November 26, 2017

Mind Reading via the Florida CRC

Every twenty years, a Constitution Revision Commission (CRC) convenes to examine the Florida Constitution, hold public hearings, and come up with a list of potential amendments that will appear on the ballot. That time is now. As a result, Floridians of every stripe have together submitted over 2000 proposals to the CRC. This presents a remarkable opportunity to peek into the hearts and minds of the people of Florida.

Mosey on over to the Florida Constitution Revision Commission's website and check out the proposals submitted by members of the public. Loyal Millett would like to see billboards constitutionally banned in Florida. Loyal submitted 126 proposals to the Commission - by far the most prolific submitter. Jesse Dieterle only submitted one, but it was a doozy. He wants the Florida Constitution to state that no law shall be passed by the Congress of this State inconsistent with the will of God, as revealed in the Holy Scriptures. If you believe in God's omnipotence, then I suppose nothing happens that is not the will of God, so this might be a slam dunk. On the other hand, attempting to implement such a provision is more likely to result in a never-ending, unresolvable argument. Deborah Steele and a few others are looking for grandparent rights.  Deborah feels that grandparents should be allowed visitation with their grandchildren at least once a month and allowed to participate in their school events. It's not clear that any of these proposals belong in the State Constitution, but surely they reflect something of what is really irking Floridians.

Several months ago, I was moved to submit a proposal to the CRC, after reading that some on the Commission were already considering allowing public revenues to pay for religious institutions. This would give a constitutional basis for state funding of private religious schools. That got my blood boiling. I didn't feel compelled to organize resistance, but I did want to go on record in some small fashion.

Others have already started organizing around their particular issues. Floridians for Immigration Enforcement galvanized 586 people to request that employers be required to use Homeland Security's E-Verify system to ensure that new-hires are in the country legally. Evidently this is a hot button issue, making up over 25% of all submissions from the public.

There were a few submitters who questioned the legitimacy of the CRC. Paul Harvill was categorical and loud with his proposal, DO NOT MEDDLE WITH ALMOST the ENTIRE CONSTITUTION. Eugene LaCross stated that the CRC is without power to revise any Constitution and are impersonating Delegates chosen by the People. The Commission has not taken this to heart and has already proposed 103 amendments.

Public submissions are now closed, so what chance do any of these proposals have of getting into the Florida Constitution? I am happy to report that the CRC has responded to some of the public's suggestions.

Traci Deen submitted a proposal for the right to a clean and healthful environment. Commissioner Thurlow-Lippisch then took up this idea and submitted the unaltered proposal for consideration by the CRC. On the surface, that's awesome. Florida's laws and regulations are stacked against those who might wish to push back against polluters. When a 45 foot sinkhole opened up last year at a Mosaic phosphate fertilizer facility and leaked millions of gallons of slightly radioactive water, it was unconscionable that both Mosaic and governmental authorities who were in-the-know withheld this information from the public for 3 weeks. If I lived nearby and drank from my well, it might have been useful to have constitutional backing to support my right to a clean and healthful environment. The amendment would allow anybody to enforce their constitutional environmental rights against any party, public or private. I don't claim to know how this might play out. Would we be inundated with lawsuits? Would a host of existing regulations have to be rewritten? Would polluting businesses pack up and leave the state? I have no idea. But I am pleased that a citizen submitted a well-intentioned environmental proposal to the CRC, and that Commissioner Thurlow-Lippisch is now championing that proposal.

There is still good reason for citizens to be wary of proposals from the CRC. Of its 37 members, most are political appointees. The proposals have been assigned to various committees. Proposals that make it out of committee and muster enough support from the Commission will make it on the ballot. Even if the Commission recommends a dreadful proposal, it still needs approval from 60% of the voters in order to pass. Citizen engagement with the Commission is our best hope for stopping any harmful proposals from the Commission. Citizens can contact individual Commissioners at any time to express concerns through the CRC website. I intend to keep a close watch on the CRC. I want to make sure they protect our civil liberties and public schools.

Feedback to the Commission aside, I do feel that this public airing of the public's grievances is an opportunity to discern what makes us tick. So I put my nose to the grindstone, determined to distinguish the pepper from the fly-specks of public submissions.

Many citizens expressed their wish to extend basic rights to more people based on such things as sex, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, disability, age, and socioeconomic status. I found only two that resonated with Commissioners. Commissioner Roberto Martinez submitted Proposal 30, which extends protections to those with any disability. Proposal 3 addresses a clause added to the Constitution in 1926 aimed at keeping Asian farmers from leasing or owning land. This clause was never enforced, but is rightfully considered an embarrassment. Proposal 3 would remove this "alien land law". It is disappointing that more suggestions along these lines were not included in the Commissioner proposals.

