Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Hiaasen on Amendment 3

Posted on Sun, Oct. 15, 2006, Miami Herald

Special interests behind push for Amendment 3

One of the most audacious and cynical attacks on the rights of Florida voters will appear as ''Amendment 3'' on the Nov. 7 ballot.

A coalition of powerful special interest groups wants to amend the state Constitution to make it harder to -- of all things -- amend the state Constitution.

To thwart grass-roots movements that threaten their chokehold on the Tallahassee power structure, the promoters of Amendment 3 want the rules changed so that all future amendments will require 60 percent of the popular vote, instead of the current simple majority.

Those conspiring in this power grab are hiding behind a lofty-sounding front called ''Protect Our Constitution,'' which more truthfully ought to be named ``Protect Our Political Connections.''

Among the industry lobby groups and big-name companies that don't trust Floridians to shape their own constitution: The National Association of Home Builders, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, The Florida Association of Realtors, U.S. Sugar, The St. Joe Co., Lykes Bros. Inc., the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Publix (where shopping might be a pleasure, but civic activism is apparently an annoyance).

Most corporate donors to the Amendment 3 campaign aren't publicizing their involvement because they don't want Floridians to get the right idea -- that it's a sucker punch disguised as reform.

The entire point of citizens' initiatives is to enable frustrated voters to press an issue that their elected representatives have chosen to ignore. In Florida, the only way to do that is to change the Constitution.

A watershed example was the amendment banning the use of large commercial gill nets, which had been wiping out vast schools of game fish while indiscriminately killing other species, including turtles.

Top state lawmakers, several of whom were taking campaign contributions from the commercial fishing industry, refused for years to do anything about the nets.

Conservation groups then joined with recreational anglers and circulated hundreds of petitions to put the issue on a statewide ballot. The measure passed overwhelmingly in 1994.

Scrolling the list of Amendment 3's donors, you can understand why they're eager to shut the public out of the lawmaking business.

Ten years ago, Big Sugar spent millions to defeat a proposed amendment that would have levied a penny-per-pound tax on sugar, the revenue to be used for cleaning up the Everglades.

Publix and the Florida Chamber of Commerce were both stung by a 2004 amendment raising the minimum wage to $6.15 an hour -- something their toadies in the Legislature had loyally declined to do.

The construction and real-estate industries are desperately nervous about the growing push for a ''Hometown Democracy'' amendment that would give voters a direct voice in major growth decisions in their communities.

If Amendment 3 passes, Florida would be the only state in the nation requiring 60 percent voter approval for a citizen initiative. That means a minority of 41 percent could defeat any proposed change in the Constitution.

Supporters of that idea say that too many frivolous amendments are getting on the ballot these days. Their favorite target of scorn is the recent ban on cages for pregnant pigs, although it's not clear how that has inconvenienced anybody but a few hog farmers.

More irksome to well-connected special interests are the substantive amendments spawned by citizen groups -- the ban on indoor smoking, the limit on class sizes, the hike in the minimum wage, mandatory term limits for officeholders and the cap on tax hikes on homestead property.

In every instance, the reason that public activists got involved is because those elected to speak for the public wouldn't step to the plate. Not all those amendments were perfectly crafted, but neither are many of the laws passed by the Legislature.

Corporate players in Tallahassee know they can't seduce the majority of voters as easily as they seduce politicians. There's a certain scornful confidence, however, that 41 percent of the people can be persuaded to vote against just about anything, if enough money is spent on a slick media blitz.

That's how the folks behind Amendment 3 plan to sell the idea that it's an overdue refinement of the Constitution, when in truth it's a gift to big businesses and their lobbyists.

Voters do make mistakes -- look at some of the lightweights and losers who get elected to office. Eventually, though, the people get wise.

That's what happened to the 2000 amendment approving a high-speed bullet train. The concept looked nifty on paper, but in reality it was a recipe for a half-baked, budget-breaking boondoggle.

Thanks to vigorous campaigning by Gov. Jeb Bush, Floridians eventually saw the light, and the train amendment was repealed before the first inch of track was laid.

Opposition to Amendment 3 is bipartisan and diverse, from former Sen. Bob Graham to ultraconservative religious leaders. They're united in the view that any law that makes it more difficult for citizens to be heard -- and easier for special interests to stack the political deck -- is bad.

Amendment 3's supporters are hoping most people won't bother to read the fine print on the ballot item, and will instead fall for the well-financed hype.

The magic number to prove them wrong is 50.1 percent, at least for now. If you honestly want to protect Florida's Constitution, vote No on Amendment 3.

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