Here’s how Florida lawmakers messed with upcoming citizen campaigns to raise the minimum wage, ban assault weapons, expand Medicaid, and more

early voting booth

The 2019 legislative session was already a success for Florida Republicans going into the final full day of the session last Friday.

Then, late in the day in the House of Representatives, an amendment got tacked onto an unrelated tax bill that will now radically change the rules for citizen-led Constitutional Amendment campaigns.

It will make it more complicated and expensive for several amendment drives that are already underway, including proposals to ban assault weapons, expand Medicaid to provide health insurance to more of the state’s neediest, legalize recreational marijuana, expand consumer choice for energy providers and raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

Gov. DeSantis is expected to sign the bill soon.

The new measure takes aim at the way ballot campaigns happen in Florida.

“The goal is to put these potential petition campaigns out of business. So, it was a power play, and it was well played,” says Alex Patton, whose campaign committee, Citizens for Energy Choices, is collecting signatures for the 2020 ballot.

Most groups rely on professional signature-gathering firms from out of state, such as initiative-friendly California. It’s never been easy to get a citizen-led Constitutional Amendment on the Florida ballot. It requires getting over 760,000 signatures from specified parts of the state to qualify, and then it needs 60 percent of voters to approve it – one of the highest margins required in the country.

The Florida Chamber of Commerce thanked the Legislature in a tweet “for protecting Florida’s Constitution from out-of-state special interests and returning the process back to Florida citizens.”

The bill the Legislature passed will require all petition gatherers to register with the state and have a Florida address. It also says signature gathers can no longer be paid per petition, as is currently the case. That’s been the subject of court fights in several other states.

All ballots will be required to have a printed financial impact statement that voters can see. (Current law requires a fiscal analysis, but it isn’t printed on the ballot). Under the new measure, if the financial impact statement estimates increased costs or decreased revenues to government, the ballot must include a statement saying so in bold font.

For years, Constitutional Amendments have been the only avenue for citizens to get around the Legislature. Recent amendments brought medical marijuana to the state, allowed felons to vote, earmarked part of state real estate taxes for conservation land-buying and tried to create fairer congressional and legislative districts.

“There is nothing good about this law and it was proposed for that reason,” says Ben Pollara, a Miami-based Democratic consultant who is currently working on two separate Constitutional Amendment proposals for the 2020 ballot. “This was not a piece of public policy that saw a problem and sought a solution. There was no need for this bill, but there was a desire by Republicans in the Legislature to make this process more difficult.”

Pollara is working on the Constitutional Amendment campaign to raise Florida’s minimum wage to $15. Orlando attorney and entrepreneur John Morgan is leading that effort, and he responded defiantly to the Legislature’s action, tweeting that “this is why we hate politicians with a special vengeance!”

Pollara says the minimum wage proposal should still make it on the ballot next year. But several other campaigns are impacted.

Patton, the committee chairman for Citizens for Energy Choices, which is pushing for the proposed 2020 Constitutional Amendment that would reform how consumers purchase electricity in Florida, says his group was keenly watching the legislative action and considering contingency plans.

At one point, the effort to restrict ballot initiatives was considered dead. Patton calls the sneaky, last-minute legislative measure to disrupt Constitutional Amendment campaigns the ultimate “swampy move.”

“As somebody who’s in this process, part of me is angry, but the other part wants to tip my hat to them because they knew exactly what they were doing,” Patton says.

It turns out that Florida is not the only state clamping down like this – Republican lawmakers are leading efforts to make it harder to do ballot initiatives across the country. As the Phoenix reported, hundreds of bills have been introduced in 27 states to threaten ballot initiatives in the past two-and-a-half years – 20 alone in 2019. Twelve states have passed legislation since 2016 to make it more difficult to get citizen-led measures on the ballot, according to the D.C.-based Ballot Initiative Strategy Center.

The bill the Florida Legislature passed also requires that once a campaign gathers petitions, they have to turn them over to county supervisors of elections within 30 days. If they don’t make that deadline, they will be fined $50 for each petition. The fine goes up to $250 if the sponsor or petition gatherer “acted willfully” to hold petitions back (which usually happens for strategic or political reasons). The penalties rise to $500 for each petition that a signature-gatherer collects but doesn’t submit to the supervisor of elections, and goes up to $1,000 if the sponsor or petition gatherer “acted willfully” in not turning in the petition.

In addition to claiming cases of election fraud, Republicans invoked fears of Russian election interference when they first introduced the bill nearly halfway through the legislative session.

“Like me, if you are offended at a foreign adversary meddling in a presidential election, I would encourage your support to ensure that the Florida Constitution becomes immune from similar threats,” said Rep. Jamie Grant, a Republican from the Tampa Bay area, in late March.

Progressive groups lashed out after the Republican-controlled Senate passed the measure. “The right to amend our Constitution – and thereby the right to put an amendment on the ballot –  is reserved to the people,” Monica Russo, with the Service Employees International Union, said in a statement. “This Legislature just trampled all over our rights and saw no hypocrisy in putting requirements on voters that they won’t put on themselves.”

Indeed, the Legislature itself won’t be subject to the new, tighter signature-gathering rules for Constitutional Amendment campaigns. All lawmakers need to do is hold a three-fifths vote to put one on the ballot.

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