By Dara Kam, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — With a week to go in the 2022 legislative session, Florida lawmakers are considering a series of measures to propel Republican leaders’ years-long battle to make it harder for groups to change the state Constitution.
Floridians have relied on the ballot-initiative process in recent years to legalize medical marijuana, increase the minimum wage and limit the expansion of gambling in the state.
But for more than a decade, Republican lawmakers consistently have erected hurdles to the process in an effort to block measures from going before voters and amending the Florida Constitution.
Bills passed by the GOP-controlled Legislature have increased the number of signatures required for initiatives to be placed on the ballot and banned sponsors from paying petition gatherers by the signature – a move that experts say has dramatically driven up the cost of amendment drives.
Another election law shrank the length of time signatures are valid from four years to two years, meaning they can only be used for one election cycle. Critics say that law also has made the cost of petition drives skyrocket.
Proposals up for consideration this year include a campaign-finance bill that, in part, would place a $3,000 limit on contributions from out-of-state donors to political committees trying to collect enough petition signatures to move forward with citizens’ initiatives. The Senate approved the measure (HB 921) Friday night but made some changes that will send it back to the House.
A separate proposal tucked into a sweeping Senate elections package deals with Florida Supreme Court reviews of proposed constitutional amendments, a process that takes place after sponsors of measures submit 25 percent of the signatures required to make it on the ballot. Court reviews are needed to ensure that the proposals’ wording meets legal standards to go before voters.
The Senate bill (SB 524) would require the attorney general to withdraw requests for court reviews if proposals don’t submit enough overall signatures to qualify for the ballot before a Feb. 1 deadline. The attorney general could request that the ballot language be reviewed if initiatives receive enough signatures for future elections.
Initiative experts maintain that the proposed changes would impose another burden on groups seeking to place proposed amendments before voters. Currently, sponsors often pause fundraising efforts while awaiting Supreme Court decisions about proposals’ constitutionality. The court’s approval can help draw donors and volunteers.
Glenn Burhans, an attorney who has worked on several ballot initiatives, called the Senate plan problematic.
“This has been probably a 15-, 20-year push on killing the citizens’ initiatives, and this latest measure is just the next step,” he told The News Service of Florida in a phone interview Friday. “All of these so-called reforms, which are not reforms at all, are designed to prevent billionaires or well-funded special interest groups from amending the Constitution, but the legislation has the opposite effect, making the initiative process so expensive that only big-money interests can participate.”
Abdelilah Skhir, voting rights policy strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said his organization is opposing the proposed change.
“It’s death by a thousand cuts,” Skhir told the News Service.
The citizens’ initiative process, which Skhir said Floridians “really do enjoy,” often has been employed on issues the Legislature has refused to pass.
“Floridians from all walks of life have been able to use their constitutional right to direct democracy in Florida to improve the state for the better. Unfortunately, the Legislature disagrees with a lot of the things that have been passed,” Skhir the News Service Friday.
Lawmakers have often blasted backers of proposed amendments as out-of-state, deep-pocketed “special interests” or wealthy individuals who can afford to bankroll petition drives, which can cost upwards of $20 million to place on the ballot.
But Skhir blamed lawmakers for driving up costs.
“Because it’s so expensive, and when groups go and get donors to help them out, then the Legislature uses that as an impetus to continue making it costlier and more time intensive and more resource intensive. So it’s like an endless feedback loop,” he said.
The effort to change the Supreme Court review process comes as the court weighs whether to offer an opinion on a proposed constitutional amendment that could open the door to casinos in North Florida.
Florida Voters in Charge, the committee sponsoring the proposal, failed to submit nearly 900,000 signatures by Feb. 1 to make it on the November ballot but submitted the requisite number of signatures to trigger the court’s review.
The court on Feb. 8 asked for briefs about whether a review of the initiative is moot because not enough signatures were validated to qualify for the ballot.
In a brief filed Feb. 18, Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office said the court “does not lose jurisdiction simply because the petition will not appear on the ballot in the next election.”
But the Florida Senate argued that the court should take no action on the proposal.
“Contrary to the claims of the sponsors, there are not separate phases to the review. It is all part of the process to determine whether an initiative should be placed on the ballot. The argument that signatures expire for ballot placement, but maintain their validity for review is not a natural reading of the relevant portions of the Constitution and statutes governing the initiative process,” Senate general counsel Jeremiah Hawkes wrote in a Feb. 18 brief.
The court is also considering the same question about an initiative that would legalize sports betting in Florida. That initiative reached the signature threshold for review but fell far short of the signatures needed for the 2022 ballot.
The Senate on Friday passed the elections package in a 24-14 vote along almost straight party lines. Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg was the only Republican who joined Democrats in opposing the measure.
Floor debate, however, focused on part of the bill that would create a state “Office of Election Crime and Security” – a priority of Gov. Ron DeSantis – that would have the power to investigate election wrongdoing.
The bill would allow complaints to be made anonymously, which drew strenuous pushback.
“We should rename this bill, and then you can vote accordingly, and it should be ‘voter intimidation and voter suppression,’ because that’s really what we’re doing here. We’re not protecting anything,” Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, argued.
A similar measure is awaiting a House vote.
Another proposal floated by the House this year would place a constitutional amendment on the ballot allowing voters to decide whether to curtail subject matter for citizen initiatives. Under the proposal, initiatives would be restricted to matters related to “procedural subjects,” the “structure of government,” or the “structure of the Florida Constitution.” The measure has not made it to the floor for a full vote.