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Friday, March 11, 2005

Why Does the Florida Legislature Hate America?

Now that the annual Florida Legislative pig fuck . . . er, I mean, session . . . is under way, the proposals to reduce our ability to get constitutional amendments passed is gaining steam. This is simply a power grab by the elected officials beholden to wealthy special interest groups that want to ensure state dollars are spent on their needs, not ours.

Here's how the legislature works: monied interests, from agribusiness to developers to sugar to telecom to banking, spends millions on campaign contributions to get people elected as representatives and senators, and then they spend millions more on lobbyists and perks for lawmakers to ensure that they'll vote they way the special interests want. Florida raises and spends billions of dollars ever year, and the special interests want to ensure most of it is spent to help them get really, really rich.

What throws a spanner into this machine are citizen-led initiative that require the state to spend money on things that help people, like smaller class sizes for school children so teachers can better educate them. Or on mandatory pre-K for all kids, so they can start learning earlier and poor parents can return to work before their kids enter a public school.

These initiatives cost a lot of money, which means a smaller pie to divvy up for the special interests. That's why Jeb!?! campaigned so hard to repeal the high-speed rail last year, successfully, and now wants voters to repeal the class size reductions.

The anti-initiative propaganda does not address specific problems with these initiatives, instead relying on arguments that we shouldn't muck up the state constitution.

My favorite bogeyman is the initiative passed several years ago protecting pregnant pigs, which is often used as the example of why citizen initiatives have run amok. No one ever talks about the specifics of the initiative, because just saying that the state constitution has "pregnant pigs" in it makes the idea of citizen initiatives sound wacky, and that's the intent.

However, there was a great reason for supporting this initiative – it prevents massive pig farming operations, which are one of the most polluting, obnoxious and disgusting types of farming operations out there – from locating in Florida. Ask anyone in North Carolina, where giant hog farms have ruined major water systems and threaten drinking water supplies. Worse, try getting within a few miles of one of these places – the smell and flies are horrible.

But I love this example because of its irony – lawmakers are using pigs as a reason to protect their own form of pork.

Thank goodness that any changes the legislature proposes must be approved by voters in 2006. Already there is a massive coalition of citizen groups gathered to fight this initiative.

Sure, the initiative process is not perfect and certainly not pretty, but no less perfect or pretty than the sausage made in the Legislature, which is usually done behind closed doors and at the behest of the rich and powerful interests than control state government.

If lawmakers don't want people pushing such initiatives, they need to be more responsive to people when they request the state to take these actions. And in almost every case, ballot initiatives followed intense efforts by citizens to get the Legislature to do the exact thing the initiative ended up forcing the legislature to do.

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