The Florida Chamber's Big Fish Tale

Posted: Mar 21, 2004 12:00 AM

Cozying up to Florida legislators, the Florida Chamber of Commerce is agitating to take initiative rights away from Florida voters.

Otherwise, the Chamber warns, disaster is at hand. Those wild and crazy Florida voters will amend their state's constitution with such reckless abandon that businesses will flee, leaving Florida bankrupt. (Ignore all the people and businesses flocking to Florida these days. It spoils the Chamber's story.)

According to the Chamber, Florida voters should be put in their place, voting only for their betters, paying their taxes, keeping quiet.

Never mind hanging chads; the Chamber lobbyists are trying to hang the voters. Their rallying cry might as well be: "Disempower the voters now, before it's too late."

Voters, Out of Control!

The Chamber of Commerce bemoans that Florida's state constitution has been amended 95 times since 1970. True enough, the number 95 is a large one; certainly larger than 94, for instance. All right, sure, 95 amendments in 30-plus years does seem like a lot.

But what is the harm? Did voters amend the constitution in 95 ways they now regret? Or just in ways the Chamber regrets?

Democracy--the whole idea of citizen controlled government--has a glaring weakness: sometimes voters don't vote our way. It's a recurring problem. Still, the problems associated with a lack of citizen control remain far more dangerous. One doesn't need blind faith in the people to support citizen initiative and referendum--just more faith than one has in the politicians. Talk about a low bar.

It's true that Florida voters aren't perfect. They've passed tax limits and term limits, good. But they've also approved a few expensive whoppers, like a bullet train and an amendment mandating smaller class size in public schools. Like a member in good standing of the Chamber of Commerce, I would have voted against both of these costly measures. But the people of Florida voted for both.

So what to do? The state legislature and Governor Jeb Bush have refused to comply with the state's constitution--as amended by those pesky voters--so thus far these measures haven't cost taxpayers a dime. But government officials have a duty to follow the law, especially the state's highest law, and some day they just might.

Alternatively, legislators could put these amendments right back on the ballot for more debate and a new vote. If voters have disastrously missed the mark, why not try again? So far, legislators have not bothered. Or dared.

Bad Medicine

The cure, as espoused by the politicians and the Chamber of Commerce, doesn't have any connection to the stated problem. Of the much-ballyhooed blizzard of 95 amendments, only 16 came through the citizen initiative process. The overwhelming majority of amendments were referred to the ballot by the Legislature.

Funny then, that the proposed solution is to raise the bar so high for future citizen initiatives as to render the process moot, effectively restoring a legislative monopoly on lawmaking. One legislative proposal, which has already passed a Senate committee, would require a 60 percent vote to pass any citizen-initiated constitutional amendment. Yet, an amendment proposed by legislators would only require a simple majority. Hmmm?

Opponents of initiatives make much fuss about one measure, an initiative that banned gestation crates for pregnant pigs. They tell us that this measure "made its way" into the constitution. But amendments don't "make their way" anywhere. Floridians voted this measure into their constitution.

And after all, they had little choice. Many might agree that their goal would have been better attained by statute than by amending the state constitution. But Florida's initiative process, unlike most states', allows only constitutional amendments, not the enactment of statutes.

The Legislature could solve the entire dilemma by allowing a statutory process. Again, oddly, the legislators and the Chamber of Commerce refuse even to consider this common-sense solution.

Instead, all focus is on destroying the citizen initiative process. And spinning whoppers to do it.

Minority or Majority Rule?

The anti-initiative crowd has had a lot of fun ignoring the ever-so-subtle difference between majority rule and minority rule. They prefer minority rule--supposing they will comprise that ruling minority, of course. They designed their 60 percent threshold for passing an initiative to allow powerful, well-heeled interests to defeat popular measures by simply throwing enough negative ads at them to bring their support down to 59.9 percent.

That sounds like minority rule, doesn't it?

Yet, Florida TaxWatch, a group comprised of all the same interests behind the state Chamber, came up with a unique angle to attack the initiative process for allowing minority rule. Seems if you compare votes for initiatives to the number of all registered voters, not just those actually going to the polls to vote, many measures don't garner a majority of all registered voters. Egads!

As the group's news release stated, "Turnout of registered voters has been as low as 58 percent in non-presidential years and frequently less than 85 percent of those voters actually vote on constitutional amendments that are placed before them." If you do the math, an initiative could win with 100 percent of the vote and still not manage a "majority."

By this same logic, Ronald Reagan garnered an "illegitimate minority" in the 1984 presidential race, while winning 49 of 50 states in modern history's biggest landslide.

Nice try.

The Miami Herald urges support for changes to the initiative process, writing, "Without change, our Constitution will become weighted down with costly, emotionally driven mandates that retard good government. Think California."

Funny. Floridians are expected to deliberate on the negatives of the voter initiative through analyzing a state clear across the country, of which they have little if any firsthand knowledge. Perhaps the Florida elite fear the voters might get too "emotional" if told the boo-boos they are making right at home in Florida.

By the way, my Common Sense e-letter concentrates on the boo-boos committed quite regularly by politicians around the country, not just in Florida and California.

Voter Stay Home

In politics--like good comedy--timing is everything. So, at which election will legislators seek to place these anti-voter measures before the voters? Why not the election with the most partisan and least total voters? The Chamber and legislators seek a vote in the partisan August 31 primary, not the general election, meaning almost 2 million independents won't likely come to the polls.

The politicians, with the help of the sharks at the Chamber of Commerce, are telling tall tales to take the initiative away from the people--and just when you thought it was safe to go back into a Florida voting booth.