Editorial: Five fixes for Florida

Published Jan. 8, 2016

When the Florida Legislature fails to address significant public policy issues, voters have only one alternative. They can gather hundreds of thousands of signatures and place amendments to the Florida Constitution on the ballot. But constitutional amendments are blunt instruments that cannot be adjusted if they do not work well after they are approved. They are difficult to write, and they are difficult to pass with a 60 percent voter approval required. Here are five fixes for Florida that a forward-looking Legislature could tackle this year:

1. Medical marijuana

There is a compelling argument to legalize the use of marijuana for patients suffering from particular illnesses who have no viable alternative for easing their pain. A constitutional amendment fell just short of being approved two years ago, and the Times editorial board recommended voting against it because several provisions were too broadly worded. Supporters have addressed those issues with a revised amendment approved by the Florida Supreme Court that is expected to be on the 2016 ballot and likely meet the 60 percent voter approval threshold.

The Legislature should approve medical marijuana legislation that reflects the intent of the amendment. That would make the amendment unnecessary, and it would enable lawmakers to make future adjustments.

2. Solar energy

A constitutional amendment to open the solar energy market to competition will not make it to the election ballot this year, but the issue is not going away. There is no reason Florida should be one of just four states where only the utility monopolies are allowed to sell consumers electricity. The amendment would have allowed more financing options for homeowners and businesses that want to install solar panels, and it would have allowed them to sell modest amounts of power to adjacent properties. It remains a concept that has merit.

The Legislature and the Florida Public Service Commission remain hostage to the big utilities that want to maintain the status quo. The utilities have a point that everyone should pay something to maintain the electrical grid, but smart legislation could deal with that issue and still open up the solar energy market.

3. Gambling

A proposed constitutional amendment requiring voters statewide to approve any casino gambling beyond the casinos operated by the Seminole Tribe of Florida should be a warning shot. A new agreement between Gov. Rick Scott and the tribe would expand gambling rather than restrict it. Broward and Miami-Dade parimutuels could add blackjack tables with local voter approval, and local voters could be asked to permit slot machines in Palm Beach and at a new casino in Miami. Lawmakers would have to approve the deal, and parimutuels in other parts of the state want to expand gambling as well. Legislators should refine the governor's agreement with the Seminoles and focus on restricting gambling rather than expanding it. Otherwise, look for a constitutional amendment that allows no flexibility.

4. Voter initiatives

At least two dozen states give voters an outlet besides amending the state constitution. Voters can change state laws, which are easier to revise later. In some states, the issue goes on the ballot only after lawmakers reject it or fail to act. Legislators in some states also can adjust voter-approved laws after a certain time period. Florida lawmakers should consider such a change to give voters more options and limit changes to the Constitution.

5. Primary elections

The fastest-growing group of voters are those registered as "no party affiliation," and they cannot vote in primary elections. A proposed constitutional amendment would allow all voters to vote in primaries for Congress, the Legislature, governor and Cabinet. There would be one primary ballot for each office and the top two finishers, regardless of party affiliation, would advance to the general election. In the primaries for state offices, candidates receiving more than 50 percent of the vote would be elected.

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A more gradual step would be to maintain primary elections for Republicans and Democrats but let all voters decide which primary they want to vote in when they cast their ballots. Nearly two dozen states use some form of this open primary system. Legislators should open up primary elections before voters do it themselves.