Vote Yes on 2020 Amendment 4 to Keep the Constitution Clean

by | Nov 1, 2020

2020 Amendment 4 requires the electorate to approve amendments to the Florida Constitution during seriatim general elections. In other words, under 2020 Amendment 4, the electorate would need to approve each amendment to the Florida Constitution twice instead of once. This improved vetting, and additional time for debate and reflection, would restore checks and balances needed in any lawmaking process and protect the Florida Constitution from amendments involving sloppy draftsmanship, cursory policymaking, and out of state dark money.

The detractors from 2020 Amendment 4 misapprehend fundamental constitutional concepts inherent to our Republic, which provide for limited government, separation of powers, and legislative lawmaking, all protected by a written Constitution. The Constitution is a revered document that provides a blueprint for our government. 2020 Amendment 4 addresses recent attempts to turn the Florida Constitution into a seventh volume of the Florida Statutes, regulating everyday matters best addressed elsewhere. Such attempts weaken the separation of powers, imperil individual liberty, and place our constitution up for auction to out of state special interests.

Lawmakers ordinarily practice bicameralism and presentment. In other words, most systems in the United States involve a lower house, an upper house (usually called the Senate), and an executive veto (held by the Governor or the President.) These three diverse bodies debate, negotiate and compromise to enact law after a vigorous give and take. I have seen this process work, and it invariably produces a superior result (and broader consensus) than any single body acting unilaterally. Even good legislation is usually presented several times and incrementally improves before eventual enactment. When this process is rushed, ignored, or sidestepped, bad law is enacted.

Out of state special interests have used the ballot initiative process to short circuit checks and balances and purchase amendments to our Florida Constitution. First, such interests hire paid petition gatherers, many of whom have little knowledge of the policy issues, to bamboozle passers-by at courthouses and public events to sign petitions. Once enough signatures are gathered, a perfunctory vetting process is followed by a flurry of misleading advertisements. The going price for this process appears to be several million dollars. The Florida Constitution should not be for sale. The least we can do is increase the price by better protecting our Constitution and require those who wish to amend it to achieve a more durable consensus.

The detractors of 2020 Amendment 4 claim it would thwart the will of the voters. However, the will of the voters appears to be that out of state special interests cease harassing them with confusing initiatives that they must review without sufficient or reliable information. After voting for everything from President to Community Development District, constituents invariably complain to me about the further burden of evaluating prolix amendments for which they lack sufficient information. In fact, my constituents, who have just elected myriad public officials to perform policymaking for them, are immediately beleaguered by policy questions at the bottom of the very same ballot. Rather than my constituents telling me how they want me to vote on legislation, they ask me how I want them to vote on constitutional amendments, inverting the traditional relationship between elected officials and citizens in a republican form of government.

The detractors further ignore the Florida Constitution’s role as a counter-majoritarian document. That is, it protects minorities and other vulnerable populations from momentary majorities. The detractors should remember that many bad policies once commanded the “will of the people” during our nation’s history. Slavery, oppression of Native Americans, Japanese internment, segregation, and several improvident wars provide ready and obvious examples. Other examples are less obvious but more enduring. Yet other problems arise not from malice but from rushed or sloppily drafted legislation. Such problems are mitigated when legislation is properly vetted and subjected to the checks and balances, input from stakeholders, and debate and revision that is inherent and indispensable to the legislative process. The Constitution protects us from bad or invidious policies, even though they may purport to command support from the majority of a particular group at a particular time. If the Constitution can be amended easily, then protections for private property, individual liberty, and minority rights are in constant peril.

The purpose of the Constitution, then, is not to provide law on every issue, which is the job of the legislature, nor is it to provide an end-run around bicameralism and presentment (indeed this is its primary feature). Rather, the Constitution protects individual liberty, separation of powers, and limited government. Amendments directed toward substantive policy rather than structural safeguards would be better addressed by the legislature. Claims by the left that the “will of the people” has been thwarted by the legislature are belied by the fact that the people of Florida have consistently elected a conservative majority in the legislature, and are expected to do so again on Tuesday. Although the fate of 2020 Amendment 4 is more uncertain, we are prepared to practice what we preach, if necessary, and continue the give and take to create a more perfect Constitution in years ahead.

The United States Constitution has been amended only 27 times in over 200 years. By contrast, the Florida Constitution is invariably amended multiple times each election cycle. The United States Constitution fits easily in a breast pocket of my dress shirt. The Florida Constitution consumes nearly half of the Rulebook issued to members of the Florida House. It is no accident that the United States Constitution is easier to understand and more accessible. The United States Constitution requires a two-step process, with a supermajority at each step, to pass amendments. The Florida Constitution should enjoy similar protections. Policymakers, veterans, and other public servants should remember that they all promised to protect and defend the Constitution, not amend it.

Mike Beltran is a state representative who serves House District 57


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