Vote for Charlie Crist if you want much-needed constitutional reform

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Whether to legalize marijuana for medical use — and with what conditions — are questions that should have been debated by the Legislature. There have been opportunities.

But the profile most legislators display on such topics is not one of courage.

Sports anglers encountered the same quicksand when they asked for restrictions on the massive use of gill nets.

So did animal rights activists who hoped to keep Florida free of the enormous hog farms that make a stinking mess of much of eastern North Carolina.

Health advocates got nowhere when they sought to ban smoking in public places.

Raise the minimum wage? Ha ha.

Fair districting standards for legislative and congressional elections? Get outta here!

In each instance, and others, citizens whose pleas fell on deaf or openly hostile ears resorted to the only alternative they had.

It was to amend the state Constitution by submitting enough petition signatures to put their initiatives to the voters.

Purists argue, rightly so, that a constitution is no place for details such a gill net ban, freedom of movement for pregnant sows, a minimum wage formula, or even where tobacco can be smoked. Among the subjects noted above, only the fair districts initiatives were appropriate as constitutional amendments.

Aside from the point that the constitution should deal only with the fundamental principles of democracy and how to run the government, there’s the problem that once something is amended into it — written in stone, as they say — it is terribly hard to fix it if it turns out to be flawed.

That is a concern about the medical marijuana initiative.

But for those who want it, there’s no way left other than to vote for Amendment 2 on the Nov. 4 ballot.

It’s also a chance to send the Legislature a larger message.

That message is that the public deserves an opportunity to adopt ordinary laws by initiative, not just constitutional amendments.

If something turns out to be a new law, it can be fixed by another new law. There’s no need for supermajority votes in the House and Senate followed by an extensive statewide referendum.

Of the 23 other states with initiative processes, 21 allow laws to be made that way.

The Legislature has had plenty of opportunities to provide for a statutory initiative. It has been proposed each time the people put something into the Constitution that arguably doesn’t belong there.

But the Legislature’s reaction has been only to raise the threshold of “yes’ votes, from a simple majority to 60 percent, that’s required to ratify any amendment at referendum.

Voters could bypass the Legislature on that issue too, but it shouldn’t be necessary.

Creation of a statutory initiative process ought to be high on the agenda of the Constitution Revision Commission that is due to be appointed in 2017.

The provision should, among other things, make it easier to put a proposed law on the ballot than what’s presently required for a constitutional amendment. That formula requires signatures equal to 8 percent of the last presidential vote statewide and in at least 14 of the 27 congressional districts. Currently, that means 683,149 valid signatures — an onerous requirement that almost always forces proponents to spend lots of money and hire paid solicitors.

Once ratified at the polls, a statutory initiative should be open to amendment by the legislators in any way that doesn’t offend the purpose. It would be up to the courts to decide whether they did.

They should even have the power to repeal an initiative outright, but in that event the final say should be with those who adopted it — the voters.

This is one of many ideas meriting consideration by the Constitution Revision Commission.

But whether the Commission will have the integrity to deal with them depends on the outcome of the governor’s race on Nov. 4.

As noted in an earlier Context Florida column, 18 of its 37 members will be chosen by the Legislature’s Republican leaders. Due to their gerrymandering, the Democrats have no shot at taking over. Few if any commissioners amenable to more power for voters will come from that quarter.

Gov. Rick Scott doesn’t care much for voters either. If he’s re-elected, he’ll appoint 15 commissioners. It would be game over for constitutional reform.

The attorney general and three persons appointed by the Chief Justice round out the 37-member panel. There will be no balance if Republicans appoint all the rest. To have that balance depends on electing Charlie Crist.

Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the Tampa Bay Times. He lives near Waynesville, North Carolina.