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Longboat Key Thursday, Apr. 4, 2019 5 months ago

State amendments need transparency

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Two bills would bring an end to Florida's confusing constitutional amendments.
by: Matt Walsh Editor & CEO

It’s about time.

Finally, state lawmakers have realized Florida’s constitutional amendment process needs serious reforms — reforms that will shine the light of transparency on the often vague constitutional amendments that appear every four years on Florida’s statewide ballots and will simplify proposed amendments.

Take the 2018 Florida elections. There were 12 constitutional amendments on the ballot, and it’s a good bet the 8,305,329 Floridians who cast votes didn’t have much of a clue of who was behind each amendment; the back story behind the amendments; who favored and opposed the amendment; who funded the initiative and the advertising for or against; or the consequences if the amendment passed or was rejected.

When voters read their ballots, they read 50- to 75-word explanations of measures that, in most cases, would change the Florida Constitution forever, some in dramatic ways.

But for decade upon decade, many Floridians have lamented the Florida Constitution has become a dumping ground for what amounts to special-interest legislation. The one glaring example of this is the infamous pig confinement amendment in 2002, making it unconstitutional to confine a pregnant pig in a crate or cage that prevents the pig from turning around freely.

Pregnant pig crates a constitutional matter? C’mon. 

Surely, when you think of a constitution, you think of the U.S. Constitution, which articulates our fundamental rights and how we’re governed. For good reason, it’s extraordinarily difficult to amend.

This is the way the Florida Constitution should be as well.

But it’s not. And the reason is Florida, like many states, has a voter initiative process whose basic requirement is to obtain enough verified voter signatures on petitions — 8% of total voters in the last presidential election — to put a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot.

Various interest groups use this process either to avoid having their idea go through the Legislature, where the measure can be modified or killed; or they use it precisely because the Legislature refuses to take up their cause.

There is a second route to proposed constitutional amendments. Every 20 years Florida convenes a Constitution Revision Commission, which is charged with evaluating the constitution and proposing fixes. Out of this process, the commission placed eight amendments on the 2018 ballot. And complicating matters was the fact four of the Constitution Revision Commission’s amendments contained multiple issues.

They overwhelmed and confused voters. 

Alas, two piece of legislation moving slowly through this session of the Legislature can provide dramatic remedies to this annoying and frustrating problem for voters.

Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Orange Park, proposed a Senate Joint Resolution that would restrict the Constitution Revision Commission to proposing only one-subject amendments. If you recall, one amendment on the 2018 ballot contained three different subjects. 

Recall, too, that everyone else who proposes a constitutional amendment is restricted to one subject. This resolution would eliminate special treatment for the revision commission. 

That measure should pass unimpeded.

More dramatic are House Bill 7111 and Senate Bill 7096. These two bills would bring strong rays of sunlight and transparency to a dark and well-cloaked process.

Rep. Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, as chair of the House Judiciary Committee, and Rep. James Grant, R-Tampa, sponsored House Bill 7111, while the Senate Judiciary Committee proposed Senate Bill 7096.

Overall, nine of the bills’ 11 provisions would be beneficial to voters. For instance:

  • It would allow “interested persons” to submit position statements — pro or con — underneath the proposed amendments on the Department of State Division of Elections website. Surely you would like to see who supports or opposes amendments.
  • It would require on the ballot an analysis and financial impact statement by the Financial Impact Estimating Conference, specifying any estimated increase or decrease in revenues or costs to state or local governments, as well as the estimated economic impact on the state and local economy.

All of this information will be published by the state online in its entirety and sent to Florida’s 67 supervisors of election. The supervisors would be required to make this information available at every polling place. 

While this sounds laborious and involved, such measures would contribute enormously to transparency and voter knowledge. Hardly any of this information is easily accessible to voters now.

  • This next requirement would be especially useful information and is the most valuable provision of the bill: Requiring the names of the sponsors of the proposed amendments on the ballots and the percentage of donations the sponsor received from in-state donors.

This information is almost priceless. Surely you want to know who is backing a particular amendment. That helps you understand motivations for the amendments and helps you decide how to vote.

How many of you, for instance, knew in 2018 on the proposed amendment to require 60% voter approval for casino gambling that Disney and the Seminole Indians contributed $36.4 million of the $37.6 million to lobby in favor of passage of the amendment? In effect, these two businesses wanted this amendment passed to protect themselves from competitors. The Seminoles now have a voter-sanctioned monopoly on casino gambling in Florida. 

That would have been useful to know beforehand.

  • Here’s another valuable piece of information to have before voting: a statement indicating whether the Legislature can enact and implement the proposed amendment. Seldom do voters think about the fact many of the proposed amendments actually would be better if they became law by statute. Here’s why:

Rarely do voters repeal measures from the Constitution. Again, consider 2018: Two constitutional amendments — one from 1885 and one from 1926 — were repealed. Two bad laws in the constitution for 133 and 94 years. 

As with any legislation, HB 7111 and SB 7096 have their passionate opponents. Democrats, the American Civil Liberties Union and left-leaning mainstream media see these two measures as attempts to snuff out the voices of the people. Indeed, several commentaries and news reports have quoted sources essentially saying the evil Republicans are just putting up higher obstacles to thwart voter will.

But as previously noted, nine of the 11 provisions are clearly voter-friendly. They will give us valuable information. 

Only two of the provisions fall under the category of making the process more difficult:

  • Require signature gatherers to be Florida residents and to register with the state.
  • Prohibit compensation for petition-gatherers to be based on the number of petitions gathered.

These provisions should be struck from the bills.

The first appears to be an obvious attempt to prevent out-of-state activists (e.g. George Soros’ MoveOn.org, Tom Steyer’s NextGen or, say, the National Rifle Association) from swooping into Florida with hired signature gatherers to get their national marijuana, climate change or firearm proposals into the Florida Constitution. 

Let’s be honest: Nobody likes strangers coming into the neighborhood and forcing their views on you and everyone else.

But does it really matter who gathers signatures or how they are paid? Those are akin to private business transactions.

What voters really need to know are the who — who is behind the amendments — and how much — who’s contributing the money.

HB 7111 and SB 7096 are not life-and-death bills. But they are dramatic opportunities to help make Florida voters smarter and keep Florida’s Constitution far more sacred than it has been.

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