1. Archive

A better place for pigs

Published Sep. 4, 2005

For constitutional purists, pregnant pigs were a source of agitation this year. But for Florida lawmakers, the class size amendment, with its sweeping and unpredictable effect, is more likely to demonstrate the problem with letting voters rewrite the Constitution.

There are better ways to let voters have their say.

In Florida, the right of citizens to petition their government for change has existed for more than three decades. It has led to term limits for officeholders, open government for state officials, a ban on net fishing and a directive to build a high-speed train. This year, five of the nine approved constitutional amendments were the result of citizen initiatives _ including the class size amendment, a new university governance system and humane protections for pregnant pigs.

While opponents (and many proponents) of the measures acknowledge that the state Constitution is an awkward place for subjects such as rules about hog gestation crates, Florida offers no alternatives. Of the 24 states that allow citizen initiatives, only Florida and Illinois restrict them solely to the Constitution. That means citizens can override an unresponsive Legislature only by voting to change a document that is intended to provide the basic framework for how government operates.

"With a Republican governor, a Republican Cabinet and a Republican Legislature, if you're not of that thinking, there is no other way to make a change," says Joan Ruffier, who helped lead support for the university governance amendment this year. "I would not willingly do it again unless I felt I had no choice."

Of the five approved citizen initiatives this year, only two _ the university governance change and a pre-kindergarten program _ really belong in the Constitution. The others would more appropriately have been adopted as changes to state law. Twenty-two other states allow voters to change the law, as opposed to the Constitution, and the statutory initiative can take many forms. Some states require petitions to be submitted first to lawmakers, giving them the opportunity to change the law without necessitating a referendum. Some states prevent lawmakers from making any changes to a voter-adopted law for a certain period of years.

A statutory initiative process has obvious virtues. Voters sometimes miscalculate or approve good ideas that produce unintended consequences, and mistakes written into the Constitution are much more difficult to correct. The class size reduction amendment, for example, is open to wide interpretation and, if done correctly, will require more flexibility than the brief ballot formula envisions.

Those who argue for constitutional amendment say they want a directive that lawmakers can't easily ignore. But some constitutional amendments have been ignored. Voters in the past have approved amendments making English the official language, making polluters "primarily responsible" for the cost of cleanup and calling for high-speed rail. None of those has been carried out. A statutory initiative would indeed allow lawmakers to change the law at a later date, but, absent a convincing reason, they would do so at their political peril.

Giving voters the right to change law doesn't necessarily mean taking away their right to change the Constitution. Many states allow for both, setting a higher threshold for the constitutional effort.

Lawmakers should have learned from the Nov. 5 results that voters, given only one alternative, won't hesitate to write pigs and class sizes into the Constitution. That's not good government. Those who feel they have no voice in Tallahassee deserve to be heard, but there are smarter ways to listen.