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Constitutional Amendments 1990

This series on the four Constitutional amendments on the Nov. 6 ballot was provided by the St. Petersburg Area League of Women Voters. Amendments to the Florida Constitution must be approved by a majority of people voting on them in a general or special election. Amendments can be placed on the ballot in five ways: joint resolutions approved by three-fifths vote of both houses of the Legislature; action of the Constitutional Revision Commission, which convenes every 20 years; citizen petition initiatives, requiring signatures equaling 8 percent of votes cast in the last preceding general election; action of a Constitutional Convention, convened by citizen petition initiative; and action by the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission, which convenes every 10 years.

Of the 79 constitutional amendments placed on the Florida ballot since 1968, 65 were joint resolutions of the Legislature, six were citizen initiatives, and eight were proposed by the Constitutional Revision Commission. Three of the citizen initiatives have been approved: the Sunshine Amendment, the Florida Lottery, and English as the official language in Florida. As of April 30, 1990, 10 officially approved petition initiatives were active. Florida is among a minority of states (15) that provide for constitutional amendment by citizen initiative.

The four amendments on the Nov. 6 ballot (called propositions) are all joint resolutions of the Legislature. Propositions 1, 2 and 3 were approved during the 1989 session, and No. 4 during the 1990 session. Propositions 2, 3 and 4are similar to petition initiatives. Although the petitions contain more restrictive language than exists in the joint resolutions, at least two of the three sponsors of the petitions are satisfied with the joint resolution language.

Proposition No. 4

Almost every governmental body in Florida is covered by the Sunshine Law enacted in 1967. The failure of many city and county commissions, councils and boards to operate in public view led to the enactment of this law, which applies even to informal meetings where decisions are made that may lead to a formal decision of a covered governmental body.

Under provisions of the law, citizens may petition the courts for access to meetings where decisions are being made and also may take action to invalidate decisions made under circumstances that do not comply with the Sunshine Law.

The Florida Legislature has never considered itself covered by this law, and two circuit courts have ruled that the law is not applicable to the Legislature.

Believing that the decision-making process should be opened to the public view, and that the Legislature should be held accountable for all of its actions, citizens initiated a petition drive in 1988 that proposed a constitutional amendment calling for an open-meeting requirement for the Florida Legislature. The amendment will appear on the Nov. 6 ballot. Here is the ballot language:

"Proposing an amendment to State Constitution to provide that certain votes of legislators be recorded; that the Legislature provide by rule for open and noticed meetings between the governor, the president of the Senate, or the speaker of the House to be reasonably open to the public; and that certain constitutional provisions relating to the Legislature be interpreted, implemented, and enforced solely by the Legislature."

Proposition No. 4, this open meetings proposition, defines meetings as those prearranged among more than two members and requires the meetings to be reasonably open to the public. Under this proposition, both houses are to adopt rules of procedure to implement and define this section and also will implement and enforce the provisions. This self-enforcement provision, while entrusting enforcement to the body itself, is viewed favorably by most experts who believe that public opinion will be an important factor in promoting adherence to provisions of the amendment.

Further, proponents of the separation of powers have pointed out the co-equal and independent status of branches of the government and would therefore find some problem with the judicial branch having the power to haul the Legislature before a court.

Opponents argue that this amendment would detract from the effectiveness of state government in that it pertains to such a large body that, of necessity, must have some freedom of flexibility and compromise. Proponents say the measure, which defines meetings as "more than two" as opposed to the standard of "two or more" in the Sunshine Law, already grants some flexibility.

Opponents argue that the primary beneficiaries of such a provision would not be ordinary voters who could attend such meetings in person, but rather the commercial press, lobbyists and disgruntled members of the Legislature. Proponents point out that ordinary voters depend on the reports of the media for information and that, given the performance of the Legislature in some instances, any public pressure to operate in the sunshine would be beneficial.

Our founding fathers believed in the principles of representative government and understood good representative government requires the election of good and public-spirited officials. Elected officials who fulfill the goal should be delighted with a provision in the Constitution that requires those who are less public-spirited to conduct their negotiations in the light of public opinion.

It is a sad commentary on the state of our state that we should require such a measure, but in an environment that seems to foster private interests of legislators and their constituents, this may be deterrent to turkey bills and private deals.

Bobette Husick is first vice president/finance of the St. Petersburg Area League of Women Voters.