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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Florida needs better way for voters to be heard

Floridians ought to be able to force changes in public policy when elected officials refuse to act. But the only way for voters to do that now is to amend the Florida Constitution, which should be reserved for governance issues and cannot be easily tweaked. There has to be a better way that provides more flexibility. The Legislature should create a process by which voters can approve state laws that can be adjusted, not just constitutional amendments that are nearly etched in stone.
Floridians ought to be able to force changes in public policy when elected officials refuse to act. But the only way for voters to do that now is to amend the Florida Constitution, which should be reserved for governance issues and cannot be easily tweaked. There has to be a better way that provides more flexibility. The Legislature should create a process by which voters can approve state laws that can be adjusted, not just constitutional amendments that are nearly etched in stone.
Published Oct. 17, 2014

Floridians ought to be able to force changes in public policy when elected officials refuse to act. But the only way for voters to do that now is to amend the Florida Constitution, which should be reserved for governance issues and cannot be easily tweaked. There has to be a better way that provides more flexibility. The Legislature should create a process by which voters can approve state laws that can be adjusted, not just constitutional amendments that are nearly etched in stone.

Two measures on the Nov. 4 ballot are traced directly to residents' frustration with Tallahassee. Amendment 1 would dedicate a portion of the state's real estate transaction tax revenue (called documentary stamps) to environmental land conservation and preservation for the next 20 years. Amendment 2 would legalize medical use of marijuana. But both those measures would be better subjects for state laws, not the Constitution, so they could be changed as necessary.

Nearly two dozens states already provide ways for voters to pass state laws. Some do so indirectly — a legislature must have a chance to act on petitions before they can go to the ballot. But other states allow proposed state laws to go straight to the ballot after a set number of signatures are gathered — not unlike the process for putting a constitutional amendment on the ballot in Florida. Several states prohibit lawmakers from immediately repealing voter-approved legislation for up to seven years, though some allow a two-thirds majority in both legislative chambers to override such a moratorium.

Statutory initiatives would be a better way to adopt a policy such as medical marijuana, where even the most skilled legal minds cannot anticipate all the ways in which it might need to be tweaked to ensure reasonable enforcement. The same holds true for the land conservation amendment, which sets a specific portion of funding from a specific revenue source and walls off billions of dollars for 20 years. There will be no way to substantially adjust either of those measures unless 60 percent of voters agree in future constitutional amendments.

Florida already has found that hurdle can be too high. After school districts continued to struggle with complying with a rigid 2002 amendment that capped public school class sizes in core subjects, lawmakers in 2010 asked voters to increase the district's flexibility. A majority of voters — 54 percent — agreed the change was warranted. But with a 60 percent approval required for constitutional amendments, the measure failed. The practical effect: Just this past week, Pinellas County schools were found to be indiscreetly hiring short-term substitute teachers to reduce class sizes ahead of the state reporting date with little attention to what that will mean to students' learning.

It's unfortunate lawmakers didn't fix this problem a decade ago, when a bipartisan pair of Central Florida lawmakers lobbied for several years to create a statutory ballot process and to make it harder to amend the state Constitution. Legislative leaders embraced the second idea — leading to the 60 percent threshold for constitutional amendment passage instead of a simple majority — but, reluctant to give up any of their own power, ignored the first.

Such arrogance, combined with inaction on issues Floridians care about, has now created the worst-case scenario: Legislation is at risk of being written into the Constitution where it could prove impossible to amend later. Tallahassee shouldn't wait for another election cycle. Come spring, lawmakers should consider anew a way for Florida voters to demand public policy changes without amending the state Constitution.

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