Good Citizen: Understanding Ballot Initiatives

by Roland Clee

For some reason, I blank petition workers out of my mind. Every time I go to a courthouse, an awareness walk, farmers market or any festival, they are suddenly there. They pop up unexpectedly, seemingly out of nowhere through a cloud of kettle corn steam or from behind a tie-dyed shirt, there to convict my existing civic guilt of not knowing who they are or why they are here. They approach with their clipboards and their frequently misleading messaging convincing me the galaxy is in crisis. Only by my signature on their petition can some regulation pass to prevent killing all the bees on Earth or something equally serious.

We are very fortunate to live in a state with an amendment process where the issues of the people can be heard as important legislative bills stall and die in committee.

For example, if you and I were friends and we agreed on an issue that was more important to the citizens of the state than to the legislators, such as a constitutional amendment eliminating sugar cones in favor of waffle cones at all ice cream parlors throughout the state, we could develop a strategy to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot. It’s possible but not easy. It has never been easy. Also, it should never be too easy, or we would wind up with so many amendments entering and influencing our statutes that our elected officials would drown in the red tape that results. As Governor Jeb Bush stated in the 2003 State of the State address, “The bottom line is that pregnant pigs don’t belong in our state Constitution.”

In recent years, dealing with a deluge of amendments, lawmakers have raised the thresholds on public petitions but that might have made things more expensive for well financed campaigns but may have indirectly sunk a few worthy grassroots campaigns.

As reported by the Palm Beach Post, Florida law says that to qualify for the ballot, a citizen’s initiative must get petition signatures that amount to at least 8 percent of the total voters in the last presidential election. For the current crop of initiatives, that means 891,589 signatures. And the distribution of those signatures must amount to 8 percent of the voters in at least 14 of Florida’s 27 congressional districts.

To be a good citizen, you ought to know the pending amendments on the Department of State website. Currently there are 26 and there is some redundancy in some of the initiatives. Reading through the list, I know there are some fans of cultivating cannabis at home. Also, there is a movement that I suspect was begun by someone who became angry receiving a ticket with a photo of his car going through a red light with camera surveillance.

The hazards for good citizens are the big money outfits exploiting our generous constitutional amendment process. This process was intended so that citizens are heard if they are ignored by lawmakers. It is a shame when are exploited by interests – many from out of state – intent on changing our laws for their profit margins and unraveling long standing successful relationships within the state.

Recently, I was approached by a paid petition collector from Florida Voters in Charge outside a government building who presented an issue, cleverly obscured but ultimately another casino initiative funded by interest out of state who wanted a piece of the action. When I politely declined, he said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll get it without you.” Shortly after, I was happy the hear the news when their $73 million campaign failed.

The solution is simple: be informed and share. We need to make sure that big money from cash rich organizations or out-of-state big dollar outfits are not using the privilege enshrined for our citizens to sidestep our state’s legislative process. Find out about the initiatives on the table and share it with your neighbors.

We need them to be good citizens too.

Roland Clee is a consultant with Command Staff Consulting, LLC and helps local governments with media relations, accreditation and strategic planning. He is recently retired from the City of Orlando Police Department.

 

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