State Politics

There’s heated, partisan debate over bill to limit citizen-driven ballot initiatives

Ex-felons celebrate Amendment 4, which restores their voting rights

Hundreds of former felons celebrated Amendment 4, which restores voting rights to more than 1.2 million Floridians, on the steps of the state Capitol on March 11, 2019.
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Hundreds of former felons celebrated Amendment 4, which restores voting rights to more than 1.2 million Floridians, on the steps of the state Capitol on March 11, 2019.

A bill that would make it far more difficult to gather the signatures needed to get constitutional amendments before Florida voters has turned into a heated partisan fight.

Republicans say the bill preserves the sanctity of the constitution by limiting who can amend it. Democrats say the stronghold of conservatives in the Legislature makes ballot initiatives the only way for their progressive constituents’ voices to be heard.

After a rather rushed one-hour debate where members were allotted 30 seconds to speak, a dramatically amended bill passed along party lines in House State Affairs Thursday morning. The strike-all amendment was filed at 7 p.m. Wednesday night, during a House floor session that ended at 10:40 p.m.

The bill is scheduled to be heard on the House floor next Wednesday.

While Democrats pushed back in debate, bill sponsor Rep. Jamie Grant says the point of the bill is to provide transparency for voters and to protect the state’s constitution.

“Our constitution shouldn’t be open to the world or shouldn’t be open to different parties or ideologies to go find a billionaire to fund something to put into our constitution,” said Grant, a Tampa Republican.

Lawmakers have steadily made it more difficult to amend Florida’s constitution, limiting the amount of time a group has to collect signatures and raising the threshold for an amendment’s passage to 60 percent. And this session, Republicans are advancing another bill that raises the threshold to two-thirds. A separate bill by Republicans aims to abolish the Constitution Revision Commission, a 37-member body that meets every 20 years to review and proposes changes to the state constitution.

The strike-all amendment to Grant’s bill reversed a previously stated requirement for petition gatherers to be residents of Florida and now requires that petitions be turned in to supervisors of elections within 10 days of being signed.

The amendment makes the bill active upon being signed into law, which puts it in effect for 2020, a crucial presidential election year in which other groups hope to get amendments before voters to ban assault weapons and require Medicaid expansion.

The bill would require that ballot initiatives:

Pay petitioners by wage or hour, not by signatures gathered.

Disclose whether out-of-state signature gatherers were hired.

Include the name of the initiative’s sponsor on the ballot.

Disclose the percent of money raised by sources in-state.

Print in bold, capital letters: “MAY REQUIRE INCREASED TAXES OR A REDUCTION IN GOVERNMENT SERVICES” if the amendment will cost money.

Print the Supreme Court’s ruling determining whether the proposed amendment could be carried out by the Legislature.

Allow for interested parties to weigh in, and file a 50-word “position statement” either for or against the proposal to be posted on the Department of State’s website.

“It will decrease the amount of mind-reading that has to happen,” Grant said. “I’m wide open to anything that will provide more transparency for the voters.”

Locked out of power in Tallahassee over the last two decades, progressive groups have seen their policies passed by voters who approved amendments protecting environmental lands and restoring voting rights to felons.

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Grant denied that his bill is partisan, and said he’d author it if he was serving “during the 100 years of Democrat power in this building.”

“That’s the difference between them and me,” he said. “They may want to turn us into a direct democracy … They should own that. They should stand up and say, ‘A republic is no longer good enough.’ If they want to do that, that’s their perspective.”

Democrats who opposed the bill say it ignores the will of the voters by making it even harder to voice their opinions. Rep. Margaret Good, a Sarasota Democrat, gave examples of progressive ballot initiatives like a 2014 amendment, known as Amendment 1, which was approved by 75 percent of voters and sends some tax revenue to the state’s Land Acquisition Trust Fund

“What is being done is ignoring the will of the voters, making the voters get the petitions, go through all of these hoops and jump over many hurdles so they get the healthcare they deserve, so we preserve their land,” Good said. “I wish we had more time to really vet this and think it through before it goes to the House floor.”

Democratic Reps. Emily Slosberg of Boca Raton and Dianne Hart of Tampa said the bill is set up to address problems and fraud that don’t exist.

“I just don’t get this,” Hart said.

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While petitions already signed wouldn’t be affected by the bill, key initiatives like energy choice and raising minimum wage still have many more signatures to collect.

Some groups who have worked on ballot initiatives say the process is hard enough and limits on how they pay petitioners or 10-day deadlines make it nearly impossible. The Sierra Club’s David Cullen said he thinks the bill thwarts the people’s constitutional rights.

For years the group has played a role in sending volunteers to collect petitions for ballot initiatives, like land preservation in 2014 and a ban on offshore oil drilling this past year.

“The provision for citizen initiatives is in the constitution,” Cullen said. “Citizens of Florida have the ability to change their constitution so the Legislature does not have absolute authority.”

Jonathan Webber of Florida Conservation Voters echoed the sentiment. Florida Conservation Voters is the group that formed out of the 2014 campaign for land preservation.

“The power to propose amendments by initiative is reserved to the people. This means the citizens’ initiative process is immune to the political whims of the Florida Legislature,” Webber said. “Our rights are non-negotiable.”

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Samantha J. Gross is a politics and policy reporter for the Miami Herald. Before she moved to the Sunshine State, she covered breaking news at the Boston Globe and the Dallas Morning News.

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