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June 18, 2018


Fewer Treats, More Tricks

The Legislature's nightmare on Elm Street puts Freddie to shame.

Neil Skene | 10/1/2004
It's convenient that elections come right after Halloween. Various hobgoblins can dress up as public spirits and try to bewitch the voters. They're not all goblins, of course. But how, really, can you tell?

No wonder we see citizens less enthusiastic about citizenship. The 20th century enlarged the right to vote, produced party primaries to replace smoke-filled rooms and saw the rise of the citizen initiative, but citizens seem less powerful than at any time in American history. During the spring legislative session, some of the better-intentioned public spirits blocked efforts to curtail ballot initiatives, but the truth is that voters don't fear a loss of initiatives so much as they fear a government that just doesn't work for them.

A lot of people and ideas are jumping out of the bushes at us, but there's not much confidence that so many things will change. Everyone's ducking responsibility, and so many levels and agencies of government are involved in every issue that nobody can either take on a problem or be held accountable for it.

What's really scary is that government is simply impervious to clearly articulated hopes for change. Even constitutional initiatives are ignored or circumvented because the politicians disagree with them. After the voters in 2000 overruled Gov. Jeb Bush's cancellation of the bullet train, Bush stacked the High-Speed Rail board with skeptics, who spent four years on studies and proposals before the repeal effort was mounted.

When Sen. Bob Graham successfully crusaded for an initiative to restore some version of the Board of Regents, Bush's appointees decided they have insufficient political muscle to do their job of overseeing the separate university boards of trustees. So they declined to oppose a new chiropractic school at Florida State even though they didn't like it.

In 2002, voters directed a state-financed pre-kindergarten program. What the Legislature passed in 2004 was so laughably inadequate that the governor, who said he supported the concept, vetoed it.

People voted for smaller class sizes, but instead of putting more money into education to pay for it, the governor and the Legislature just diverted money from everything else in education.

Unable to muster a majority to curtail these initiatives, the Legislature is proposing to make it tougher for citizens to get initiatives on the ballot.

We also have dueling initiatives, a horrific way to make policy. There's the bullet-train repeal. An anti-abortion initiative from the Legislature seeks to undo a Florida Supreme Court ruling, which undid a law the Legislature passed requiring girls who want an abortion to notify their parents. The gambling interests, like horror figure Freddie Krueger, keep coming back, but, unlike the kids on Elm Street, the voters seem to have figured out it's a nightmare if they go there.

Best of all, we have the duel between the doctors and the lawyers. The lawyers, dressed up as "Floridians for Patient Protection," have amendments to give patients access to information on doctors' and hospitals' malpractice and to take away the medical license of any doctor adjudged guilty of malpractice at least three times. The latter surgical strike is more like a chain saw massacre, leaving no room for high-risk specialties and even seeming to apply retroactively.

But this is war. Doctors, who outgunned trial lawyers last year in the Legislature in the malpractice debate -- you've all seen the lower health costs that resulted, right? -- merely want to strangle, not mutilate, the lawyers. Their "Citizens for a Fair Share" proposes to limit lawyer fees, which might discourage complex litigation.

It's too bad the Hometown Democracy initiative didn't make it to the ballot. Talk about a Nightmare on Elm Street. This initiative would have let local voters approve or veto changes to local growth-management plans. Chambers of commerce and developers got vertigo just thinking about it. It'd be a mess if this thing passed. But the horror show would have been entertaining, and nobody else seems to be doing anything about rampant development.

The only significant initiative this year that was actually appropriate for the state constitution was the one pushed by former Senate leaders John McKay and Jack Latvala, both Republicans, that would have forced a regular review of sales-tax exemptions. But at the instigation of some "public spirits" that might have gotten taxed, the initiative got thrown off the ballot by the Florida Supreme Court for violating the "one subject" rule.

Blunt instruments
Voters thought they were getting some control when they approved term limits in 1992. Term limits are foolish for legislative bodies, but they were another blunt instrument for expressing frustration. Well, the Legislature is still entrenched, but it's now inexperienced. Lawmakers are even more dependent on lobbyists, who've been here longer and know the ropes.

We have become a country where citizenship is in decline even as the appearance of democracy has increased, say political scientists Matthew Crenson and Benjamin Ginsberg of Johns Hopkins University in a book called "Downsizing Democracy." Government has become a broker among competing interest groups, making policy regardless of public support. Many interest groups no longer care who's elected. They just petition, lobby and litigate until they get what they want. A result is people's growing sense of political powerlessness.

Basically, Americans are being played for suckers, say political scientists John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. They say citizens value democratic processes as a check on their government, but a majority also distrust the wisdom of their fellow citizens and even their own knowledge on complex issues. They'd like to see selfless political leaders making good judgments and running an effective government that gives them value for their tax dollar.

"Wanting policy to be made without the people being taken advantage of is not the same as wanting the people to make policy," Hibbing and Theiss-Morse say in a book called "Stealth Democracy."

Until voters see more evidence of real representation by political leaders devoted to honest, effective government, they'll keep being spooked enough to accept these initiatives, even though they know they might be getting razor blades in their trick-or-treat bags.

Tags: Politics & Law, Around Florida

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