottery funds to replace rather than supplement basic education funding. The amendment supporters intended the funds to be used for education enhancements.

After the high-speed rail amendment passed, the Legislature dragged its feet on implementation for four years, giving Gov. Jeb Bush time to get the issue back on the ballot for repeal.

When attempts to place the “reducing class size” amendment back on the ballot for repeal failed, the Legislature got creative with the timing of the counts and the flexibility of counting within the school and then the district rather than the actual classroom. Rolling the class-size reduction funding into the per-pupil spending made it difficult to determine what was spent on class-size versus instruction.

The “fair district” amendments for legislative and congressional redistricting were pretty much ignored as the ongoing lawsuits are pointing out. Legislative leaders did make a concerted effort to make the process outwardly appear to be adhering to the voters’ wishes, but confidential documents appear to indicate otherwise.

And now we have Amendment One, which requires setting aside 33 percent of documentary stamp revenue for water and land conservation purposes. The Legislature is already claiming it will force other projects to be cut. It also appears we may be in store for another shell game like we witnessed with both the lottery and class size. Supporters are rightfully concerned.

The Legislature seems to fast-track initiatives that special-interest groups got on the ballot on their behalf as well as those legislatively initiated, such as parental notification, tax exemptions and higher education governance. And remarkably they seem to be implemented as intended.

Don’t the true citizens’ initiatives deserve the same?

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