Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition

Florida lawmakers are determined to silence you

- The Sun Sentinel Editorial Board consists of Editorial Page Editor Steve Bousquet, Deputy Editorial Page Editor Dan Sweeney and Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson. Editorials are the opinion of the Board and written by one of its members or a designee. To con

Sometimes, state lawmakers’ contempt for voters seeps out. Sometimes, it pours.

In Florida, when the Legislatur­e ignores the concerns of voters, the public has recourse, to amend the state’s constituti­on through a statewide vote.

It’s an expensive, years-long process. To get on the ballot, hundreds of thousands of signatures must be gathered. The Florida Supreme Court has to approve wording. Then, once on the ballot, amendments must win a supermajor­ity of the vote — 60% — to pass.

It’s not hard to unmask a key motivation behind Tallahasse­e’s distaste for citizen-driven constituti­onal amendments: The will of the many (us) might override the will of the few (them, the lawmakers).

Florida’s required 60% supermajor­ity is almost insurmount­able. But even that may not be good enough for the Florida Legislatur­e.

Rep. Rick Roth, R-West Palm Beach, has again filed a joint resolution (HJR 129) to require 66.7% voter approval of future constituti­onal amendments. It cleared its first committee on a 12-6 party-line vote (the proposal failed a year ago). The 66.7% threshold would require statewide voter approval in 2024, and putting it on the ballot requires a vote of three-fifths of the membership of the House and Senate.

No other state has raised the bar to 66.7% for a citizen-initiated constituti­onal amendment, according to the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center. Arizona narrowly approved a 60% threshold last November, but it is primarily for tax-related measures.

Had a 66.7% rule been in place, any number of recent amendments would have failed. Universal pre-kindergart­en would not exist. Teenage girls would not have to tell their parents they wanted an abortion. Convicted felons could not vote. Florida would not have a $15-an-hour minimum wage. The modern state constituti­on itself only passed muster in 1968 with 55% of the vote.

Tallahasse­e tunes out

People in Florida are forced to turn to the ballot initiative system because legislator­s refuse to listen.

Consider the pregnant pig. Criticism of amendment initiative­s almost always turns to an infamous 2002 constituti­onal amendment. At issue was the inhumane practice of placing gestating pigs in cages so small that they could not turn around.

Voters passed an amendment barring it. Hands were wrung in despair over how low the constituti­onal amendment process had sunk. What’s next? cried one critic: A constituti­onal ban on hot dogs?

It’s true, pig protection should never have been enshrined in the constituti­on. Based on the vote, it should have been a state law. Had elected representa­tives not brushed off the wishes of what turned out to be 2.6 million voters, it likely would have been.

Voters know when they are being brushed off. It’s partly why just three years ago, they sent a message to Tallahasse­e about the amendment process: Hands off.

Reaching into the black hole of political dark money, lawyers whose firms represente­d big businesses spearheade­d a 2020 amendment drive. It would have required voters to cast ballots, not once, but twice. After all, the argument went, fickle voters might sway the other way in the wind and change their minds.

To pierce the fake piety of that effort, one has only to ask if lawmakers would be happy to abide by the same standard. Get elected once. Wait three months. Then, after voters have seen whether they are serious about governing or are spending work hours auditionin­g for a cable news slot, force the same lawmaker to pull off a second victory.

Floridians wisely saw through the twice-is-nice amendment and voted it down.

Nor does the argument that amendment drives are merely the tool of out-of-state special interests seem sincere. If it were, Tallahasse­e lawmakers from the governor on down would be emptying their campaign war chest of every penny from every out-of-state special-interest donor.

All about abortion

Although Tallahasse­e has made a habit of throwing hurdles in the way of citizen initiative­s, this year’s effort seems even more transparen­tly political given a single issue: abortion.

Post-Roe, abortion advocates have made clear they believe amending state constituti­ons is a viable path to ensuring safe and legal access to abortion, and Florida is one of 10 states on the radar.

Five times in 2020, Ipsos/Reuters found that 50% to 56% of Floridians polled agreed that abortion should be legal in most cases. Should the issue get on the ballot and people vote like they talk to pollsters, the right to an abortion might very well be written into the constituti­on.

While Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, may hope to narrow the current ban on most abortions from 15 weeks to 12 weeks and Gov. Ron DeSantis signaled he would be happy to sign off on a bill banning most abortions after six, both can read polls. The biggest likely hurdle would be a constituti­onal amendment created by the direct votes of Florida’s citizens.

And we know how Tallahasse­e likes to deal with that.

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