By John Haughey, The Center Square
The new rules regulating Florida’s petition-driven ballot measure process were introduced as a raft of 11th hour amendments onto an unrelated bill and adopted by the House and Senate in the last hour of the legislative session.
The bill was then signed into law without comment by Gov. Ron DeSantis, word coming in a brief late-Friday afternoon press release from the Governor’s Office that the controversial measure was among 38 bills enacted that day.
But if DeSantis thought House Bill 5’s somewhat clandestine adoption and low-profile signing meant the matter was resolved with little cause for further explanation, he learned differently this week.
The media and observers at other bill-signing events have asked the new governor why he signed into law new petition-gathering rules that critics have loudly denounced as imposing “unjustifiable barriers to citizens engaging in the political process.”
After DeSantis signed the state’s “Patients Savings Act” into law in a Jacksonville ambulatory surgery center Wednesday, it was HB 5 that dominated the ensuing question-and-answer gaggle with reporters and constituents.
One thing he made clear: He’s not sorry for signing the bill and believes it was necessary.
“What’s being done now is you have a bunch of out-of-state people – a major cottage industry, funded by special interests,” DeSantis said, noting the new rules “take the financial incentive out” of petition-gathering by professionals who collect signatures for a living.
The new law essentially extends the state’s voter registration system to petition-gathering, requiring every citizen initiative organization sponsoring a signature-drive have its own numbered, serialized petition provided by county elections offices.
It requires petition-gathers to register with the state and have a permanent Florida address, effectively barring out-of-state entities from ballot campaigns. The bill prohibits signature gatherers from being paid on a per-petition basis.
Petition-gatherers will also face fines and criminal charges for violating the new regulations, including $50 fines for signed petitions turned in after 30 days and $500 fines for petitions never turned in.
State law requires petition drives to collect 76,632 signatures from verified Florida voters to trigger a Supreme Court review. If justices sign off on the proposal’s language, supporters must then submit 766,200 signatures by Feb. 1, 2020, to get on November’s ballot.
Petition-gatherers now say they’ll need at least 1.1 million signatures to ensure 766,320 are verified. Groups will need to finish collecting signatures by Jan. 1 to give elections supervisors the required 30 days to verify them before Feb. 1.
The new rules go into effect on July 7.
“The protections that are in there are exactly the same you would have [for] absentee ballots,” DeSantis said.
He said the new rules will ensure petition drives are driven by Floridians for Floridians rather than national organizations pushing issues before state voters.
“This is not supposed to be driven by out-of-state special interests. It’s supposed to be driven by Floridians. That’s not what’s happened,” DeSantis said. “If people really need to do [a petition drive for a ballot measure], band together, you do your organization, you do it.
“In 2020,” he added, “what I’d like to see is whatever ends up on the ballot is because Floridians want to get things there, not special interest funding.”
DeSantis said the new rules also diminish the financial clout of deep-pocket ballot measure sponsors.
“Right now,” DeSantis said, “you’ve got one guy writing a check,” an implied shot at Orlando attorney John Morgan, who spent millions to support the 2016 ballot measure that legalized medical marijuana and is spearheading a petition drive to get a minimum wage measure before voters in November 2020.
DeSantis said he would like to see other changes in the state’s rules regarding how citizens can amend the constitution, suggesting “more streamlined” stand-alone elections for ballot measures could be one solution.
“It might cost a little bit more money for the state but at least people would know when they’re going and [why] they’re voting,” he said.
He’d also like to see the Constitutional Revision Commission [CRC] “abolished.”
Critics of HB 5 note proposals to get rid of the CRC, a 37-member panel that convenes every 20 years to review the state’s constitution, went nowhere during the legislative session while the new petition-gathering rules slipped under the wire with little comment as time ran out.
That’s ironic, they say, because it was the CRC, not amendments proposed by citizens through petition drives, that crowded last November’s ballot.
The CRC took 24 proposed amendments and “bundled” 19 of them into seven ballot measures. Of the 12 measures on the ballot, only two arrived via citizen petition drive.
In this instance, DeSantis agreed with the critics.
“To put all those amendments on when you have two or three different subjects in one amendment, is a joke,” he said.