Romano: Keeping lawmakers (relatively) honest with amendments

Published Nov. 12, 2016

Let's see, we have 160 lawmakers representing us in Tallahassee.

We've also sent a hefty congressional delegation to Washington, D.C., along with all the senators and representatives from 49 other states.

And guess what?

It's not enough.

The truth is, you and I are the legislators of last resort.

Voters in Florida, and a lot of other states, are flexing their muscles when it comes to ballot initiatives.

Whether it's caused by partisan politics or out-of-control campaign financing, voters are weary of gridlock. And so they're skipping the middle man and changing public policy directly at the ballot box.

We saw it Tuesday when residents got tired of waiting for Tallahassee to pick up the pace on medical marijuana and overwhelmingly voted to expand its availability.

Voters also refused to follow the Legislature's lead of rolling over and playing dead for utility companies, and squashed another amendment that would have stymied solar power expansion.

And Florida is not alone.

Voters in four states passed minimum wage increases Tuesday. Two other states voted to increase the tax rate on wealthy residents. Two states whacked charter school expansion initiatives backed by their respective governors. Voters in four states approved recreational marijuana use, and three more passed medical marijuana plans.

That's a lot of lawmaking at the community level.

"The narrative most closely tracked on Tuesday is that people voted for change,'' said Josh Hoxie of the progressive Institute for Policy Studies. "And they didn't have confidence that the people running for office could deliver these initiatives for them.''

What's interesting is voters seem less partisan when it comes to amendments.

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were fewer than two points apart in Florida, and yet the medical marijuana amendment won 71-29.

You saw similar results in Arizona, where conservatives went for Trump, and yet a minimum wage increase was passed. In Maine, they re-elected uber conservative Gov. Paul LePage and still passed a minimum wage increase, approved medical marijuana and raised taxes.

Reliably progressive Oregon went big for Clinton, and yet failed to approve a ballot measure that would have raised corporate tax rates.

The point is voters are playing a more direct role in the checks and balances of state governments.

In the last dozen years, Florida has been ruled almost exclusively by the GOP, and yet voters have passed amendments that Republicans have not typically supported, such as medical marijuana, conservation funds, fairer legislative redistricting and a minimum wage adjustment escalator.

"What it says is if you break down individual issues and take away the day-to-day partisan nonsense, there are a lot of progressive issues broadly supported in Florida,'' said Ben Pollara, who was the driving force behind Florida's medical marijuana amendment. "So much gets caught up and clouded in the politics of an issue with candidates, but when you break it down, people feel a lot differently.''

To put it in baseball terms, it's like backing up a play.

Little League coaches are constantly telling players to expect mistakes, and be in position to back up teammates to avoid additional damage.

And, around here, we need all the backup we can get.