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Business Observer Friday, Mar. 26, 2004 18 years ago

Persuasive Debate (Tampa edition)

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Tampa Bay area business and political leaders hear spirited arguments for and against proposed reforms to the state's citizen ballot initiative process.

Persuasive Debate (Tampa edition)

Tampa Bay area business and political leaders hear spirited arguments for and against proposed reforms to the state's citizen ballot initiative process.

By David R. Corder

Associate Editor

Hal Mullis changed his mind. He won't say how publicly, but it happened during a recent breakfast debate his law firm sponsored over the issue of citizen ballot initiatives. "I thought that both presenters did an effective job of presenting the point and counterpoint on a very important issue," he says.

The president of Tampa's Trenam Kemker Scharf Barking Frye O'Neill picked a good time to tackle this issue at one of its quarterly regional leadership forums. It's a hot issue in the Florida Legislature, where House and Senate select committees recently proposed reforms to the state's citizen ballot initiative process. It's also an issue that pits traditional political forces against one another.

On the one hand, Florida's fiscal conservatives - namely Republican politicians backed by business groups such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce - argue the citizen referendum process is out of control. They cite the passage of initiatives that require mandatory protection of pregnant pigs, construction of a high-speed rail system and reductions in Florida's K-12 student-teacher ratios. They also cite the influence of special interest groups - particularly out-of-state influences - on citizen initiatives that don't take into account state budgetary limitations.

On the other hand, more moderate and liberal influences - namely Democrat-backed organizations and individuals - cite the importance of the state constitutional tool as an important check that balances the citizenry's right to participate in the state's policymaking process. They also consider the citizen ballot initiative process as pure grassroots politics.

That's the picture Mullis painted when he turned over the debate to University of Tampa Professor Richard Piper, who moderated the discussion between Kristina Wilfore, executive director of Washington, D.C.-based Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, and Mark Wilson, senior vice president of the Florida Chamber.

Business perspective

Right off Wilson wanted to make sure the audience knew what the chamber is not trying to do.

"The citizen initiative process is a great idea in Florida," he says. "We want to fight to keep the citizens initiative process in place. I think the issue here, as you hear both sides of the discussion today, is that I think many people have concluded that the process is broken and needs to be fixed. At the end of the day we all have to come together to keep the citizen initiative process in place."

The interest of the chamber and other business groups peaked in 2002 when the electorate passed constitutional protection for pregnant pigs, Wilson says. Besides equating such protections to those of freedom speech and religion, he cites the influence of outside political forces such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

"This was a major wakeup call for us in Florida," he says. "Not only did only did we feel this was not a constitutional issue, putting pregnant pigs in the Constitution, the real question for us at the Chamber was: If a national special interest group like PETA could take an issue like pregnant pigs and put it on the ballot and spend a few million dollars actually getting it in, if that could happen, what else could happen?"

In response, Wilson says, the chamber embarked on a research effort and published some of the results on an Internet web site (www.votesmartflorida.org). Chamber officials focused on several issues.

For one, citizen initiative signatures gathered in Florida remain valid for four years. Wilson says that is longer than allowed in any other state.

"The signature gathering process itself has become a business in and of itself," he says. "We now know of at least four companies in Florida whose sole purpose is to go out and get signatures. What makes that worse? These signature gatherers are paid in many cases. Typically signature gatherers get paid between $3 to $8 per signature."

During the research, Wilson says, the chamber learned that four out of five Floridians do not know the signature gatherers get paid.

"So I would ask all of you: Did you know that many of these signature gatherers were paid?" he asked. "Did you know this process was for sale?

"Also what if I told you half the people that sign these petitions on the way out of the mall, on the way out of the supermarket, admit they signed it to be left alone, not because they believed in the issue," he adds.

What also concerns the chamber is the restriction on the Florida Supreme Court over the content of citizen ballot initiatives.

"There is a ballot initiative underway in Florida to legalize (marijuana)," he says. "There's another ballot initiative in Florida to lower the voting age to 16. The court can't stop either one of those, because they only cover a single subject. But you can't have an amendment to both legalize drugs and lower the voting age in the state of Florida."

To eliminate perceived abuses, Wilson says the chamber and about 60 mostly business partners that joined the reform movement have focused on three primary ways to create a more efficient citizen ballot initiative process.

"The primary focus of VoteSmartFlorida.org's efforts is voter education," he says. "Simply, let's let voters know what's going on, that the process is for sale."

Second, he says, the process needs to be changed. There are two proposals the chamber has recommended to the Legislature.

One is moving the qualifying date for a citizen ballot initiative to Jan. 1 of the election year. Currently, proponents of an initiative may file as soon as 91 days prior to the election.

"Let's give the voters 10 full months to know what's going to be on the ballot for the Constitution," he says. "Let's let the media talk about it. Let's have town hall meetings about it. Let's debate these issues and the tax consequences."

