A partisan clash over changing Florida’s Constitution was in full view Thursday when a House panel approved a proposal that would make it harder for citizens and groups to put measures on the ballot.
On one side, Democrats said the Legislature would infringe on First Amendment rights by adding hurdles to the citizen-initiative process. But the Republican lawmaker sponsoring the proposal argued changes are needed to “maintain the integrity and purpose of the state Constitution.”
“The purpose for this is the fact that a Constitution should behave like a Constitution,” Rep. James Grant, R-Tampa, argued during a meeting of the House Judiciary Committee, which advanced the proposal (PCB JDC 19-01) in a 12-6 party-line vote.
The proposal comes after voters approved 11 constitutional amendments, including two citizens’ initiatives, during the November election. The other nine amendments were placed on the ballot by the Legislature and the Florida Constitution Revision Commission.
It also comes as groups gather petition signatures to get potentially high-profile issues on the 2020 ballot, such as a proposal that would raise the state’s minimum wage. The minimum-wage proposal is being spearheaded by Orlando lawyer John Morgan, who also led a successful effort in 2016 to pass a constitutional amendment that broadly legalized medical marijuana.
To get on the ballot, supporters of those initiatives will have to submit 766,200 valid petition signatures to the state and get Florida Supreme Court approval of amendment wording.
The House bill that moved forward Thursday would make it illegal to use out-of-state petition gatherers or to pay them by the number of petitions they collect. It also would require amendments to say if the proposed changes to the Constitution “may require increased taxes or a reduction in government services that are currently funded.”
Under the proposal, petition gatherers would have to be Florida residents and register with the secretary of state. It also would allow “any person of interest” to submit a 50-word position statement to outline “why the person supports or opposes the amendment.” Those statements would be posted on the Department of State’s website.
The Attorney General would also have the authority to ask the Supreme Court to rule on whether proposed amendments are policy changes that the Legislature could make in lieu of amending the Constitution. That answer —- a yes or a no —- would be required to be printed on the ballot measure for voters to see.
“On the ballot, we want to ensure that when someone walks in to vote, they understand what they are voting on,” Grant said. “The voters should know, ‘Do I agree with x enough to pay the price tag on it?’ ”
The legislation would impact proposed constitutional changes on the 2020 ballot.
History shows that ballot measures are often backed by big money. For example, Disney Worldwide Services, Inc. and the Seminole Tribe of Florida bankrolled an amendment on the November ballot that is designed to make it harder to expand gambling in the state. Also, it has been common for out-of-state firms to be hired to gather petition signatures.
Two environmental groups, however, chastised the House proposal because they argued it is designed to discourage citizens from pursuing ballot initiatives.
“To us, this bill is transparent in that the Legislature wants sole authority to put things on the ballot,” said David Cullen, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club. “Have a little respect for future voters who disagree with you … that’s the essence of democracy.”
State Rep. Joseph Geller, D-Aventura, was upset that committee members were not given more time to discuss the petition process under the proposal, which emerged this week. He said he agrees some restrictions ought to be in place, but that there was "too much coming too late."
"I think some restrictions are needed and we need to take a good look at this, but I feel rushed," Geller said.
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