Op-ed: Florida Legislature marginalizing youth and students at democracy’s expense

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The following is a guest post from Michael Long, chairman of the Florida Student Association, and Yury Konnikov, president of the Florida Initiative for Electoral Reform.

Last year, the Florida Legislature passed HB 1355 which enacted a slew of new barriers to voting. In addition to creating new difficulties for voter registration, it reverses a 40 year old right to change one’s address at the polling precinct and vote on a regular ballot. Instead, those who move to a different county and must change their address at the polls will see their votes relegated to provisional ballots which have a notorious history of going uncounted. No doubt this will fall hard on students and youth transitioning between various levels of education. However, that does not seem to be enough as this year the Legislature is seeking to amend the Florida Constitution to require that the lone student representative on the body regulating state universities be appointed by the governor, as opposed to being elected by students. If the Legislature is seeking to show Florida’s future that fostering representative democracy is not one of its core values, then it is succeeding.

Currently, the 11 elected student body presidents within the state university system come together in the Florida Student Association (FSA) to elect the sole student representative to the Board of Governors. This method has functioned well for students since 2001 and should continue to do so in the future. The Legislature is proposing HJR 931 to assist student leaders at Florida State University and the University of Florida in seizing control of the one seat, of 17, on the Board of Governors that students, through the FSA, can elect to represent themselves. In order to find a public reason for spending over $65,000 on this proposal, legislators have baselessly accused the FSA of being a “pay to play” organization because member groups pay dues which are used to coordinate and conduct statewide activities. Countering these false allegations and demonstrating the commitment to broadly representing students, FSA’s own bylaws now explicitly state that universities are not required to pay dues to partake in it or serve on the Board of Governors. This is not enough for proponents of HJR 931 because the bill is not about achieving fairness in representation. What the proposal will do is enable Florida’s most influential universities and legislators to have a much greater hand in deciding who will be appointed to the seat.

Amending the state constitution against the public interest is not only a terrible idea in itself, but is proposed at the expense of all the students who are not enrolled at Florida State University or the University of Florida. The proposal to make the seat a gubernatorial appointment would favor the most high profile universities, putting the students of the other nine universities at a significant disadvantage. The student representative will no longer be held accountable for her/his actions by a board of fellow elected student body presidents, and the few existing resources of effective student representation would be eliminated.

Nine of eleven student body presidents, representing 230,000 Florida students, and members of the Florida Advisory Council of Faculty Senates, agree that there is nothing in this issue that merits either HJR 931 or the time and resources necessary to amend the state constitution. Interestingly, the right of faculty to keep electing their sole representative on the Board of Governors, through their organization, has not yet been touched by this senseless maneuver. If anything, it can only be strongly argued that students and faculty need more representation than the little they have now, not less.

As such, there is absolutely no reason to waste over $65,000 in tax payer dollars seeking to amend the Florida Constitution for the collusion of hidden agendas between some political and student leaders. The Legislature is setting a negative example in giving credence to this non-issue at the expense of the very notion that representative democracy means anything in Florida.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.