Then there is the threshold percentage required to pass a constitutional amendment. Passage requires 50% plus 1%.

"We're proposing moving the threshold from 50% plus 1% of those voting on a question to two-thirds of those voting on a question," he says. "Two-thirds already is in the Florida Constitution for new taxes. Why not put it in there for other ballot initiatives?"

Citizen perspective

Despite their differences, Wilfore agrees with Wilson that some deficiencies exist in Florida's citizen ballot initiative process.

"The citizen initiative process is by no means a substitute for a representative democracy, but it does serve an important legislative-democratic function in the state," she says. "Way too much money is spent on initiatives. I would very much agree with that. Questionable laws get put on the ballot as a result."

However, Wilfore questions which system best serves the interests of the electorate - including the business community. She does not agree with VoteSmartFlorida.org's tactics.

"VoteSmartFlorida's proposal, I believe, in no way resolves the problems that were brought up or addresses anything realistic with what's going on with the process," she says. "While supermajority provisions may seem attractive, they set in motion a new and often dangerous dynamic for the state. Suddenly, a vocal minority has new power to be able to veto the clear will of the majority."

Wilfore also disagrees with the effort to extend the deadline for debate on citizen ballot initiatives.

"I really believe it cuts off the legislative debate," she says. "Now you're going to have people proposing initiatives at a time when they're not going to know what is going to happen during (the legislative) session, when these issues may be able to be addressed legislatively."

In her review of the Florida debate, Wilfore says she identified several fallacies in the reform effort. She attacks the argument that Florida's citizen ballot initiative process is out of control.

"We've got 16 (citizen initiative) laws passed vs. 10,000 laws passed by both chambers of the Florida Legislature since 1976," she says. "Florida doesn't even rank in the top five of initiative states that have the most active initiative process. There is not even an upward trend for ballot initiatives.

"Florida already has checks and balances in place that serve as existing obstacles to get measures qualified," she says. "You have one of the toughest systems, with a higher number of signatures required, a Supreme Court review and a geographic distribution for the those signatures."

In her opinion, Wilfore says Florida's voters are much smarter than the VoteSmartFlorida proponents assume.

"The bottom line is: If the voters don't like these issues, they won't pass," she says. "They won't sign them. They won't actually get to the ballot. It is not really out of control."

Wilfore says it is ironic that elected officials think their very own constituents can't be trusted to make informed decisions.

"There's no basis for concluding that voters aren't making rational choices in Florida," she says. "Even if this was a provable problem, the chamber's proposal does nothing to resolve this."

As a solution, Wilfore recommends the state create a statutory process that allows voters to propose new laws through the Legislature.

"You're one of the only states that only allows people who are going to do initiatives to actually use the Constitution to do that," she says. "Create a statutory (process). Raise the threshold of signatures for constitutional amendments, if you want to avoid these measures being put into the Constitution. The bottom line is we believe the chamber doesn't like the subject matter of the measures passed, and that it's really not about the Constitution."

As for the pregnant pigs issue, Wilfore reminded the audience that 2,750 people volunteered to collect signatures. More than 6,000 individuals contributed financially to the campaign. And the Florida chapter of the Humane Society, one of the largest in the country, endorsed the PETA effort.

"We can say this is out of state," she says. "We can say they brought in special interest money, but the reality is there was grassroots support."

Perhaps, Wilfore adds, business interests should examine the potential impact of the proposed reforms on their own access to government.

"If anything, ballot measures are good for business," she says. "Voters have used initiatives to cut back the size of their state governments and put a break on redistribution."

There also is a hidden danger in the proposed legislative reforms that could come back to haunt the very people who now support them, she adds.

"The political climate in Florida could be much different," she says. "You could have not as friendly of a Legislature or governor. You could in 10 to 20 years have a totally different process out there. Do you want to limit your ability to use initiatives as one tool in your toolkit to further your agenda?"

Reform Moves Forward

Clear differences exist between the proposals the state House and Senate select committees recently adopted for reforming the citizen ballot initiative process.

The House Select Committee on Constitutional Amendments proposed fewer restrictions than the proposals adopted by the Senate Select Committee on Constitutional Amendment Reform.

For instance, the House select committee proposed 60% supermajority passage on just the citizen ballot initiative.

However, the Senate select committee not only proposed a 60% supermajority passage on citizen initiatives but also the same percentage on legislative initiatives, the constitutional revision commission and the state tax and budget commission.

Both select committees recommended an increase in the filing deadline for citizen initiatives. The House select committee recommended pushing the required filing date to March. The Senate select committee recommended the deadline be set in February.

These proposals now require regular committee review such as ethics and rules and procedure.

Members of both House and Senate must approve identical language with 60% of the members voting for the changes before it can be enacted and placed on the November general election for a popular vote.

- David R. Corder

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