Our Florida Constitution should be protected from special interests’ policy agendas. That’s why I have proposed a resolution — SJR 1412/HJR 1127 — before the Legislature that would limit initiative amendments to matters properly addressed in the Constitution — that is, procedural subjects or the structure of government. That would leave policy where it belongs under our long-established constitutional process for lawmaking.
Although critics of my proposal claim that “politicians refuse to act,” what they are really saying is that they wish to short-circuit our constitutional checks and balances in order to insert their policy preferences not just into law, but into the Constitution, where future generations will be unable to modify or amend them through ordinary lawmaking by their elected representatives.
American lawmaking involves a lower house, an upper house and an executive veto. Three diverse bodies vigorously debate and negotiate to enact laws. This process produces a superior result, and broader consensus, than any single body acting unilaterally. Even good legislation is usually presented several times and incrementally improves before eventual enactment. When this process is rushed, ignored or sidestepped, bad law is enacted.
It is supposed to be hard to make laws and even more difficult to amend the Constitution. Why? Because it is better that the government do nothing rather than waste taxpayer money, infringe liberty or implement ineffective policy. The Florida Constitution contains fundamental protections of limited government, separation of powers and individual liberty that could be lost or diluted through unwise amendments, and should be even more difficult to amend.
Although citizen initiatives involve petition gathering and require 60 percent support in the general election, they do not involve the checks and balances, give and take, and deliberative process that ordinarily accompany lawmaking. The committee process in the Legislature allows stakeholders, the public and the people’s representatives each to voice their concerns and become educated on the issue at hand. Bills are amended and improved as they move through the process.
The initiative process has been used by out-of-state special interests to short-circuit our system of checks and balances and purchase amendments to the Florida Constitution. These special interests hire paid petition gatherers with little knowledge of policy who disregard laws regulating petition gathering. Once special interests gather enough signatures, they can disseminate expensive but misleading advertisements.
In a recent column, former Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink suggests special interests may redress their concerns in Tallahassee if they can “write a check,” but nearly all recent initiative amendments have been procured through seven- and eight-figure expenditures by special interests, including the “large corporate donors” and “out of state billionaires” she decries. Our Florida Constitution should not be for sale. The least we can do is to protect our Constitution by limiting such amendments to the legitimate functions of government, and not special interest policies.
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The voices of Floridians would not be “silenced” under our proposal. Instead, constitutional amendments would be limited to matters of government procedure properly addressed in the Constitution. The people would retain their ability to pursue such matters, including several that opponents erroneously claim would be precluded by our resolution. Fair Districts and felon voting, for example, are clearly procedural matters or structure of government matters that may properly be addressed in the Constitution.
By contrast, special interests would be unable to constitutionalize their misleading policy agendas. In fact, to take one final example, Ms. Sink’s suggestion for campaign finance reform is another procedural reform that would still be allowed under my resolution.
Mike Beltran, a Republican, represents District 57, southeastern Hillsborough County, in the Florida House.