If you’re collecting signatures for a 2020 Florida ballot campaign, you’re probably nervous right now

A petition gatherer in Palm Beach. Regulate Florida Facebook page photo

Efforts to raise the minimum wage and expand Medicaid in Florida are on a collision course with a potential new law that would make it more difficult to put citizen-backed constitutional amendments on the 2020 ballot.

As of Tuesday night, Gov. Ron DeSantis still has not received a controversial bill (HB 5) that will radically change the way the state constitutional initiative process works. The Republican-majority Legislature passed the measure in the waning hours of the 2019 session that ended May 4.

DeSantis will have 15 days to act on the bill once it reaches his desk. If he signs it, 30 days later a series of stricter regulations will be imposed on groups seeking to gather voter petitions to place a constitutional proposal on the ballot.

The abrupt change in the initiative requirements would disrupt – if not derail – ongoing ballot measures, including raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, expanding Medicaid under the federal health care law, opening the electric utility market to more competition, legalizing recreational marijuana and banning assault weapons.

The League of Women Voters of Florida is calling on DeSantis to veto the bill.

“This dishonest politicking is counter to the principles of our democracy and unbecoming of our state Legislature,” the group said, warning in a letter to the governor that the legislation would impose “unjustifiable barriers to citizens engaging in the political process.”

Florida has never made it easy for citizens to change the Florida  Constitution. Currently, citizen groups must gather more than 766,000 voter signatures in a tight time frame for ballot measures. The proposals then must win support from at least 60 percent of the voters – one of the highest approval thresholds in the nation.

The new legislation would impose even more barriers to the citizen-initiative process.

It would require all petition gathers to register with the state and have a permanent Florida address, effectively barring out-of-state companies that have  expertise in ballot campaigns. It also says signature gatherers can no longer be paid on a per-petition basis, as is currently the case.

The petition gatherers as well as the groups sponsoring the initiatives will face a series of fines and even criminal misdemeanor charges for violating the new regulations. For instance, ballot groups will face a $50 fine for signed petitions turned in after more than 30 days. They will face a $500 fine for petitions never turned in.

One way to get around the onerous new regulations is for groups that hope to be on the ballot in 2020 to collect as many signatures as they can under the existing rules.

It’s clearly part of John Morgan’s strategy to put the $15 minimum wage proposal on the 2020 General Election ballot. The Orlando trial lawyer tweeted last week that his “Florida for a Fair Wage” campaign has collected 600,000 signatures and “will be close to finished by the time the law takes effect.”

“The Legislature passed #HB5 to try & stop my effort to raise Florida’s minimum wage. I hope @GovRonDeSantis vetoes it, but if he doesn’t: Minimum wage WILL BE on the 2020 ballot & IT WILL PASS!,” Morgan tweeted.

The “Citizens for Energy Choices” campaign is also aggressively trying to collect voter signatures for its 2020 ballot measure that seeks to open the investor-owned electric utility market to more competitors.

But Alex Patton, a Gainesville-based political consultant who is leading the Citizen for Energy Choices campaign (it’s strongly opposed by the existing utilities), says it is doubtful his group would be able to collect the certified 766,000 petitions before the new law takes effect. He estimates it will take about 1.2 million petitions to reach that goal, factoring in the invalid or flawed petitions that will inevitably be collected.

His group sent DeSantis a letter on Monday, calling on the Republican governor to veto the bill.

Patton predicts if the bill becomes law, it will create “complete chaos” as initiative groups, local supervisors of elections and state elections officials scramble to try to adjust to the new regulations. For instance, he says the law will require extensive new state rules to clarify its various provisions, a task that could take months to complete.

“The uncertainty created by HB 5, and the rulemaking that will be necessary to resolve it afterward, will delay citizen initiatives for months,” the energy-choice group said in the letter to DeSantis. “This will cripple most current initiatives due to tight timelines for signature gathering.”

All the groups will have to finish collecting their voter signatures by Jan. 1, in order to give local supervisors of elections the required 30 days to review the petitions before the final Feb. 1 deadline for the 2020 ballot measures.

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