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Keep citizens in our amendment process

 

By:  Dan Gelber

 


Published: March 10, 2005
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This year the Legislature will likely seek to dramatically roll back the ability of voters to amend our state Constitution. It would be wrong to do this without providing another means to force the Legislature to consider proposals and issues the public has raised. Thus, any measure limiting citizens' rights to amend the Constitution must also include a process that still allows citizens to change Florida law through statewide initiative.

Regrettably, Florida's legislatures have a penchant for ignoring the will of the electorate. For decades, many ideas deemed important by citizens were simply ignored by their elected leaders. But faced with an unresponsive Legislature, citizens didn't give up their principles or deeply held convictions. While enacting legislation is in the sole domain of the Legislature, our Constitution also enables citizens to enact changes through a citizen initiative that, in essence, overrides the Legislature by placing an idea directly into the Constitution.

It was to this initiative process that Floridians turned to compel adoption of Florida's much heralded Sunshine Laws; to force Everglades clean up; to make it harder to raise taxes; to reduce school overcrowding; and most recently to adopt a universal pre-kindergarten program. Most of these ideas were first offered by citizens to the Legislature for adoption as a statute, but lawmakers simply refused to even consider them. Some -- notwithstanding broad public support -- were not even given hearings before a single legislative committee.

This is not to suggest that the citizen-initiative system to amend the Constitution is ideal and not in need of reform. Too often, this process has deteriorated into a food fight between well-funded special interests as we saw between physicians and attorneys last November. A few years ago Floridians adopted an amendment protecting pregnant pigs, an issue that clearly has no place in our Constitution. And those who complain that the signature-gathering process is prone to abuse raise valid points.

But it would be a dreadful mistake, in the name of reform, to eliminate the only real, remaining avenue that citizens have to directly effect change. Some of the purported ''reforms'' to be proposed will make it harder to access the initiative process, requiring more signatures on a petition and three-fifths approval by voters on election day. Other changes would seek to limit amendments to only matters of constitutional ''weight.'' By this they mean subjects that involve only the basic rights of citizens.

These changes might well preclude trivial issues perhaps not rising to constitutional stature, but it may also mean the loss by citizens of the only vehicle they have to directly effect changes they believe important. Any reform of the initiative process should not gut its value.

To avoid this result, any reform that makes it harder for citizens to enact a constitutional amendment must include creation of a durable process that allows citizens -- through initiative -- to force adoption of a statute through a statewide vote of all Florida's citizens. Because these laws would come from the people directly, any such statute enacted by citizen initiative could only be amended by the Legislature with a two-thirds approval of both chambers.

Creating a route through which citizens could enact laws -- and at the same time making it more difficult for them to amend our Constitution -- is a balanced approach that preserves direct democracy while addressing current excesses. In truth, no legislative process is inviolate, and amending our Constitution should be a more-deliberative process. But at the end of the day we cannot -- in the name of reform -- divest the people of real power to make direct change.
 


 

Dan Gelber is a state representative from Miami Beach. For more information please visit: http://www.myfloridahouse.gov/