Florida Politics

DeSantis cracks down on citizen petitions to get on ballot in Florida next year

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis listens to the proceedings during a Florida cabinet meeting Tuesday June 4, 2019, in Tallahassee.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis listens to the proceedings during a Florida cabinet meeting Tuesday June 4, 2019, in Tallahassee. AP

Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday approved legislation that would crack down on citizen petitions, a move that is likely to quash future ballot initiatives disliked by Republican lawmakers and corporate donors.

The bill, which takes effect before the 2020 election, makes it drastically harder to collect enough signatures to make it onto voters’ ballots.

And it will solidify Republican control in Tallahassee by eliminating one of the last threats to their power: the ballot box.

Orlando attorney John Morgan, who is trying to get an amendment on next year’s ballot to raise the state’s minimum wage, blasted state lawmakers.

“I know these people, and they’re basically run and owned by lobbyists,” Morgan said Friday. “And the constitutional amendment takes the power away from the lobbyists and gives it to the people, and they don’t want that.

“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure that out.”

DeSantis, who signed the bill along with 37 others on Friday, was the driving force behind it.

The bill had died in the middle of this year’s legislative session, but it was resurrected in the closing hours and amended to another bill at the urging of the new governor.

“Last year, we had so many amendments that I think we need reform,” DeSantis told reporters after the session ended last month. “Whether this is enough, I don’t know ... We’ve let too much policy go into the Constitution.”

The bill requires ballot initiatives pay petitioners by the hour, rather than by each signature they collect. They must register as an in-state circulator with the Secretary of State and turn in all signatures within 30 days of being signed.

Ballot initiatives must also include the name of the initiative’s sponsor and the amount of money raised by in-state donors. Violating the provisions carries steep penalties, such as fines of up to $1,000 for “willfully” not meeting deadline and the threat of getting sued by the Florida Attorney General’s office.

Republican lawmakers justified the bill by saying it was meant to crack down on fraud. But its advocate in the Senate, David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, could not point to any cases of fraud.

What the legislation is sure to do, however, is stifle the last area outside of statewide Republican control in Florida.

Republicans have dominated the Legislature, Cabinet and governor’s mansion for the last 20 years, and every member of the state Supreme Court has now been appointed by Republicans.

But liberal groups and others have seen some success getting their priorities into law by proposing amendments to the state Constitution.

Over the last several years, at least 60 percent of voters have changed the Constitution to require the Legislature to adopt fair voter districts, allow medical marijuana, protect environmental lands and restore the right to vote for felons. And more amendments are on the way — or were on the way before DeSantis signed the bill Friday.

Groups have been trying to get an “energy choice” amendment on the ballot for 2020, which would allow people to choose their power company. It’s been met with steep opposition from the state’s investor-owned utilities, which are major Republican donors.

And then there’s Morgan’s minimum wage amendment, which corporations don’t like.

Morgan, who led the medical marijuana ballot initiative, said he still believes his effort will make it on the ballot, since he’s already gathered nearly all the signatures he needs.

But he said it will be much more difficult — and expensive — for future ballot initiatives.

“I feel bad for the rank-and-file citizens of Florida, and I think it’s why you look around and people think they don’t matter,” he said. “Money is what runs Florida, and what runs America.”

Among the 37 other bills that DeSantis announced signing on Friday was House Bill 49, dubbed the “Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act,” which requires state correctional facilities to provide female inmates with tampons, pads and other feminine hygiene products at no cost.

It also heavily limits male correctional officers from conducting pat-downs or body cavity searches of female inmates, while prohibiting them from entering areas where female inmates are not fully clothed.

Led by Democrats, it was a noncontroversial bill that did not receive a single “no” vote on the floor of either chamber.

DeSantis also signed a bill Friday that would allow paramedics and other medical professionals to carry guns while accompanying law enforcement in “high-risk” incidents like hostage situations or raids. Lawmakers supporting the bill had cited recent violent incidents like the Parkland and Fort Lauderdale airport shootings as justification for allowing such medics to be armed.

Correction: A earlier version of this story stated that the “energy choice” ballot initiative appeared unlikely to get enough signatures in time to appear on the 2020 election ballot. The initiative has collected almost 40 percent of the valid signatures it needs. Supporters say they’ve collected many more that have yet to be verified and that they’re confident they’ll have enough signatures to make it on to the ballot.

Herald/Times staff writers Elizabeth Koh and Emily L. Mahoney contributed to this report.

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