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Florida

Florida GOP Lawmakers Take Aim At Ballot Initiatives

TALLAHASSEE --- Over the past decade, Florida voters approved changes to the state Constitution that legalized medical marijuana, restored felons’ voting rights and directed more money to land and water conservation.

But a pair of proposals approved Monday by a House committee would make it harder for organizations to get future constitutional amendments on the ballot --- and to pass them.

The proposals, approved by the House Public Integrity and Elections Committee, are the latest attempts in years of efforts by Republican lawmakers to clamp down on the ballot initiative process.

One of the measures (HB 699) approved Monday would impose a $3,000 cap on campaign contributions to political committees sponsoring proposed constitutional amendments. The cap would be lifted after the secretary of state certifies that the committees have received a requisite number of petition signatures to put proposed amendments on the ballot.

But the petition-gathering process is expensive, and the proposal comes after wealthy people spent millions of dollars in recent years to support proposed constitutional amendments that passed despite opposition from Republican state leaders and influential groups such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

For example, Orlando trial attorney John Morgan contributed more than $6 million to a 2020 ballot initiative to gradually raise Florida’s minimum wage to $15 an hour and also largely bankrolled a 2016 amendment that broadly legalized medical marijuana. Voters approved both measures.

Glenn Burhans, an attorney who has worked on numerous ballot initiatives, told The News Service of Florida that the proposed contribution caps would "kill the citizens' initiative process in the cradle."

“There’s simply no way that anybody can raise the types of funds necessary to mount a multimillion-dollar signature-gathering campaign,” Burhans said. “And the Legislature knows that, and that’s why they want to pass it.”

But bill sponsor Bobby Payne, R-Palatka, said the measure would impose the same contribution cap currently in place for statewide candidates.

“It eliminates those that have over-influence and who can influence these ballot initiatives through their dollars,” Payne said.

The other proposal (HJR 61) approved by the committee Monday would require two-thirds of voters to approve constitutional amendments, up from the current 60 percent. Sponsor Rick Roth, R-West Palm Beach, has been unable to get lawmakers to approve the proposal in the past, but he told the House committee on Monday that the measure’s time has come.

“Constitutional amendments are intended to be permanent, and they are very difficult to repeal. So, amendments should require much broader support to be put in our Constitution,” he said.

Critics of the proposal, however, argued that a number of voter-approved measures --- including those placed on the ballot by the Legislature --- would not have passed if the higher threshold had been in effect.

“We believe strongly that altering the Florida Constitution should not be a simple process, but we also believe that it shouldn’t be an impossible process,” League of Women Voters of Florida lobbyist Trish Neely told the panel. “Our concern is that you continue to allow a way for the citizens of Florida to voice their concerns … when the legislators seem to be completely out of touch with us.”

The Republican-controlled House committee approved both measures in party-line votes. Roth’s measure would have to be approved by voters in 2022 because it would involve changing the Constitution. But lawmakers could make the changes in Payne’s bill. The Senate Ethics and Elections Committee is slated Tuesday to take up the Senate version (SB 1890) of Payne’s bill.

But an analysis of the House bill raised questions about the constitutionality of contribution limits.

“Restrictions on an initiative process will only be upheld against a First Amendment challenge if such restrictions ‘protect the integrity and reliability of the initiative process,’” the analysis said.

House Minority Co-leader Evan Jenne told reporters Monday that statewide candidates, who are subject to $3,000 limits on contributions to their campaign committees, are different from political committees.

“Those limitations are put in place on individual candidates to avoid, essentially, at least the perception that any one candidate has been bought off by some entity or individual that will expect some sort of repayment in the form of policy or government action. That is not what these ballot initiatives are,” Jenne, D-Dania Beach, said. “These are ideas. These are policies. They do not have a conscious mind. So it really doesn’t make a lot of sense, other than to make it more difficult for individuals to get these things on the ballot.”

Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, said GOP lawmakers’ latest attempts to rein in constitutional amendments are sparked in part because they disagree with proposals approved by voters.

“The plain fact of it is that they don’t like these ballot initiatives that have passed,” she said.

Florida voters in 2006 approved a proposal that increased the threshold for passing constitutional amendments from a simple majority to 60 percent. Lawmakers also made sweeping changes last year to the petition-gathering process to make it harder to put initiatives on the ballot.

The 2020 law increased a petition-signature threshold triggering Florida Supreme Court reviews, required all ballot measures --- including those placed on the ballot by the Legislature --- to have statements about potential impacts on the state budget and allowed county elections supervisors to charge more to verify petition signatures.

The Florida Chamber of Commerce, which was the driving force behind the 2006 effort hiking the approval threshold to 60 percent, supports the proposals by Payne and Roth.

“The citizens-initiative process should be an escape valve. … These guardrails are appropriate,” Christopher Emmanuel, a lobbyist for Florida Chamber, told the House panel Monday.

But the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Sierra Club and the NAACP were among organizations opposing the measures.

Morgan also blasted the attempts to make it harder to amend the Constitution.

“Here and across the country, state legislators are attempting to dismantle democracy just because they haven’t liked the outcome of recent elections and ballot initiatives. Today we are watching the beginning of the unraveling of our great heritage. From denying water to voters in Georgia to impossible obstacles like this here in Florida,” Morgan said in an email Monday, referring to a controversial Republican-backed voting law in Georgia. “Why not make it 90% to pass? Other than (former President Donald) Trump, Republicans swept elections throughout America last time, yet this is their response. They don’t care about the power resting with the people, they want power for a few. It is all beyond sad.”

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