Dark money fuels effort to hinder FL citizens from changing Constitution — ‘It’s just the way it happened’

By: - October 16, 2020 7:00 am

Credit: Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

The organization that placed Amendment 4, which would make it twice as hard to amend the Florida Constitution, on the Nov. 3 ballot was Keep Our Constitution Clean P.C.

The organization that solely financed its efforts, to the tune of $9 million in cash and in-kind contributions, was Keep Our Constitution Clean Inc.

At least, that’s the way things stood until this week, when the committee reorganized itself, changing its name to Keep Our Constitution Clean P.C. Inc. and installing new officers.

Out are Jason Haber as chairman and Jason Blank of the Haber Blank law firm in Fort Lauderdale as treasurer and registered agent, who managed things since February 2019. The firm shared a mailing address with both campaign entities.

In are Jason Zimmerman, a litigation shareholder in GrayRobinson’s Orlando office who also handles elections law, as chairman and agent; and Ivy Rhinehart, the firm’s chief financial officer, as treasurer. Zimmerman has represented the campaign as an attorney.

Blank referred questions about the situation to Zimmerman, who in a telephone interview said Haber and Blank had fulfilled their role in promoting the proposal and that the new team was installed to “close it up.”

Notwithstanding the size of their investment, Zimmerman painted the sponsors as disinterested in the outcome.

“We really were focused on getting it on the ballot to let the people decide. We’re not marketing it; we’re not campaigning for it; we’re not spending any money on advertising campaigns,” Zimmerman said

They haven’t polled either, so he has no idea whether the initiative will pass.

“Ideally, it allows the electorate to look at an amendment, determine if it’s really something that should be foundational, and require the people to really understand what it is and become well-informed on it to get it passed,” he said.

“Or, ideally, allow the people who want to campaign for constitutional amendments to get involved in local politics with their state rep or state senator to get that same change done through the Legislature.”

As for the use of dark money: “It’s just the way it happened,” Zimmerman said. What matters, he, argued, is that the idea is going before the voters. “Who funded it has nothing to do with what the amendment does.”

The initiative itself, “Voter Approval of Constitutional Amendments,” would require voters on constitutional amendment to vote twice, in successive general elections, which are held two years apart, before they can take effect.

The 60 percent voter approval threshold in existing state law would apply to both votes.

It would apply to any proposed constitutional amendment, whether initiated by a citizens’ petition drive or by the Legislature, the Constitution Revision Commission, a constitutional convention, or the state Taxation and Budget Reform Commission.

“Think twice,” the sponsors admonish on their website, which offers little information about their motives and background. Other than a link to the initiative’s language, the site carries this mission statement:

“To preserve Florida’s Constitution for future generations by educating voters on the impact of various constitutional initiative petitions and, secondarily, protecting professional canvassers from unscrupulous and illegal practices.” (Nothing in the initiative has to so with canvassers, however.)

Red flags

“Good government” groups see all kinds of red flags — related both to the effort’s reliance on dark money and the prospect of yet another curb on the citizens’ initiative process.

Patricia Brigham, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, denounced the “shadowy committee that has flouted campaign finance laws by concealing every dime of the nearly $9 million it has raised and spent.”

Patricia Brigham, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida. Credit: www.lwvfl.org

“The public should know who’s funding these initiatives that go on to the ballot,” Brigham said in a telephone interview. “There should be as much transparency in these as possible. Our antennae go up when we are kept in the dark about who’s footing the bill.”

News reports — including by the Orlando Sentinel and the USA Today Network — have linked the organization to Associated Industries of Florida, which represents some of the state’s largest corporations. AIF doesn’t disclose its members’ names but reportedly they include Walt Disney World, U.S. Sugar, and Florida Power & Light.

Sarah Bascom, of Bascom Communications & Consulting, a spokeswoman for the lobby and also for Keep Our Constitution Clean, would neither confirm nor deny any link. “AIF does not comment on political activity,” she said.

“I am the spokesperson for both but that does not imply the groups are working together or tied together.  Our firm represents a long list of political clients,” Bascom added.

AIF did endorse a law passed earlier this year that requires citizen groups to collect more signatures in pursuit of a place on the ballot and shorten the period during which they count from two years to one.

Zimmerman discounted the possibility of AIF involvement. “I don’t think there’s any connection,” he said. “I would know.”

Curbs on citizens’ initiatives

Business sees the citizens’ initiative process as ripe for pandering to unschooled public opinion. Critics also argue that it’s a bad idea to enshrine the enthusiasm of the moment in Florida’s founding document. Other states allow citizens to enact statutes via initiative, but not Florida.

There has been a trend toward erecting barriers to citizens’ initiatives, including a 2006 amendment that imposed the 60 percent supermajority requirement to approve these measures.

Lobbies supporting Amendment 4 include the Florida Chamber, Florida Farm Bureau, and Florida TaxWatch.

Dominic Calabro, chairman and CEO of TaxWatch, a nonprofit government watchdog organization, compared Amendment 4 to the high hurdles the U.S. Constitution erected for amendments, although in the context of Florida’s governing system.

“Let’s slow down the passions of the moment; let’s be a little more deliberative,” he said.

“You can actually eliminate people’s constitutional rights by amending the Constitution. It ought to be hard. This is organic law — it’s not like renaming a city’s doggie park, Calabro continued. Such important changes should only happen when there is “deep and widespread consensus.”

Changes that the Legislature can make — say, raising the minimum wage — should be left to the Legislature,” he argued.

If the Legislature won’t go along, “you can vote the bums out. That’s the tried and true method — and, actually, it does happen from time to time.”

Zimmerman agreed, noting that the U.S. Constitution has been amended 27 times since ratified in 1788; the Florida Constitution has been amended more than 140 times since this version was adopted in 1968.

Like others opposing the initiative, the LWV’s Brigham refuses to refer to it as “Amendment 4.” Rather than risk confusion with the 2018 felon-voting-rights measure, they’re calling it “No. 4.”

“It’s already hard enough to get a proposed amendment on the ballot, but if No. 4 passes, it’s likely that only special interest groups with a lot of money and backing from powerful political operatives would be able to amend the Florida Constitution,” Anjenys Gonzalez-Eilert, executive director of Common Cause Florida, said in a written statement.

“This bill is trying to subvert the will of the voters by increasing the overall costs — often against well-funded private interests,” the Sierra Club’s Florida chapter said.

Additional pans have come from:

The ACLU of Florida: “[A] cynical political effort to obstruct voters’ ability to pass future constitutional amendments, even those with support from a super-majority of voters. This ballot initiative disregards the will of the people and renders their voices mute on the very issues they care about most.”

The SEIU: “This amendment — in addition to efforts in the Florida Legislature — have been surgically tailored to stop or make it extremely difficult for citizen-initiated petitions to become law. This has been one of the best resources for the people of Florida when the Legislature has ignored our interests.”

Florida Conservation Voters: “Together, citizens have voted to protect our waters and land, reinstate the voting rights of thousands of our friends and neighbors, and help restore integrity to a broken redistricting process. No wonder state legislative leaders and shady political donors now want to take that right away. When voters cast their ballots in this election, they’ve got to fight back and stand up for their constitutional rights by voting no on No. 4.”

Still, Zimmerman insisted:

“The Florida Constitution should be the foundational document for our government. It shouldn’t be something that we use to try to legislate daily, weekly, monthly issues. That’s really what the Legislature’s for. The Legislature should be the body that adapts to what’s going on in society.”

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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal.