Lawmakers send a bill to governor making it harder for citizen groups to advance constitutional amendments

By: - March 12, 2020 10:33 am

The Constitution of the State of Florida. Credit: Florida Phoenix

Floridians looking to amend the state Constitution to expand Medicaid or allow recreational cannabis will face a more costly and complicated process under a bill headed to Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The Florida House on Wednesday voted, 73-45, for a bill (SB 1794) that would impose new barriers for citizen groups seeking to collect enough voter signatures to put a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot.

The Senate voted, 23-17, for the bill earlier in the week. Both votes were along party lines, with the Republicans in support and Democrats in opposition.

The bill will make it harder for citizen groups to trigger a Florida Supreme Court review of the ballot measures by increasing the required number of voter signatures from 10 percent of the total voters in the last presidential election to 25 percent. Court approval is a critical step in placing an amendment on the ballot.

This year, citizen petition groups, like those trying to legalize recreational marijuana or expand Medicaid coverage, had to collect 76,620 validated signatures to qualify for a court review. Under the bill, they would have needed to collect nearly 192,000 signatures.

Other changes include requiring citizen initiatives to collect signatures in more congressional districts in order to trigger the court review. It would increase from at least a quarter of the 27 congressional districts to at least half, which would mean 14 districts.

The bill also prohibits citizen groups from using voter signatures gathered in one election for a later election. Currently, the signatures are valid for two years after they are collected.
The bill would allow local supervisors of elections to charge the “actual cost” of verifying the voter signatures that are submitted for review.

And the bill would give the state Supreme Court the authority to decide whether the ballot measures are “facially invalid” under the U.S. Constitution.

Opponents said the measure is another attempt to limit the use of citizen petition drives that have led to 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 citizen initiative that would raise Florida’s minimum wage to $15 an hour over a period of several years.

Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Miami-Dade County Democrat who opposed the measure, said the bill adds more barriers to the petition process that will effectively eliminate the ability of grassroots groups to put issues before the voters.

“We’re just making the citizen initiative process more costly and more complicated, forcing operations from grassroots to professional,” Rodriguez said. “It’s taking a system that was meant for citizens to act when this Legislature would not … and flipping it on its head and making it something that only the billionaires can access.”

In the House, Democrats said the increased regulations were an infringement on the First Amendment rights of voters to petition their government.

“I just can’t sit quietly by while we are taking power away from the people,” said Rep. Margaret Good, a Sarasota Democrat. “We don’t have to have constitutional amendments, if we do what the people wanted us to do.”

But Rep. James Grant, a Tampa Republican who supported the bill, said the legislation would not prevent citizen groups from advancing constitutional amendments, although he acknowledged the measure was increasing the signature threshold and adding more regulations.

“I stand ready to have lawsuits again filed against this Legislature. I welcome the argument that this would violate the First Amendment,” Grant said. “I’m confident in that argument, our product is sound because nobody here is telling voters that they can’t engage or can’t speak. What we’re actually saying is speak louder.”

Here is an earlier Florida Phoenix story on the issue.

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Lloyd Dunkelberger
Lloyd Dunkelberger

Lloyd Dunkelberger has been covering Florida government for over three decades. He’s reported and edited in Tallahassee for the New York Times Regional Newspapers group, Florida Politics, and the News Service of Florida. He grew up in Jacksonville and Palm Beach County and got his journalism degree at the University of Florida.