I had the wonderful experience last month of watching Governor Bob Graham debate David Hart over Amendment 1. David Hart is the executive Vice President of Florida Chamber of Commerce, which is one of the few groups that has come out against the Land and Water Legacy Amendment, which is the first constitutional amendment on the ballot in November. Former Speaker of the House Jon Mills was the moderator and mostly just asked clarifying points while the men hashed out the different issues surrounding the proposed amendment. Oddly, the discussion mostly focused almost completely on the means of the amendment rather than the actual amendment.
Hart’s main argument focused on the fact that the citizens of Florida elect a legislature in order to deal with budgetary issues and that budget issues should not be part of the constitution. This is actually a considerably valid point, as budgetary items are not traditionally part of the constitution. The argument that David Hart kept repeating stuck with me (conveniently also published on the Florida Chamber of Commerce’s website): “Imagine, if every group that wasn’t satisfied with the amount of funding their special program got during the recession decided to do a constitutional amendment and mandate a certain amount of spending, how impossible it would be to balance our state budget?” David Hart threw out the example of the pregnant pigs, which are protected under our Florida Constitution under a constitutional amendment, and how this was a sure sign the Florida Constitution was too easy to alter.
The idea that budgetary items should not go into the constitution is an incredibly reasonable idea. However, that only functions under the assumption that the legislature is willing to listen to the will of the people. Now, let us be perfectly clear that getting a constitutional amendment on the ballot and passed is no easy task. Due to changes in the process and the timetable, getting hundreds of thousands of signatures in before Feb 1st and the passing 60% of the electorate is not an easy thing. For anyone to write off this process as ‘easy’ has simply never tried to do it. It is actually incredibly difficult and time consuming. But it remains the only vehicle for direct democracy for the citizens of Florida.
In order to understand the ballot initiative controversy in Florida, you have to talk about high speed rail. In 2000, the voters in the state of Florida voted for a ballot initiative to change the Florida Constitution to mandate that Florida put a high speed rail system “connecting all the major cities”. Florida’s Constitution was amended to require a high speed rail in the state. Unfortunately, cost estimates were unclear before the people had to vote; turns out that connecting all the large cities would cost billions and billions of dollars. The cost estimates were 25 billion just to connect Tampa-Orlando-Fort Lauderdale-Miami.
Needless to say, Jeb Bush was displeased. He had been cutting government agencies at a record rate (many agencies faced a 25% cut the day after he took office, then chopped 25% again when he was re-elected in 2002). He did not want to deal with a high speed rail expense, the paperwork, and generally the nonsense of one of the largest public works projects in the country. (Not to mention that his bread-and-butter was based mostly in the aggregate industry, which was booming under Jeb’s expansionist road-building, and it was not excited at the idea of rail competition.) So, logically, Jeb Bush set out to show the people of Florida that they did NOT, in fact, want high speed rail and that they were just mistaken. (Much of the opposition from Democrats in Palm Beach County was justified publicly due to the proposed train not stopping in Palm Beach, forcing those from the county who wanted to use the service to drive to Broward – but it is possible these Democrats has just made a deal with Governor Bush to kill HSR. )
And he succeeded. In 2004, another constitutional amendment was passed that said “Whoops, just kidding, we’re sorry, we don’t actually want high speed rail.” While I am summarizing here, Jeb Bush went on a press tour about how he saved the state billions of dollars. However, he was not done with the ballot initiative – the high speed rail was the first and Jeb was hit hard with another in 2002 in the Classroom Size Amendment, which limited the number of students in classrooms. He was done dealing with these pesky citizens. So he had Allan Bense, the Speaker for the House at the time (and -random trivia of the day-Will Weatherford’s father-in-law) put the 60% increase on the ballot and it passed in 2006, with the Chamber of Commerce support. It did indeed pass at a healthy 56% (which was ironic because that would not have been enough under the new rules).
In short, before the 2006 change, Florida’s Constitution was the easiest to change in the entire US and our state is full of idiots. It was a bad combination anyway you slice it and yes, there were things in there that probably should not have made it, like the pregnant pigs. However, our state had been dominated by Republicans for the decade before this, so it was hard for any progressive group to get anything brought up legislatively. Citizen initiatives were one of the few ways they could have their voices heard, so activists would commonly use this as a way to try to lobby the legislature. Plenty of citizen groups, especially religious pro-life movements within the state, fought hard against 2006 changes because they had trouble getting laws introduced in the legislature.
However, in consideration the problem that Florida has with the gerrymandering of the legislature and the overwhelming Republican majority, the people who lost in this battle was the citizens of Florida because they drastically limited the ways that they could directly change their government. While the Chamber of Commerce has a very valid point that budgetary issues should not go into the Constitution, there is absolutely no other remedy for citizens. The issue that Hart needs to address is the problem with our system of representation in Florida and how gerrymandering overwhelmingly oppresses the will of the public. Overwhelmingly, Floridians want to protect the environment and in recent years the legislature has stood in the way of that.
The passage of Amendment 1 should be viewed as a referendum on the Legislative leadership for the last decade instead of a way to circumvent the budget process of the legislature. Citizens have to be able to tangible effect their government if they want something done – this is one of the fundamental truths of democracy. In essence, quite by accident the Chamber asked the perfect question in the first place: “What if citizens could actually have a role in their own government?”
Which brings the issue full circle – assuming that this is the will of the people (which it will have to pass in order to show), should the people be able to decide how their money should be spent? There is an argument that the Constitution is not something to change lightly, it is also the very connection of the people with their government. This is the only vehicle for citizens at the moment. While the Chamber of Commerce will continue to rally against Amendment 1, even though public polling has overwhelming support for the amendment, it will be interesting to see how hard they will campaign against the measure. Even though Bob Graham tore Hart to threads in a matter of moments, but we will have to see in November if this argument actually gets any traction.