Trust the voters — stop Florida’s Amendment 3

Paul Jacob
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Posted: Oct 08, 2006 12:00 AM
Trust the voters — stop Florida’s Amendment 3

Majority rule. Within constitutional limits for the protection of individual freedom, it’s the American way.

But in Florida, legislators and powerful special interests would like to change that. They want to win elections when they get the most votes, sure. But they also want to win when they don’t get the most votes. They want to win even when they lose.

Hmmm: does that seem quite right?

In the land of hanging chads, where every vote should count, we find political insiders intent on lynching the state’s voter initiative process. How? By making some votes (specifically, NO votes) count more than others (YES votes). Amendment 3 on Florida’s ballot this November will require a 60 percent supermajority of the vote to pass an initiative, instead of the current, well-established practice of majority rule.

The amendment was placed on the ballot by legislators, who loathe the state’s voter initiative for allowing citizens to bypass the tangled web of Tallahassee politics run by (you guessed it) these same legislators. Whispering urgent encouragement in legislative ears was the Florida Chamber of Commerce — a group, like most Chambers throughout the country, that loves high taxes, opposes voters’ initiative rights, and snuggles up to politicians by working again and again to undermine voter-enacted term limits (more on this later).

Who else supports Amendment 3? A long list of the state’s most powerful lobbying organizations in Tallahassee: U.S. Sugar, BlueCross, BlueShield, Publix, TECO Energy, and the Florida Association of Realtors.

Want to know the stated goal of this Chamber-led cabal of the capitol’s biggest special interests and their push for Amendment 3? To stop special interest influence in the voter initiative process. They have trained themselves to say this with a straight face. Well, shame has never been their strong suit. Can you say “effrontery”?

Amendment 3 will indeed make it tougher for special interests to pursue a voter initiative. But the big boys have their hooks into legislators and their castles built in Tallahassee. The last thing they want to do is allow the voters to decide the issues they care about. They support Amendment 3 precisely because it will make it incredibly tough for grassroots efforts. Citizen-initiated reforms will rarely be able to raise the needed money to get an initiative campaign off the ground, much less win it, what with potential donors knowing full-well that the state’s entrenched political interests can defeat the measure simply by throwing enough money and negative ads against it to pull it down to 59 percent support.

The real goal of Amendment 3 is obvious: create a system in which big spending by the most powerful and well-heeled groups in society can block citizen-led reform. The history of the initiative process shows that popular reform measures can withstand huge spending against them and still succeed. But big spending against a measure will indeed raise doubts among cautious voters. If the rules can be jiggered to allow the Powers That Be to stave off reforms even when passed with 59.9 percent, politicians and the lobbyists that inhabit the capitol are much more insulated from pesky voters.

Had Amendment 3 been the law, Florida homeowners would pay billions of dollars more in property taxes each year. The 1992 Save Our Homes initiative, which limited homestead valuation, passed against an onslaught from the forces of big government. But it passed by less than 60 percent.

The Net Ban on commercial fishing, a measure very popular with sportsmen and environmentalists, passed in 1994. But by less than 60 percent.

Term limits has scored well better than 60 percent in Florida, winning with a whopping 77 percent of the vote in 1992. But if such a law had been in effect in California and Michigan, term limits would have failed in these states, winning 52 and 59 percent support, respectively. Both states saw big spending campaigns fueled by mega-checks from the most powerful interests in the state and across the country.

Florida legislators, again with cheerleading by the state’s Chamber of Commerce, also sought to weaken term limits this election, placing a measure on the ballot to allow themselves to serve 50 percent longer. This was supposed to be a one-two punch: gut term limits and the voter initiative at the same time.

But they got cold feet on term limits and, scared of a voter backlash against themselves and perhaps Amendment 3 as well, they pulled their assault on term limits from the ballot. That doesn’t happen every day.

There is, however, one legitimate argument against Florida’s initiative process. And true to form, the legislators and special interests deal with it as disingenuously as possible. Florida’s initiative process does not permit voters to make statutory changes, simple laws. Voter initiatives must be constitutional amendments. So, there are measures passed that would normally be statutes, but are added to the state’s constitution instead.

There is an easy solution: create a statutory initiative process, which most initiative states have. Legislators refuse. Instead, they feign concern for the purity of the constitution as a way to undermine voter initiatives that check their power.

Now, don’t get me wrong: Initiatives aren’t all wonderful. As a friend of mine from Florida says, “Voters have passed some junk, too.” He’s talking about high-speed rail (which voters reversed themselves on last election) and the class-size measure is certain to raise costs, but uncertain to improve school performance. Still, like most Americans, my friend and I support the initiative process not because the voters are always right, but because the government belongs to the voters.

Sadly, and dangerously, the politicians and special interests behind Amendment 3 don’t believe that government belongs to the people. They believe government belongs to them.

Florida voters can set them straight by defeating Amendment 3.