Changing Florida Constitution should be hard, but not as hard as shadowy special interests want it to be | Opinion

Carl Hiaasen
·4 min read

Imagine enduring two separate, soul-sucking election campaigns to choose a president. Instead of voting once, we’d all have to go out and vote twice.

Ridiculous, right? Cruel and unusual punishment.

But a two-vote requirement is exactly what’s being proposed by a mystery group that wants to make it harder for Floridians to amend the state Constitution. It’s on your ballot this year as Amendment 4, one of the more rancid upwellings from the Tallahassee swamp.

As our law now stands, it’s not easy to change the Constitution by citizen initiative — and it shouldn’t be. Amendments begin with a petition drive requiring the number of signatures equal to 8 percent of the votes cast in the previous presidential election.

Those signatures must come from at least half of the state’s 27 congressional districts. Once approved for the ballot, no amendment passes in Florida without at least 60 percent of the voters saying Yes.

Yet now a well-funded shadow group calling itself Keep Our Constitution Clean is pushing an amendment designed (ironically) to cripple the amendment process: Floridians would be forced to go to the polls twice to vote on the same initiative, in different elections up to a year apart.

The organization has raised about $9 million in cash and in-kind contributions, but it won’t say where the money came from. One solid guess is the major utility companies, which feared a proposed amendment that would have made the industry more competitive.

There’s nothing more suspicious than a political campaign that absolutely nobody will admit to funding, and that’s Amendment 4.

A traditional function of the Constitution is to give citizens their say when lawmakers ignore them on major issues. In recent years, Floridians have done that twice dramatically, to the jaw-grinding annoyance of politicians in power.

Six years ago, a historic 75 percent of voters approved Amendment 1, a measure meant to “acquire, restore, improve, and manage” conservation lands, including forests and Everglades wetlands. The purchases were to be made by the Land Acquisition Trust Fund using 33 percent of the existing tax on real-estate documentary stamps.

Voters could not have more emphatically declared their support for preserving critical wild places — and no sooner had the amendment passed than the Republican-led Legislature conspired to subvert it.

Having already gutted the Forever Florida land program, lawmakers had no intention of re-starting a conservation plan. Instead, they began spending the Amendment 1 money on agency expenses, staff salaries, even computer software upgrades — anything except buying land, which is what the people had wanted.

Environmental groups sued, won in a Leon County court — and then lost on appeal.

The same fate awaited another now-famous Amendment 4, which was supposed to restore the voting rights of felons who’ve finished their prison terms. It passed in 2018 with 65 percent voter approval, but we all know what happened next.

Gov. Ron DeSantis and GOP leaders rammed through a law saying felons couldn’t go to the polls until they paid off all outstanding court fees and debts. DeSantis’ mission was to block the votes of hundreds of thousands of eligible felons, many of whom are Black and Hispanic, and presumed to favor Democratic candidates.

Opponents sued, calling the law a “poll tax.” A U.S. district court judge agreed, but his ruling was reversed on appeal.

An estimated 775,000 former inmates were affected by that decision. About 67,000 were able to register in time for the Nov. 3 election. Some of those who paid their court debts were aided by benefactors such as Michael Bloomberg and LeBron James.

The Amendment 4 on this year’s ballot is another suppression plot, less overt but still smelly enough that its $9 million donors want to remain unidentified and untainted.

However, the Keep Our Constitution Clean political action committee has clear connections to law firms and a PR agency that work for Florida Power & Light, Gulf Power and other utilities.

Sarah Bascom, a spokesperson for the PAC, did the same job for the power industry in 2016 when it bankrolled a deceptively worded amendment that would have restricted access to residential solar energy.

Floridians didn’t fall for it then, and this year’s Amendment 4 deserves the same blistering rejection.

Making people go to the polls twice to pass a constitutional revision would be an outrageous perversion of the document itself, another move by contemptuous special interests to obstruct people from participating in their own democracy.