Must democracy be a scam? Today, the Florida Constitution has all the moral weight of a dry-cleaning ticket. That’s not the way that venerable document is usually perceived or how it’s supposed to be perceived. Yet, to be honest, that’s just the way it is — or how it has devolved.
Politicians invoke the Constitution to justify stands they take on public issues and sometimes take the initiative to amend it, to better reflect (their take on) “what’s good” for Floridians. Average citizens may do the same for high purpose — expending countless hours and substantial dollars to get the thousands of petition signatures to put amendments on the ballot, then educating the voters to approve them.
But however well-intentioned their efforts and interpretations may be — and some undoubtedly are — what is supposed to be the state’s respected roadmap for representative government too often is turned into a mockery. No matter what the honorable words of an adopted amendment may say, elected officials will twist them to mean whatever they want them to, even passing enabling legislation effectively to gut their original intent.
In the name of world-class education, in 1986, by a 2 to 1 margin, sincere Florida voters passed the constitutional amendment that established the Florida Lottery for one reason, and one reason only: as the way to pump millions/billions of extra dollars to enhance the quality of public education (emphasis on extra). Voter approval of the amendment was expressly not to reduce the level of revenue the state would normally have spent (emphasis on not). But in short order, members of the Florida Legislature did so anyway (emphasis on reprehensible and dishonest).
In the name of forcing the state to provide “high quality” public schools, in 2002, voters approved two constitutional amendments — one to limit class size, another to provide universal pre-K, both of which have been undercut, even ignored, by elected officials. Then-Gov. Jeb Bush did everything in his power to kill them, because (when it comes to education) he thinks he always knows best.
In the name of taking politics out of redistricting, in 2010, voters overwhelmingly approved two constitutional amendments. But the Legislature gerrymandered them nonetheless.
Fool us once, shame on elected officials. Fool us again and again, shame on us.
In the name of compassion, convincing clinical evidence, and sane public policy, in November voters will have a chance to approve a wildly popular constitutional amendment legalizing medical marijuana. But, even before it’s likely to be approved, some members of the Legislature are already plotting how they will undercut it. Don’t be surprised if some wing-nut proposes that only doctors with a master’s degree in cannabis will be allowed to prescribe it and/or dispensing clinics will only be open every other Saturday from 4 a.m. to 6 a.m.
The lesson in all of this should be clear: Representative government is never finished; it is a disaster-in-progress, especially in Florida. Voters must insist that legislators pass laws in the spirit of constitutional amendments, not thwart them. The “fun” begins — flouting the public will and doing whatever elected officials please — between elections when the public isn’t looking.
Send a message to the culprits in Tallahassee to enforce the will of “the people,” and finally put some extra starch in the words of the Constitution by passing an amendment providing for the recall of all elected officials who fail to do so — or, as they say in the business, send them to the cleaners and let them hang out to dry without a ticket stub.
Stephen L. Goldstein is the author of “The Dictionary of American Political Bullshit” and “Atlas Drugged: Ayn Rand Be Damned.” He lives in Fort Lauderdale. Column courtesy of Context Florida