Changes to initiative procedures advance

Published: Thursday, April 1, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, April 1, 2004 at 12:35 a.m.

TALLAHASSEE - Voters will have to endorse amendments to the state constitution by a three-fifths vote under a proposal tentatively approved Wednesday by the Florida Senate.

Requiring more than a simple majority vote to amend the constitution is part of a Senate package of changes to the amendment process that could be presented to voters this fall.

The proposals are in response to claims that the state constitution has become too easy to amend through the citizens' initiative process, which allows measures to be placed directly on the ballot if 489,000 voter signatures are collected.

Sen. Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, one of the sponsors of the 60 percent majority vote measure (SJR 2392), said changing the constitution should require more than the same vote that lawmakers use to ''name bridges and roads.''

Other provisions in the Senate package, which is scheduled for a final vote this week, include:

n A new Supreme Court test (SJR 2396) to limit initiatives to issues involving basic rights, provisions already in the constitution and measures related to how government and the courts operate. It is aimed at preventing issues, like the confinement of pregnant pigs, from ending up in the document.

n A new amendment filing deadline (SJR 2394) that would require measures to be certified by Feb. 1 of the election year and require a Supreme Court ruling on the initiative by April. Currently, amendments can be certified up to 90 days before the general election.

The Senate leadership wants to put those measures before voters in the Aug. 31 primary.

That provision drew most of the debate Wednesday as some senators questioned whether major changes to the state constitutional amendment process should be placed on a primary ballot, which draws fewer voters than a general election.

In 2000, the last presidential year, only 25 percent of the state's voters participated in the primary, while 70 percent of the electorate voted in the general election.

Sen. Rod Smith, D-Alachua, one of the architects of the Senate package, said he believed the amendment debate would be lost in a hotly contested general election that will feature a presidential contest and a U.S. Senate race.

''Our concern was, that if we wait until then, everything is going to be lost in the presidential and senatorial elections,'' he said.

Smith also noted there is typically a ''huge drop-off'' in the number of voters who participate in elections at the top of the general election ticket as opposed to those who vote on down-ballot items like constitutional measures.

As an alternative, he said Senate leaders want to put the constitutional issues before voters in the primary where they will draw more attention.

''We are hoping to have a robust, directed debate in August,'' he said.

But Sen. Ron Klein, R-Boca Raton, said the drop-off in voter participation between a general election and a primary ''is very substantial.''

He said he was concerned about letting a majority of 25 percent of the voters decide an issue ''that affects all 16 million people in Florida.''

Putting the issues on the Aug. 31 ballot would require an extraordinary vote by the Senate.

Thirty of the 40 members must endorse the special election.

Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville, said he believes he has enough votes to prevail.

In another skirmish Wednesday, senators debated whether the new Supreme Court test should apply to all constitutional amendments or only to the citizens' initiatives.

The Senate measure would require only the citizens' initiatives to meet the new test, while amendments proposed directly by the Legislature would not have to meet that new review.

Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, offered an amendment that would have required all amendments, regardless of their origin, to meet the new court test.

She noted that the legislative initiatives, not citizens' initiatives, have been the greatest source of constitutional change over the past three decades.

Since 1970, 69 of the 95 amendments approved by voters have come from the Legislature. Only 16 citizen initiatives have passed during the same time.

Dockery said any changes in the amendment process should apply to all groups that can propose changes.

''If we're focussing on the process, let's focus on the entire process,'' she said.

But her amendment was defeated in a voice vote, after opponents said letting the Supreme Court review legislative initiatives would violate the ''separation of powers'' doctrine in the constitution.

If the Senate package clears the chamber this week, it's still far from a done deal.

The House Subcommittee on Ethics and Elections is expected to debate its constitutional revision package today.

The House has several major differences with the Senate. A primary one is the House measure that would require any initiative that would cost more than $1 million to implement to be linked directly to a proposed tax or fee increase.

The so-called ''no hidden taxes'' provision is not part of the Senate package.

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