As the Florida Legislature moves to make it more difficult for citizens to advance changes to the state Constitution, one group remains largely unrestrained in its ability to place amendments on the ballot.
It’s the Florida Legislature.
This year alone, lawmakers filed 28 measures — technically known as joint resolutions — seeking to make changes in the Florida Constitution, legislative records show.
Twenty-six of those resolutions represent 13 different measures that could go before voters, including an eight-year term limit for local school board members, repealing the Florida Constitution Revision Commission, repealing Florida’s public campaign financing program, and – in a move to make it harder for citizen ballot campaigns – a new requirement that state constitutional amendments need a two-thirds statewide vote to pass.
As the Legislature moves into second half of its lawmaking session, nine of the proposals appear to have a chance for passage. It will take a three-fifths vote by the House and Senate on each of the measures to get them on the 2020 general election ballot. But lawmakers will get another shot next year to place more constitutional amendments on the 2020 ballot, adding to anything that they pass this year.
Historically, constitutional changes backed by the state Legislature have dominated the amendment process. Since 1978, the Legislature has put 84 constitutional amendments on the ballot, state election records show.
Between 1886 and 2016, some 398 proposed constitutional changes were on the Florida ballot, according to Ballotpedia. Nearly 83 percent of those measures came from the Legislature.
Several other measures pending in the 2019 Legislature, if passed, would further tilt the amendment process against citizens and in favor of the Legislature. Among them: bills that would increase requirements for citizens and other groups seeking to collect signatures for a proposed ballot measure and legislation that would require 66 percent of voters statewide to approve any constitutional amendment.
Meanwhile, lawmakers will be able to place their own amendments on the ballot if they get three-fifths (60 percent) of their colleagues to vote in favor of the idea.
“It’s a very unequal approach we’re taking to this thing,” said state Sen. Gary Farmer, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat. “We (the Legislature) can have the freedom to put any kind of resolution on the ballot…I think it’s pretty unconscionable to take away that right from the citizenry, when we’re keeping that right for ourselves.”
Critics who oppose the latest legislative restrictions on citizen-backed amendments point to the Legislature’s propensity to advance its own constitutional changes.
Patricia Brigham of the League of Women Voters of Florida said less than a third of the constitutional amendments placed before state voters since 2010 have come from the public.
“Maybe our legislators should be limiting their own ability to place items rather than (limiting) the people,” Brigham said.
Despite their power to advance constitutional amendments, state lawmakers are not always successful in the end. In 2012, voters rejected eight of the 11 legislative-backed amendments on the ballot.
But when it comes to constitutional changes, the rules are different for the Legislature.
The Senate has unanimously passed a measure (SJR 74) that would require the Constitution Revision Commission, which meets every 20 years and has the ability to place measures directly on the ballot, to limit its proposals to “single-subject” amendments.
The commission drew controversy for “bundling” multiple issues into the majority of its seven proposed amendments on the 2018 ballot. For instance, one amendment included a ban on offshore oil drilling along with a proposal to limit vaping in public areas.
If voters approve the anti-bundling proposal that the Florida Senate is proposing, the Legislature (and one other state panel, the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission) would be the only entities that could bundle constitutional changes.
With a Republican majority in the House and Senate, the nine remaining constitutional amendments in the 2019 Legislature are dominated by GOP-backed proposals.
However, because of recent legislative gains, the Democrats have the power to block any amendments they oppose. The Republicans will have to pick up at least one Democratic vote in the House and Senate to get a constitutional amendment on the 2020 ballot.
–Mitch Perry contributed to this report