Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Are legislators 'hijacking' the will of voters or injecting common sense?


TALLAHASSEE — Florida's experiment in direct democracy is being tested this year in the state Legislature.

Five amendments to the state Constitution relating to the environment, solar power, education, redistricting and medical marijuana are getting a rewrite as lawmakers — mostly in the House — attempt to revise what voters approved with their own ideas of how the amendments should work.

The proposal to expand access to medical marijuana — a citizens initiative approved by 71.3 percent of voters in November — is being used by the House sponsor to inject provisions sought by opponents of the amendment. They want to impose new rules on doctors, new conditions on what constitutes chronic pain, and a ban on using medical marijuana in a smokeable form.

READ MORE: Five months after medical pot's big ballot win, anti-drug group helps decide drug's fate

The amendment to allow tax breaks for businesses that install solar panels — approved by voters in August with 72.6 percent of the vote — is now a vehicle in the House to add consumer protections on solar financing and impose new barriers to all rooftop solar installation.

The House's draft budget uses the Land and Water Conservation Amendment of 2014 to fund administrative costs and projects unrelated to land — such as $22.4 million in subsidies to farmers who clean polluted water on their land.

After the Fair Districts amendment — a citizens initiative supported by 63 percent of voters in 2010 — forced lawmakers to adhere to unprecedented anti-gerrymandering rules and cost taxpayers more than $11 million in legal fees, HB 953 is attempting to scale back its impact by limiting the time for legal challenges and subjecting judges to cross examination.

And the House this month endorsed HB 591 to revise the class-size amendment and change the way students are counted. The effort would give traditional school districts the same flexibility in calculating class size as charter schools have, a revision critics say further circumvents the intent of the class-size amendment.

"Since 2002, this Legislature has made repeated attempts to ignore the will of the voters by extending timelines and continually changing the way we measure the number of kids in a classroom," said Rep. Loranne Ausley, D-Tallahassee, before the House voted on the bill. "By making these changes, we continue down the path of ignoring the will of the people who sent us here. We're also flatly ignoring the Constitution of Florida."

The developments lay bare the tensions constantly at play in Florida's capital: Progressive groups who want to change policy but have been stymied by a legislature under Republican control turn to the initiative process to change law via constitutional amendment.

"If the Legislature is out of step with what voters want, the only option is to go to the Florida Constitution," said Aliki Moncrief, executive director of the Florida Conservation Voters which spearheaded the Florida Water and Land Conservation Amendment in 2014, known as Amendment 1.

"Legislators by and large do not like it when their hands are tied in any way, and what the amendment does is tries to restrict them," she said. "It says we can't budget for you but we can give you some guidelines, a road map for how you prioritize spending.''

But when voters bypass the Legislature, the Legislature still gets the final say because it has the power to write the laws that implement the amendments — and that's when things can get rocky.

"People suspect that special interests dominate policy decisions, and it's on clear display when measures pass overwhelmingly but are hijacked for other purposes," said Susan Glickman, Florida director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, which represents the solar industry and other alternative energy interests that helped to support passage of the solar amendment.

READ MORE: FPL wrote portions of bill that imposes requirements on solar

She says the House's proposal to impose "duplicative" and bureaucratic rules on solar installation is legislative overreach that "disenfranchises voters."

"The idea that peoples' votes matter is really shattered in a process where people strongly support measures like Amendment 4 to reduce barriers to solar, and now we have an implementation bill that clearly would construct new, additional barriers to solar," she said.

Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, is sponsoring legislation to implement both the solar Amendment 4, and medical marijuana Amendment 2, and has incorporated language into both proposals that was sought by interest groups that wanted to defeat or delay the initiatives.

On the medical marijuana measure, HB 1397, Rodrigues includes restrictions that are listed in a document that the St. Petersburg-based Drug Free America Foundation says it gave him. The group was founded in 1995 by Republican financiers Mel and Betty Sembler, controversial anti-drug crusaders who also led the effort to kill Amendment 2.

