Friday, July 30, 2004
Bullet train back on ballot
By JIM SAUNDERS
NEWS-JOURNAL STAFF WRITER
TALLAHASSEE — With the addition Thursday of controversial measures dealing with medical malpractice and a high-speed rail system, Florida voters will decide in November whether to approve eight constitutional amendments.
The list of amendments became complete when backers of the medical-malpractice and high-speed rail proposals topped more than 488,722 verified voter signatures — the legal threshold for citizen-driven amendments to get on the ballot.
Now, groups will spend the next three months campaigning to pass, or defeat, amendments that could have far-reaching effects.
University of Florida political-science professor Daniel Smith said he expects the fights over this year's amendments to be more fierce than in 2002, when voters approved such measures as requiring smaller public-school class sizes and banning smoking in restaurants.
"I think what's going to be interesting this time — unlike in 2002 — we're going to have real battles," said Smith, who has studied ballot initiatives.
The measures that received enough voter signatures Thursday will join other controversial proposals already slated for the ballot. Those proposals include creating a $6.15-an-hour minimum wage in Florida and trying to require that parents be notified before minors can get abortions.
The high-speed rail proposal, spearheaded by Gov. Jeb Bush and state Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher, would repeal a 2000 constitutional amendment that requires the state to build a so-called "bullet train."
Bush and Gallagher argue the system would cost too much money and doesn't belong in the Constitution. When asked Thursday how much the campaign to repeal the train would cost, Gallagher answered simply: "As much as we can raise."
But Keith Lee Rupp, president of the pro-train Florida Transportation Association, said train supporters will fight back with a campaign to try to keep high-speed rail in the Constitution.
Supporters say the system can help ease traffic congestion in areas such as Interstate 4 between Tampa and Orlando.
“We’re going to have to make sure that a majority of the voters understand the facts of high-speed rail, that it is a good thing for Florida,” Rupp said.
Also reaching the ballot Thursday were two proposed amendments that stem from a long-running feud between the state’s trial lawyers and doctors about medical-malpractice lawsuits.
Those amendments, pushed by the trial lawyers, would prevent doctors from practicing if they have committed three or more incidents of malpractice and would open records about medical mistakes or incidents at health-care facilities.
Trial lawyers are using the measures to try to counter a proposed amendment — backed by doctors — that would limit attorneys’ fees in malpractice cases. That proposal received enough signatures to go on the ballot earlier this month.
Mark Wilson, a senior vice president with the Florida Chamber of Commerce who closely watches ballot initiatives, said he expects the malpractice proposals to lead to an ugly battle between doctors and lawyers.
“They’ve declared nuclear war on each other, and they’re using the constitutional amendment (process) to get at each other,” said Wilson, whose organization has lobbied to try to make it harder to amend the Constitution.
The eight proposed amendments this year will be fewer than the 10 that were on the 2002 ballot.
Of the eight, two were placed on the ballot by the Legislature and six resulted from the citizen-initiative process.
Lawmakers, who don’t have to gather voter signatures, added the abortion measure and a proposal that would change the constitutional amendment process to set earlier deadlines for such things as submitting petition signatures.
The citizen-driven proposals include the three medical-malpractice amendments, the high-speed rail repeal, the $6.15 hourly minimum wage and a measure that would allow Miami-Dade and Broward counties to decide whether they want to have slot machines at racetracks and jai-alai frontons.
Proposals on the Ballot
Florida voters will decide in November whether to approve eight constitutional amendments that would:
* Raise the minimum wage to $6.15 an hour.
* Require parents be notified before minors can get an abortion.
* Rescind the high-speed rail amendment passed in 2000.
* Prevent doctors from practicing if they have committed three or more incidents of malpractice.
* Open records about medical mistakes or incidents at health-care facilities.
* Limit attorneys’ fees in malpractice cases.
* Set earlier deadlines to change the constitutional amendment process by submitting petition signatures.
* Allow Miami-Dade and Broward counties to decide if they want to have slot machines at racetracks and jai-alai frontons.