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"Citizen' initiatives

In failing to gather enough signatures to put three anti-government measures on the Florida ballot in November, Tax Cap Committee leader David Biddulph expressed his dismay last week. "It's just a huge requirement," he told reporters.

And it should be.

Changing the state Constitution, which is the basic blueprint for the government, should not be easy and should not be subject to the often-shifting winds of public opinion. Unfortunately, in Florida, the citizen initiative process invites an all-or-nothing warfare, one that unnecessarily infringes on the Constitution and often has less to do with the little voter than it does with big money.

Though roughly 100 petitions have surfaced since the Constitution was amended in 1968 to allow such initiatives, fewer than 20 have obtained enough signatures to qualify. Of those, only two _ one of which was supported by a sitting governor _ have been gathered through volunteers. The rest, including two that may appear on the ballot Nov. 5, have been bought and paid for. The signatures were collected by professional solicitors who are paid a fee _ sometimes as much as $2 or $3 per signature.

Call it checkbook democracy.

It is not clear whether the Legislature can or should ban paid petition gathering, but it certainly can lower the stakes for winning and losing. Florida is one of 23 states that allows citizens to petition directly to change their government, but it is the only one that allows citizens to petition only to change the Constitution.

If citizens had the power to change state law through petition initiative, then the state wouldn't have to clutter its Constitution with such things as fishing net bans. It would also have the ability to change voter-mandate laws that over time had outlived their usefulness.

The plain truth about the "citizen" petition process in Florida is that it is seldom driven by the common citizen. Biddulph, who complains about the signature threshold, knows that lesson well. He will put one amendment on the ballot in November, to try to require a two-thirds vote for any new fee or tax in Florida, but his fabled grass-roots campaign had nothing to do with it. Those tax petitions were collected by professional solicitors who were financed by the sugar industry. Why? Because the sugar companies are trying to avoid a tax on the environmental mess they are creating in the Florida Everglades.

Such is the uneasy nature of "citizen" initiatives in Florida. Though they represent a necessary check on the power of state government, their history is one of money and influence. Their use, then, is best limited.