On the solar bill, HB 1351, Rodrigues has included verbatim language supplied by Florida Power & Light that would impose disclosure and paperwork requirements for companies that finance and install solar energy products on homes and businesses. The Senate's versions of the implementing bills do not include those restrictions and are considered by the supporters as "cleaner."

"We include language from all stakeholders as long as it improves the policy," Rodrigues said Friday in an interview with the Times/Herald. He added that both bills are still a work in progress and he is working on compromise language with the Senate, but he defended the ability of the Legislature to impose its will on the initiatives.

"It is the Legislature's role to pass an implementing bill that respects the will of the voters," he said. "It is also the Legislature's role to ensure that it's done in a way that protects the citizens of Florida."

The House sponsor of the class-size rewrite, Rep. Ralph Massullo, R-Lecanto, called the change an attempt "to add a little semblance of pragmatism to the way we administer the compliance requirements. It's something we've done before, and it's well within the purview of the Legislature."

Aubrey Jewett, a professor of political science who studies state and local politics at the University of Central Florida, agrees the Legislature has a role in shaping the implementation of the citizens' initiatives but, he said, lawmakers also seem to have "stretched the bounds."

"When the Legislature continually seems to thwart the plain meaning and intent of these initiatives, it does make the average voter even more cynical about politics — and that's not necessarily a good thing."

Chipping away at the will of Florida voters isn't anything new. In 1986, Florida voters overwhelming approved the Florida Lottery with the promise that the revenues would "support improvements in public education" and not be a substitute for state funding. Instead, the Legislature gradually used the lottery funds to replace state revenues, making it impossible to use the extra money for education enhancements.

In 2002, former Gov. Jeb Bush, apparently unaware his words were being caught on a reporter's tape recorder, told a group of Panhandle legislators he had "devious plans" to undo the popular class size amendment if it were to pass the following November.

And after voters overwhelmingly backed the Fair Districts Amendments in 2010 to prevent lawmakers from rigging elections through gerrymandered districts, legislative leaders attempted to sidestep the amendment by hiring political consultants to draw districts designed to keep Republicans in power.

Aware of this history, the Land and Water Conservation Amendment was structured so that no implementing legislation was required, said Moncrief of the Florida Conservation Voters. Despite that, lawmakers skirted its intent immediately by using the Land Acquisition Trust Fund to supplant existing general revenue programs in the next budget year, just as they had done with the lottery.

"The amendment was written in a way to actually be good policy, and it's sort of been turned on its head," she said.

Moncrief has since compared the environmental budgets for the last decade and found that instead of buying land and dedicating the money to enhancing environmental preservation, the Legislature in the last three years has used the LATF to pay for administrative programs, like salaries for the Florida forest service or subsidies for water clean up.

The outcry, however, has had an effect.

Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, who oversees the Senate's handling of the environmental budget and is sponsoring the bill to implement the medical marijuana amendment, said he agrees that previous legislatures went too far in limiting the reach of the Land and Water Conservation Amendment and, as a result, the Senate spends more money on land acquisition than the House and supplants far less money from general revenue.

"[Senate] President [Joe] Negron and I both think that those critiques of Amendment 1 implementation from around the state have merit," he said. "The amendment included words 'Land Acquisition Trust Fund' and that tells me that people who voted for it expected land acquisition to be a part of how we spent that money."

Bradley is also the sponsor of the Senate bill to implement medical marijuana, and he and Rodrigues said they hope to reach a compromise over its implementation that pleases all stakeholders. Rodrigues, who sponsored the amendment to put the solar language on the August primary ballot, said the language on that implementation bill is also likely to change.

"There are negotiations between the chambers and there are also negotiations from stakeholders — and bills evolve," he said. "The most important bill is not the one that's actually filed. It's the one that actually passed."

Times/Herald staff writers Kristen Clark and Michael Auslen contributed to this report. Contact Mary Ellen Klas at [email protected] or 850-222-3095. Follow @MaryEllenKlas

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