On the other hand...

Published: Sunday, February 1, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 31, 2004 at 9:36 p.m.

Listen, in my business there's nothing worse than a two-handed editorial writer.

The sort of pundit who writes stuff like:

"On the one hand, President Bush's reckless tax cutting, money borrowing and drunken sailor-like spending threatens to bankrupt the country and condemn our children and grandchildren to a bleak future utterly bereft of hope or opportunity.

"On the other hand, with his steely-eyed resolve and firm grip steering the Ship of State through troubled waters, President Bush may well be America's last best hope."

Oh please. Lop off one of those appendages, pal.

Ambiguity simply has no place in the opinion writer's game.

Stake out a position and run with it. Let somebody else supply the "on the other hand."

That's why we have the oped pages and letters section.

On the other hand.....

I'm sorely conflicted about one of the "Major Issues" facing Florida in 2004.

Said issue being the alleged ease and frequency with which we voters amend our state constitution.

On the one hand, I think it's a serious problem that we've got to resolve before we wake up one morning and discover that we've turned into California; only without the earthquakes and political-action figures.

On the other hand, I have this nagging suspicion that somebody is trying to scare us into giving up our right to control Florida's destiny.

Like maybe all those special interest groups that spend so much money bending our pliable state Legislature to their will. Those guys hate competition from the peanut galleries.

Which hand to lop off?

It's deeper than ambiguity, really. it comes close to full-blown intellectual schizophrenia.

It's not so much right-handed Ron vs. left-handed Ron.

It's Rational Ron vs. Radical Ron.

Maybe giving myself a good talking to will help clear things up.

Rational Ron: This is getting ridiculous. Pregnant pigs? The constitution is supposed to be our basic framework of government. It's a perversion of the democratic process to go cluttering it up with net bans and pig gestation crates.

Radical Ron: Wait a minute! Shouldn't the voters decide what their constitution ought to be? Isn't that what democracy is all about? Anyway, if the people want to ban smoking in public places and their elected Legislature is owned by Big Tobacco, what recourse do we have if not the initiative?

Rational Ron: What's all this talk about the "people"? Most of amendments that get to the ballot are bankrolled by well-heeled special interest groups that pay by the signature and then spend millions of dollars on slick PR campaigns to seduce our votes.

Radical Ron: Yeah, I know. The casino gambling folks spent bundles of money in 1978, 1986 and 1994, and we voters still told them to take a walk each time. They'll probably be back again this year, and we may tell them to get lost again.

Rational Ron: You're missing the point. All these amendments cluttering up the constitution - class size, bullet train, universal pre-K - are going to cost us taxpayers billions of dollars. Other amendments, like Save Our Homes, cut our taxes. The state is going broke trying to pay for more and more with less and less money.

Radical Ron: Really? I thought we're going broke because our politicians slashed our taxes by billions, pumped up spending to keep us fat and happy and maxed out Florida's credit card so the bills won't come due until they're safely term limited out of office. Who's really being irresponsible here?

Rational Ron: Look, VoteSmartFlorida says there are more than 50 amendment initiatives out there. Can you imagine voters having to wade through 50 amendments? It'll be chaos.

Radical Ron: Oh please! Most of those initiatives have been gathering dust for years without getting a single signature. It'll be a miracle if one in 10 ever make it to the ballot.

And exactly who is VoteSmartFlorida, anyway? It's the Chamber, the Farm Bureau, the hotel and motel lobbies, the billboard industry, developers and contractors; guys who throw tons of money at the parties and politicians. They've put a down payment on Tallahassee, and they don't want a bunch of amateurs upsetting their influence-buying apple cart.

Rational Ron: Look, if you think your elected politicians are bought and paid for, just vote them out of office. That's the American way.

Radical Ron: Are you kidding? Florida is awash in dirty political money, and the pols have rigged the game by drawing themselves safe seats. Throwing out an incumbent in this state is rarer than electing Democrats.

If you ask me, the pols are scared to death that citizens are going to come along and pass a campaign finance reform amendment to end Florida's status as the Switzerland of political money laundering, and a reapportionment reform amendment that will take away their ability to protect their own phony baloney jobs.

Rational Ron: You're a very cynical guy, you know that?

Radical Ron: Tell me about it. I live in Florida.

Rational Ron: Look, we can't just go about helter-skelter amending the constitution. The United States Constitution has only been amended 27 times in 215 years. The Florida Constitution has been amended 95 times in 30 years.

Radical Ron: Yeah, and most of those amendments were either put on the ballot by the Legislature or by constitutional revision commissions. We voters have only approved 16 citizen-initiated amendments in the last quarter-century. That's not exactly helter-skelter. It's actually rather tough to get a proposed amendment past Florida Supreme Court scrutiny, collect all the requisite signatures and then convince voters to approve it.

Rational Ron: But how are we going to pay for the bullet train and the class size mandate and universal pre-K and all that other stuff?

Radical Ron: First of all, the Legislature is pretty good at ignoring constitutional mandates it doesn't like. Whatever happened to "Polluters Pay"? The bullet train passed three years ago, and there hasn't been a single mile of track laid yet.

And, by the way, we probably could pay for all those things if the politicians hadn't riddled Florida's tax code with so many special interest loopholes that we actually exempt more things than we tax. If you want to talk about fiscal responsibility, let's get the FAIR initiative on the ballot. It's a tax reform initiative sponsored by former elected officials who grew frustrated over the Legislature's pandering to every lobbyist with a checkbook and a cell phone.

Rational Ron: You just don't get it. We're a representative democracy. We elect our representatives to go to Tallahassee and make our decisions for us.

Radical Ron: So we voters are smart enough to elect people, but too dumb to deal with issues?

Rational Ron: It's not that we're too dumb. But when issues go through the legislative process, they get thoroughly vetted for unintended consequences.

Radical Ron: So was it an intended or unintended consequence two decades ago, when the Legislature vetted and passed a growth management act that has never actually managed to manage growth?

Rational Ron: That's my point. If the amendment to require a popular vote every time we want to change our land use plans passes, it could devastate Florida's economy.

Radical Ron: Yeah, and it might actually manage to manage growth. Talk about an unintended consequence.

Rational Ron: Look, we're not asking you to give up your right to amend the constitution. Just make it a little more difficult - say, by requiring a two-thirds vote instead of just a majority for passage.

Radical Ron: In return for what?

Rational Ron: Huh?

Radical Ron: Well, some states allow citizens to amend the statutes by petition. It's not sealed in stone, and if it doesn't work out, it's easier to fix.

Rational Ron: VoteSmartFlorida says that statutory initiative is just as bad.

Radical Ron: You mean those guys who spend all that money getting the Legislature to amend the statutes to their liking?

Rational Ron: You're missing the point. Democracy by initiative is messy. It's dangerous. The way things work in Tallahassee is an orderly process with rules and checks and balances.

Radical Ron: Well, fine then, go ahead and put a "give up our rights" amendment on the ballot next fall and see how many voters salute it. Heck, if we put pregnant pigs in the constitution, we're likely to vote for any fool thing.

Rational Ron: I'm glad we had this little chat. You know, we're talking about the very integrity of democracy here.

Radical Ron: Hey, pal, this is Florida. You want to talk integrity, go to Iowa or Indiana, or one of those other corn-fed states where nobody spits on the sidewalk and everybody obeys the speed limit.

Florida is The Chaos State. I think that's in our constitution somewhere.

Rational Ron: Tell me about it.

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