Lawmakers want to make it much harder for citizen groups and voters to amend the FL Constitution

Constitution
Excerpt from 1885 Florida Constitution. Photo edited and used with permission. Credit: State Archives of Florida.

Floridians wanting to use the 2022 ballot to legalize recreational cannabis or expand Medicaid under the federal health care act will likely face significant financial and regulatory barriers.

Those issues were D.O.A. in the 2020 Legislature.

But supporters of recreational pot and Medicaid expansion are looking to the 2022 election to put those proposals before voters in the form of a state constitutional amendment.

It’s a familiar scenario. Democrats and other progressive groups find their issues thwarted in a Legislature controlled by a conservative Republican majority. So, they turn to ballot initiatives.

In recent years that’s resulted in voter approval of constitutional amendments that limited class sizes in schools, linked a state minimum wage to an inflation index, authorized the use of medical marijuana, established voting rights for ex-felons and directed lawmakers to spend more money on conservation lands.

Voters will get a chance this fall to vote on another amendment that would raise Florida’s minimum wage to $15 an hour over a period of several years.

But Republicans, including Gov. Ron DeSantis, have countered that movement with greater barriers and regulations for groups seeking to offer constitutional amendments to the voters.

This year is no different as bills (SB 1794 and HB 7037) and a legislative-backed constitutional amendment (SJR 7062 and HRJ 7093) are moving toward final approval in the Legislature. Those measures would impose new restrictions on the signature-gathering process related to putting initiatives on the ballot.

The new measures would:

–limit the amount of time that petition signatures will be valid, essentially prohibiting signatures from being used in a subsequent election.

–raise the cost of having the petition signatures validated by the local supervisors of elections.

–increase the number of signatures needed before the state Supreme Court can review the measure in terms of the accuracy of the ballot language.

Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Miami-Dade County Democrat who opposes the measures, said this is part of an ongoing effort by the Republican majority to “chip away” at the right of citizens to back ballot measures.

“We don’t actually have a problem in this state with the citizen initiative process,” Rodriguez said. “The effect of this bill (SB 1794) is to increase the cost and complexity of the petition process. And it effectively leaves it in the hands of billionaires who can afford to put together the kinds of operations that, with this bill passing, would need to be in place.”

Rodriguez said Republicans are backing the new restrictions because they argue there is a problem with too many issues being injected into the state Constitution. But Rodriguez said the problem is the Republican-led Legislature’s rejection of proposals, such as medical marijuana, that are popular with the public.

“Maybe that’s considered quote unquote a problem,” Rodriguez said. “I don’t see that. If the voters choose to act, I think we should preserve that right and not take it away from them.”

But Rep. James Grant, a Tampa Republican who supports the new regulations, said they are aimed at making the initiative process more “transparent,” including requiring the reporting of the use of out-of-state petition gatherers.

“When we allow the citizen petition initiative to run unbridled, what we tell people is that a billionaire can fund a single initiative and trample over every other individual who doesn’t have the time, the obligation, the understanding or the expertise to dive in and understand,” Grant said.

Currently, groups seeking to get a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot need to submit 766,200 valid signatures to the state and receive approval from the Florida Supreme Court on the ballot wording. To trigger the court review, the groups must gather at least 10 percent of the required signatures.

The House bill would raise that review trigger to 50 percent, while the Senate bill has a 33 percent threshold.

The measures would also let the local supervisors of elections charge the “actual cost” for verifying the voter signatures. The bills cap those costs at $1 per signature.

The measures would also give the local election officials up to 60 days to validate the signatures, compared to the current 30-day window.

The bills would limit the validity of signatures gathered during a petition drive until Feb. 1 of every even-numbered year. It would mean signatures gathered during one election cycle could not be used for a future election. Currently, signatures are valid for up to two years after they are collected.

Trish Neely, a lobbyist for the League of Women Voters of Florida, said her organization finds the proposed initiative regulations “distressing.”

“For nearly 100 years, the League of Women Voters has been a proponent and a protector of direct democracy,” Neely said. “From what we have seen, this bill looks to us like a blatant attempt to abolish the citizen initiative. And to us that is so concerning because it silences our voice. We believe very strongly that the citizens should have an opportunity to speak directly.”

But Grant said he opposes the “direct democracy” approach and favors representative government.

“People keep talking about silencing the voices of voters. And, respectfully, that’s a bunch of bunk, because voters have the ability to go to the ballot box,” he said. “The beautiful thing about electing people is that you have a chance every two years in the House and every four or six years in the Senate ….to undo what electors before you did.”

The Senate Rules Committee is scheduled to take up the Senate bill and the proposed constitutional amendment on Wednesday.

The Senate Democrats, if they remain united, have enough votes to block the adoption of the amendment if it reaches the Senate floor.

Sen. Audrey Gibson, the Jacksonville lawmaker who leads the 17-member Democratic caucus, remains a firm opponent of the measures, although the caucus has not taken a position on the amendment.

“We should never, ever, as lawmakers and representatives of the people of the state of Florida, deny them access to their Constitution,” Gibson said. “And we should not put impediments in their way so that they can make the changes that they feel are impacting their communities.”