Editing the Constitution

July 5, 2010

Florida’s constitution is truly an evolving document. Every two years, amendments are proposed and and those that pass muster with Florida voters are edited into the text of the original document rather than just being tacked on at the end.

The current version of our state constitution is full of seamless and not so seamless examples of good, bad and meh amendments that have been incorporated into the constitution over the years. Pregnant pigs, pregnant minors, a minimum wage and fishing nets are just a few of the subjects addressed in the constitution thanks to the amendment process.

There are five ways to put amendments to the Florida constitution on the ballot, but three are rarely used: two seperate commissions that meet every twenty years, and the Constitutional Convention process which must be initiated by the voters.

The two other methods, the legislative and citizen initiative processes, are fairly common and typically produce a bunch of measures for voters to consider every couple of years.

The citizen initiative is a petition gathering process and can sometimes result in popular measures that are maddeningly progressive in the eyes of our conservative GOP Legislature.

The Legislative initiative is typically crafted with the help of lobbyists in back rooms and can be designed with ulterior motives in mind.

Sometimes, especially in the past few cycles, the Legislature has been known to respond to successful citizen initiatives with amendments that aim to change or cancel out completely the citizens’ efforts.

In 2000, Two years after Jeb Bush was elected Governor, citizens proposed and passed a High Speed Rail amendment, enshrining the forward thinking concept into the constitution and legally locking the Legislature and Governor into action.

But Bush and the GOP dominated Legislature failed to fund the rail project as they placed their own anti-rail amendment in the ballot in 2004 and they managed to convince the voters to cancel out the previous measure.

Similarly, class size is still being debated. Citizens passed an amendment in 2002 mandating specific teacher to student ratios in public schools. The Legislature has been trying to get it watered down for years, and this year another Legislative initiative is on the ballot which aims to change the way heads are counted in the classrooms, thus weakening the original amendment.

So the pattern is becoming clear: first, the citizens propose an amendment which passes with majority support. Then the politicians respond by seeking to water down or completely do away with the citizen mandate. But just undoing amendments wasn’t enough for the Legislature.

Between class size and high speed rail and some other mandates from the voters, including language protecting pregnant pigs from the worst abuses of corporate farming, the Governor and Legislature, as well as the powerful business interests that backed them, were starting to feel a little lack of control. So in 2006, as well as pushing amendments to undo the amendments they didn’t like, they managed to get a super majority requirement amendment into the constitution.

That’s right: stung by repeated voter demands to address important issues, Florida’s leaders talked the voters into making it harder for the voters to speak out. From now on, all amendments to the Florida constitution would require a sixty percent majority to pass.

Which pretty much brings us up to date. As things currently stand, voters this year will have three citizen sponsored initiatives and six legislative initiatives to vote on, several of which are designed to dilute or cancel current or past citizen efforts.

All of which is fodder for several more posts this week. Stay tuned.

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