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Constitutional Amendment Mania

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Column by Jim Flynn

A constitution is a written document agreed upon by the people of a state or nation to establish the character of their government and the principles and limitations under which it will function. Amendments should be few and seldom.

The U.S. Constitution has only 27 ratified amendments. In Florida amendments have become a semi-annual ballot sport. It’s not unusual to have a dozen amendment petitions circulating in search of supporters.

For those unfamiliar with the Florida Constitution, it’s five times longer than the U.S. Constitution. The index alone is twice as long as the national Constitution. It’s becoming a catchall for causes and convictions, including the famous porcine civil rights amendment, which mandates humane treatment of pregnant pigs.

Narrow interest groups work up all sorts of amendments, often out of frustration that the Legislature won’t respond to their issues. The 2002 class-size limitation amendment is an example of unintended consequences that can occur when a matter which should have been handled by legislation was voted into the Constitution instead. Amendments leave no wiggle room for changing conditions, such as recessions.

Just passing legislation is becoming too temporary for ambitious legislators who believe their political and policy convictions should be cast in stone -- or at least enshrined in the state Constitution for the betterment of all future generations.

The recently adjourned legislative session adopted seven proposed constitutional amendments for consideration on the 2012 ballot. Challenges may follow.

Previous challenges motivated some of the proposed 2012 amendments. Speaker of the House Dean Cannon and Senate President Mike Haridopolous are still smarting from court rejections of three 2010 legislative amendments – property tax breaks for first-time home buyers, obstruction of the new federal health law, and a clumsy effort to kill two citizen initiatives which make it difficult for state legislators to protect their seats during redistricting.

One of the 2012 proposed amendments would resurrect the tax break for first-time home buyers, a piece of wishful thinking that it will stimulate the real estate market during a period of high unemployment -- or at least delight developers.

The health-care freedom amendment has also been resuscitated. It’s political showmanship intended to derail Obamacare, an issue that will be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, not by some Tallahassee amendment committee.

The proposed 2012 amendment most deserving of defeat is the effort to control the Supreme Court by subjecting judges to legislative confirmation and creating a veto power over court rules. A bigger power grab by the House to enlarge and split the court was dumped.

Maybe the Legislature will try to sell the court amendment to voters as a money saver, intended to gradually reduce government to just two branches – the Executive and the Legislative, with the Supreme Court serving as a wholly owned subsidiary of the Senate.

On second thought, the Legislature may have stumbled on a great idea. How about a constitutional amendment to eliminate the Senate and have a unicameral (one house) Legislature like Nebraska. That would be a huge money saver, and there would be fewer politicians to keep an eye on. Anybody want to start a petition?