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House panel votes to raise the bar for proposed constitutional amendments

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A lively debate on governing principles broke out Thursday as a House committee voted unanimously to ask the voters to raise the threshold for amending the Florida Constitution.

HJR 321 would require approval by 66 2/3 percent of the voters to change the state’s foundational document. At present, that requires 60 percent approval.

Sponsor Rick Roth, a freshman Republican from Loxahatchee, acknowledge his proposal would make it harder to change Florida’s basic law.

“I watch politics very closely, and have for 30 years, and it seems like it’s becoming, more and more, who has the money to put something on the ballot,” he said following the 14-0 vote by the Oversight, Transparency, & Administration Subcommittee.

“This is a great opportunity for debate, actually,” Roth said.

As his proposal advances through the legislative and, potentially, electoral process, “people will become more informed, I hope, of what kind of government we have and how important the Constitution is,” he said.

The proposal advances to the Rules & Policy and full Government Accountability committees. There’s a Senate companion bill — SJR 866 by Dennis Baxley. 

The change would go to the voters in 2018 if approved by three-fifth of the House and Senate. Of course, more than 60 percent of the voters would have to agree to raise the bar against themselves.

Critics argued the measure would weaken voters’ control over government.

“Why are we continuing to make it harder for our citizens to get something on the ballot in Florida?” wondered Kelly Quintero, of the Florida League of Women Voters.

“We have the most stringent citizens’ initiative in the United States,” said Gail Marie Perry, of the Communications Workers of America.

Medical marijuana activist Melissa Villar called the proposal “an affront to democracy.”

In fact, the medical marijuana initiative on last year’s ballot would have met the proposed threshold — it won 71 percent of the vote in November.

Republican Cary Pigman said there should be a high bar to changing the Constitution. Unlike the legislative process, which allows for changes as bills proceed through the committee process, proposed amendment language is fixed, he said.

“We are a republic of elected representatives,” Pigman said. “I stand for election every two years, and anyone can run against me. And I’m term-limited. That is where the people are heard.”

Blaise Ingoglia echoed the point. “The people’s will is electing representatives to come up here to represent them in our districts,” he said.

“Amending the Constitution should be hard, and it should not be taken lightly. I would submit that amending our Constitution right now is a little too easy.”

Katie Edwards, the subcommittee’s ranking Democrat, argued the Constitution has become cluttered with provisions the Legislature finds ways not to observe. “That is the real affront to our democracy,” she said.

Still, “after going back and reading this cluttered mess, I’ll support you today,” Edwards told Roth.

In other action, the panel voted, 14-0, for HB 397, creating an exemption in the Sunshine Law for information that would identify victims of sexual harassment in state government.

The subcommittee also voted to tighten internal auditing controls and oversight at local agencies; and to extend Sunshine Law exemptions for Department of Citrus research, peer review panels at two programs researching cancer and other serious ailments, and Social Security and other personal-identification information among unclaimed property administered by the Department of Financial Services.

Background on those bills is available here.

Michael Moline is a former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal and managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal. Previously, he reported on politics and the courts in Tallahassee for United Press International. He is a graduate of Florida State University, where he served as editor of the Florida Flambeau. His family’s roots in Jackson County date back many generations.

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