TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (NSF) - Patients have access to medical marijuana and kids don’t have to cram into crowded classrooms, thanks to citizen-sponsored changes to the state Constitution.
But Republican lawmakers want to make it harder for groups behind citizens’ initiatives to collect the hundreds of thousands of signatures required for proposed constitutional amendments to make it onto the Florida ballot.
A sweeping measure, approved last week during the final full day of the annual legislative session, would make a host of changes to state laws dealing with initiatives, a move that critics are calling a power grab by the GOP-dominated Legislature.
“It (the bill) weakens the people’s inherent rights to amend organic law in the Constitution. That’s a fundamental constitutional right that the Legislature is essentially eviscerating,” said lawyer Glenn Burhans, chairman of “All Voters Vote,” a political committee behind a 2020 initiative aimed at overhauling the state’s closed primary-election system.
Burhans, who has been involved with petition drives for nearly two decades, said the changes will hurt voters, sponsors of proposed constitutional amendments, elections officials and workers paid to gather signatures.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has not formally received the measure (HB 5), has indicated he supports it.
The bill would make it a crime to pay petition-gatherers based on the number of signatures they collect, a change that experts say will likely double the cost of getting proposals on the ballot, a process that now runs a tab of around $5 million.
The measure also would shift costs now borne by initiatives’ sponsors to county supervisors of elections, by requiring the local officials to print petitions now generated by the private firms collecting signatures. All of the petition forms would include information identifying the petition circulators, who be required to register with the state.
“It is a shame that they have to throw these obstacles in the way of something that is so natural to a democracy, such as allowing citizens to vote,” Mike Fernandez, a prominent South Florida health-care executive, told The News Service of Florida in an interview. Fernandez last month contributed $2.25 million to “All Voters Vote.”
In addition to imposing new burdens and making it “prohibitively costly,” Fernandez, a former Republican, predicted the looming changes “will deter a lot of citizens’ groups that have a valid consideration from moving forward” through a process that also requires Florida Supreme Court approval of proposed ballot wording.
“This is obviously a reaction by the current administration and the majority of our legislators who happen to be Republicans. They’re acting as if they believe the Republicans will be in office until the end of time,” Fernandez said, calling it “a simple power grab.”
But House Criminal Justice Chairman James Grant, a Tampa Republican who was a key player in the issue during the legislative session, said his goal, shared by House Judiciary Chairman Paul Renner, is to “protect the sovereignty of the Florida Constitution.”
The bill would require the state Division of Elections to create and maintain a database of all registered petition circulators and the forms assigned to them, based on information provided by county supervisors.
Petition circulators would have to turn in the forms within 30 days after they are signed or face fines of $50 per petition, or $250 “if the sponsor or petition circulator acted willfully.” A circulator could face fines of up to $1,000 for each petition not returned to the elections offices.
And the proposal would require state elections officials to create rules for many of the new requirements, which Burhans said could effectively “bring to a grinding halt” the petition-gathering now underway by groups facing a Feb. 1 deadline to submit the 766,200 signatures required to make it onto next year’s ballot.
If DeSantis signs the measure into law as expected, workers would have 30 days to continue gathering signatures under the current process.
But Ben Pollara, who successfully shepherded a 2016 initiative that legalized medical marijuana, questioned what would happen between the 30-day gap and the finalization of new rules, a process that could take months. That’s one of a dozen issues not clarified in the proposal, he said.
“Forget just making it more difficult. It’s really confusing and not addressed in the legislation,” said Pollara, who is working on 2020 initiatives aimed at banning assault-style weapons and raising the minimum wage.
Sponsors of petitions generally try to collect more than a million signatures. Requiring supervisors of elections to print all of the petitions --- without providing any additional funding to the local officials --- is “absolute lunacy,” Pollara said.
Other changes in the past have made it more difficult to get citizens’ initiatives on the ballot --- and to pass them. For example, a time frame was shortened from four years to two years for sponsors to collect signatures, and ballot measures now require approval from 60 percent of voters to pass, up from a previous majority.
Citizens’ initiatives are one way of changing the state Constitution. Lawmakers can also put proposed amendments directly onto the ballot, as can the Constitution Revision Commission, which meets every 20 years.
Initiatives have long been controversial, with voters during the past two decades passing high-profile changes such as legalization of medical marijuana and limiting school class sizes. Some initiatives have been heavily criticized, such as a 2002 measure that restricted farmers from putting pregnant pigs in cages.
The legislation came after voters in November approved 11 constitutional amendments, including two citizens’ initiatives. One of the initiatives restored the right to vote to eligible felons. Another requires voters to make decisions about expansions of gambling, an issue until now largely controlled by the Legislature.
While DeSantis appears poised to sign the new bill, it is almost certain to be challenged in court.
“Last year we had so many amendments that I think we need reform. Whether this is enough, I don’t know,” DeSantis told reporters Saturday after the legislative session ended.
A series of high-profile ballot initiatives also have been proposed for the 2020 ballot, including proposals to raise the minimum wage, expand Medicaid eligibility, ban assault-style weapons and deregulate the electric utility system --- issues widely opposed by Republican leaders as well as big-dollar campaign contributors, such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Florida Power & Light and other utilities.
Grant passionately defended the bill, saying it is designed to keep the state Constitution clear of matters that belong in state laws.
“It’s not a place for policy. Both sides of the aisle, all ideologies, the CRC, everybody has made a mockery of our Constitution at one point in Florida’s history or another. But the reality is a constitution should be a founding document that should serve as a charter for Florida’s liberties, not be a secondary set of statutes,” Grant, a lawyer, told the News Service.
The crackdown on petition drives also is designed to insulate the Constitution “from anybody in the world who wants to amend it,” Grant said.
“Because anyone who thinks that our Florida Constitution is immune from election meddling or a billionaire running his or her own personal preference of policy is laughably naïve,” he added, calling his proposal “a cease-fire against big money running over individual Floridians.”
But people working to place initiatives on the 2020 ballot are frustrated that the process is being revamped as signature gathering is already underway.
“Leave it up to politicians of both sides to change the rules when it’s inconvenient for them,” Fernandez, an independent, said.