Some used their proposal to provide brief history lessons. Here are a few examples -
  1. Gary Stein requested that all references to marijuana in Florida Statutes be changed to the more formal term, cannabis. He then proceeded to explain how the more common term, marijuana, had come to be used in U.S. law.
  2. Members of the Florida criminal defense bar with support from the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida want Florida to exercise a robust federalism with regards to search and seizures. This sounded very academic, until I continued down the page and understood the history. Each state can use their state constitution to guarantee MORE constitutional protection to its citizens than does the federal government. That is pretty powerful stuff. But in 1982, Florida relinquished that capability with regard to search and seizure, and simply aligned itself with the U.S. Constitution. It was a knee-jerk reaction to cocaine-related crimes of the late 1970's.
  3. And then there was Sheila Anderson's proposal to clamp down on governmental corruption. Sheila titled it The Gaping Hole in the Public Trust and went on to provide the results of various official investigations from Grand Jury Presentments over the last couple of decades. Perhaps that is the inherent nature of corruption - that it is not so easily rooted out.
I was enlightened by the unexpected history lessons provided by these passionate citizens.

Some proposals included unexpected personal information. One advocate for parental rights included 829 docket entries from a Court Records Search of his own divorce.

What I enjoyed the most was the out-of-the-box thinking dished out by some Floridians. Carlos Gamez wants to allow voters to call for a "Direct Veto" of any bill enacted by the Legislature. That would be a game-changer. Joe Hannousch would simply require that all elections be non-partisan. Would this mean that government would be non-partisan as well? Barac Wimberly would like more enforcement of illegal moving vehicle activity. He proposes a 50/50 sharing incentive of fines resulting from videos submitted by citizens. Who says the law can't keep up with technology? David Hubert wants austere term limits, such that every five years, we would elect a whole new government. There would be no more campaigning for re-election while in office. Although many proposals were word-for-word copies of other proposals, there were quite a few original ideas in the mix.

Most of the proposals put forward would probably better be served by legislation than constitutional changes. For example, one of the more important issues of our time - getting Big Money out of politics - was advocated in 460 proposals. They all proposed language that would request action by the Legislature -
... the People of Florida urge the legislature to use all appropriate and lawful authority to advance and expedite the passage and ratification of an amendment to the United States Constitution to make clear that unlimited political contributions and expenditures to influence elections is not free speech. 
Legislators please take note: 460 out of 2012 written proposals would like you to advance an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to effectively reverse the Citizens United Supreme Court decision. Your constituents have a lot of other ideas as well. You can find them at the Florida Constitution Revision website. And, legislators, if you keep ignoring them, these ideas may end up in Florida's Constitution, right alongside the pregnant pig amendment.

September 21, 2017

A Field Trip to Washington DC: People's Congress of Resistance

Currently, the United States Congress does not represent the people who live and work in their districts. To compensate, many people journeyed from around the country, gathering at Howard University in Washington DC, to do the job that the U.S. Congress is not doing. Congress takes $1.1 trillion in tax dollars and hands over half of it to the largest military-industrial complex in the world, while health, education, housing and jobs receive less than a quarter. Since January 20, people have been fighting back in huge numbers. Immigrants, women, scientists, students, and many others have rallied and marched. The People’s Congress of Resistance formed to help support and coordinate this ongoing and growing resistance. Representatives from 37 states and 159 cities participated.

January 28, 2017

Sarasota Women's March - The Signs!

Last weekend I had the opportunity to go for a walk with a few friends. Largest walk ever as it turns out. The Women's March on Washington and the Solidarity Marches around the country aroused an offended public. By far, the majority of mass produced signs in Sarasota supported Planned Parenthood. But many, many more rallied with signs they had prepared at home just for the occasion. Each of these signs answered the question, If you only had one or two things to say right now, what would they be?

As expected at such a march, many signs were angry. But some were witty, some were hysterically funny, and some were just full of love. Many were a unique combination -

  • We Are the Majority. Chin up. Fangs out!
  • Don't Grope My Healthcare
  • Walls are 4 Legos, Not People
  • Dear Earth, We Are Sorry. Love, Half of the USA.

I could analyze each of these signs - and in fact I started to do just that - but these signs did a more concise and humorous job than I could.

A handful of signs were anti-Trump, for example Hey Twitter in Chief! Release Your Taxes, TrumpleThinSkin. But most signs addressed a particular issue or set of issues. If you just woke up from a coma and missed the recent presidential election, the diversity of issues would seem unfocused. There was a lot of support for reproductive choice; animosity toward building a border wall; love for our planet and the environment; a desire for election reform; a call for women's rights as human rights; shout-outs to Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare, science, and public schools; and rejection of racism, homophobia, sexism, religious persecution, and xenophobia. Although these may seem like disjointed issues, I am happy to distill it all down. These marchers aspire to liberty and justice for all. Not for just a few of us. But for everybody, including Mother Earth. And when I say liberty, I mean the liberty to go about our business without being persecuted. I do not mean the liberty to persecute. Of course, society is not there yet, but there has been some progress. And these women, making up the largest march in history, have no intention of going backwards.

November 30, 2016

Amendment 1: The Big Utility Showdown

The largest utilities in Florida bankrolled Consumers for Smart Solar and Amendment 1. They want to maintain their monopoly control over energy in the State. Amendment 1 was looking to suppress competition from rooftop solar via constitutional ballot amendment. Thankfully, those in Sarasota and Manatee Counties as well as the rest of Florida saw through the ruse and voted it down on Election Day 2016. However, the story of Amendment 1 is a bit more complicated and Machiavellian, pitting the corporate and financial power of Big Utilities against the Power of the People.

As it stands now in Florida, only utilities can sell power to retail customers. Due to this restriction, landlords cannot sell power from solar panels to their tenants. It also effectively shuts down solar leasing. With leases, an outside company pays the high upfront cost of solar panels, and their customers sign long-term contracts to buy the power. Such leasing has made residential solar the fastest-growing part of the U.S. solar market. But it is simply not legal in Florida. Each utility has monopoly control of the sales and distribution of electricity. 

November 22, 2016

Let Me Count the Ways We Count the Votes

Photo Credit: Corey Taratuta 
Some of us are idealists and still cling to the notion that we live in a democracy where we-the-people elect representatives to govern on our behalf. At the national level, this notion was debunked a couple of years ago. A study by Martin Gilen and Benjamin Page found that
"economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence." 
And yet I am still left with the feeling that if I don't vote, I give away my power. So I educate myself and I vote each and every election. In so doing, I fully expect that my vote will be counted and counted correctly.

We learn to count at an early age. Having taken part in the process with my own children, I don't even think we need to be taught. The idea of one versus two versus three seems intuitive. And yet counting large numbers of votes is problematic. So far we've counted over 125 million votes for President, and we're still counting. It takes a lot of time to count that many votes. And when we use any kind of mechanical and/or electronic devices, there is the potential for mechanical and/or electronic glitches. Even if there is no cheating involved, problems crop up.

How is one to distinguish between straightforward problems, counting errors, and outright fraud? Alas this is no mere rhetorical question. I will share with you a report of what happened on November 8, 2016 in Sarasota, Florida, where I voted.

November 3, 2016

Battle of the Sexes, Campaign Style

Since presidential candidates and their surrogates tend to swing through the swing state of Florida, I have the opportunity to attend them on a regular basis. Once was enough for me. It felt like a cheerleading rally before a football game. Since then I have been struck by the similarities between presidential campaigns and sporting events. Last week as I listened to yet another bizarre interaction between the two presidential hopefuls, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, I had a flashback to 1973. The Battle of the Sexes was the epic exhibition tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. The parallels to the 2016 presidential campaign are eerie.

October 26, 2016

"No Wall of Words"

I recently came across a quote attributed to George Washington, in one of the drafts for his first inaugural address in 1789. It elegantly captures the essence of my own recent internal grumblings. George Washington said

[N]o wall of words, [and] no mound of parchm[en]t can be so formed as to stand against the sweeping torrent of boundless ambition on the one side, aided by the sapping current of corrupted morals on the other.
To put this in more concrete terms, whatever protections are afforded by the U.S. Constitution, it will never be enough. In order to safeguard people from sweeping torrents of boundless ambition, individuals must speak out, the media must investigate and report, Congress might need to amend the Constitution occasionally, and the Supreme Court must continually interpret and reinterpret the Constitution.

Constitutional interpretation has become such a messy business that it has burst onto the 2016 election scene as a hot-button issue. Republican Senators are vowing to reject all Supreme Court nominations from Democratic Presidents - sight unseen. More recently, Republican Party members are taking the stance that they will not even hold Senate hearings for these prospective nominees. Either strategy will effectively block the appointment of new members to the Supreme Court, even as aging justices retire. As it turns out, the Constitution is quiet on both of these fronts. It neither requires senators to take a vote on a nominee, nor does it stipulate that they must come to a hearing with an open mind. Historical expertise is unlikely to resolve this scenario should it come to pass. And if it does, both Democrats and Republicans will undoubtedly be bad actors in the ensuing drama.

Washington's quote resounds even more loudly when applied to our election processes.

September 25, 2016

Can a Different Voting System Improve our Democracy?

After watching the Presidential nominating process over the last year, I find it puzzling that this system ever worked. Going in, I had some vague notion that primaries and caucuses were a mechanism to make the nominating process more democratic. They were to give the party’s rank and file more control over who ends up on the ballot in November.

Given the outcome of the 2016 nomination process, this perspective is in tatters. More than anything, media attention seemed to drive the results. The Democratic Party leadership actively colluded with the media to disparage Sanders. Quite the opposite in the Republican Party. The Party had no mechanism to counter Trump and his showmanship, even though many of his positions ran counter to many positions held by most Republicans. And other Parties were rarely covered by the media at all.

So, if not media attention, what are the values that should drive the design of the nominating process? Off the top of my head I would say -
  • make the process more democratic and more inclusive
  • find out exactly where candidates stand on the issues (and ditch all the negative campaigning)
  • craft a ballot with candidates who each represent different points of view, and 
  • (based on my personal pet peeve) spend a month or less making the nomination decisions

It seems to me that the first item is achievable, but the rest are more pie in the sky. So how might we improve the current voting system so as to foster more inclusivity and democracy? In the not too distant past, I had naively thought that the way I vote was how all voting takes place. Each citizen gets one vote and the candidate with the most votes wins. It turns out that there are many ways to run an election. They all have their pitfalls and their strengths. Thankfully, I didn't have to wade through volumes of scholarly political science journals to get to the bottom of it. I found some entertaining YouTube videos that explain some of these systems.

Call me a spoon-fed learner, but it was fun to think about the first election in the Animal Kingdom, in which the race was between a turtle, a gorilla, a snake, a tiger, a monkey, an owl, and a leopard. 

August 23, 2016

A Sign in My Yard

I might vote for Hillary Clinton, but I probably won't. At the moment, many progressives are up in arms about this. For those that feel that Donald Trump is the greatest threat to human life in modern history, a vote for anybody but Clinton is unconscionable. In contrast, many Sanders supporters continue to attribute Clinton's primary win to foul play and refuse to vote for her. Between superdelegates, closed primaries, and the DNC, there is plenty of reason to be suspicious. But neither of these things are weighing heavily on me. I am concerned with a very large threat to our democracy. It seems to me that corporate power and spending has the potential to overthrow our government. It won't look like a coup d'etat. It probably won't include blowing up any buildings or factories. But in reality, the coup has already begun - slowly overwhelming our electoral processes, subduing our regulatory foundations, seeping into our educational institutions, and extinguishing our ability to fend off avoidable crises.

Unfortunately, Hillary Clinton has been an agent of corporate power. In recent years, she helped negotiate the TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership), which would be a tremendous gift to Big Business and a major setback for the working class and our environment. It was negotiated in secret between Pacific countries and hundreds of advisers from some of the world’s most powerful corporations, while the U.S. Congress and U.S. citizens were excluded. I'm sure the corporate war profiteers love her, since she rarely missed an opportunity to back more and bigger military interventions when she was Secretary of State. And now that their armaments have made it into the hands of the Islamic State, the resulting global instability will undoubtedly result in more military contracts. Hillary Clinton supported the deregulation of the telecommunication and financial industries, and now those folks are some of her largest campaign contributors. And they have been steadfast in their support. Need I go further? It is hard for me to champion someone who champions the very corporations, whose success threatens our democracy and the very livability of our planet.

On the other hand, I will certainly vote for someone other than Donald Trump.

April 27, 2016

Democracy Awakening Solidarity Rally - Sarasota

In April 2016, hundreds of thousands of people from a diverse array of movements came together in Washington DC to demand a democracy that works for all – a nation where our votes are not denied and money doesn’t buy access and power.

In Sarasota we had a much smaller assemblage, but we focused on the same legislative activities:

  • The Democracy For All Amendment (H.J.Res. 22, S.J.Res. 5), a constitutional amendment that would overturn U.S. Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United and allow elected representatives to set commonsense limits on money in elections.

  • The Voting Rights Advancement Act (H.R. 2867, S. 1659), legislation that would restore the protections against voting discrimination.

  • The Government By the People Act/Fair Elections Now Act (H.R. 20 and S. 1538), a small donor empowerment measure that would encourage and amplify small contributions from everyday Americans.

  • Fair consideration of the nominee to fill the Supreme Court vacancy, including timely hearings and a vote by the full Senate.