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
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: