Florida State Senator Paula Dockery, a Republican from Lakeland, and Representative Richard Steinberg, a Democrat from Miami Beach, have filed companion bills that would permit citizens to “veto” certain bills if signed into law by the governor. Budgetary and emergency legislation would be exempt from citizen vetoes under Dockery’s Senate Joint Resolution 1490 and Steinberg’s House Joint Resolution 1231. If passed by the state legislature, the legislation would be put forth to the voters in 2012 in the form of a constitutional amendment, which would need 60% + 1 approval for passage.
The popular referendum–which dates to the early 1900s in several states–allows a person or group to file a petition to have a public vote on a bill that the legislature has already approved. Every one of the two dozen states that permit the initiative process also allows citizens to propose popular referendums, except for Florida, Illinois, and Mississippi. The popular referendum, which has been used with more frequency in the past decade, is effectively a public veto of a law. Proponents may qualify popular referendums for the ballot by collecting a certain percentage of signatures in a set amount of time following the passage of the legislation in question. It’s the quintessential “gun behind the door” that allows citizens to keep their elected officials in check.
Despite the popular support for direct democracy in Florida, the political environment at this moment is not very conducive for the state legislature to devolve power to citizens.
I have a 2008 article, “Delegating Direct Democracy: Interparty Legislative Competition and the Adoption of the Initiative in the American States,” that was published in the American Political Science Review with my graduate student, Dustin Fridkin, that investigates the widespread adoption of direct democracy–specifically the citizen initiative–during the early 20th century. It is available here for download.
From the abstract:
Between 1898 and 1918, voters in 20 American states adopted constitutional amendments granting citizens the power of the initiative. The embrace of direct democracy by voters invites inquiry into why some state legislatures opted to delegate to citizens the power of the initiative, while others did not. Drawing on an original data set, this article uses Event History Analysis hazard models to explain the puzzle of why legislatures might devolve institutional power to citizens. Our longitudinal, macrolevel analysis of socioeconomic and political forces reveals that political considerations—interparty legislative competition, party organizational strength, and third parties—are the most powerful predictors of a legislature’s decision to refer the initiative to the ballot. Although several of our findings comport with the conventional wisdom explaining the adoption of the initiative during the Progressive Era, others are surprising, offering us new theoretical insights into why and when legislative bodies might be willing to divest themselves of their institutional power.
Absent interparty legislative competition in Florida (Republicans are dominant) and the utter lack of third parties in the state, I don’t think the time is ripe for the legislature to place a popular referendum on the ballot. This is unfortunate, as the citizen’s veto–as the popular referendum is often called–has proven to be an effective tool for citizens to use to keep their unrepresentative legislature in check and more responsive to the people.