Citizen efforts to amend FL Constitution face cap on financial help, starting Thursday

By: - June 30, 2021 7:00 am

Screenshot of an out-of-state petition drive related to a school ballot initiative. Credit: YouTube.

Thirty-one active citizen initiatives to amend the Florida Constitution face a deadline Thursday that may, for some, dictate whether voters ever see them on a ballot.

That’s because a new state law, Senate Bill 1890, signed into law May 7 and effective July 1, curtails how much money initiative campaigns may accept in contributions from people and organizations that support their causes.

Workers demonstrate in Fort Lauderdale in support of a $15 minimum wage. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images, 2019

Over the years, citizens have initiated numerous changes to the Florida Constitution, including reducing class size (2002), funding acquisition for sensitive land (2012), legalizing medical marijuana (2016), providing for voter control of gambling in Florida (2018), restoring voting rights to ex-felons (2018) and gradually increasing the state minimum wage to $15 per hour (2020).

Citizen initiatives require that prescribed numbers of voter signatures be gathered before the measure may appear on the ballot, and few succeed without spending substantial amounts of money on petition-gatherers and advertising.

Starting Thursday, donations to campaigns to collect petition signatures for proposed constitutional amendments initiated by citizens will be limited to $3,000 per person or entity in any given election. Presently, there is no limit.

The law was written to exempt political parties from the new limit. It also does not apply to Constitutional amendments sponsored by the Florida Legislature.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and others are fighting the law in federal court, arguing that citizen-initiated efforts to amend the Constitution represent protected exercise of free speech – and that successful initiatives typically cost millions of dollars in a state the size of Florida.

ACLU Florida is seeking a temporary injunction to suspend implementation of the new law and let campaign contributions continue. A hearing was held last Thursday. The court’s ruling on the injunction is pending.

“The Division of Elections website shows 31 currently active initiative efforts, and our lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of SB 1890 would benefit all of them – as well as every Floridian who wants to amend their Constitution through the ballot initiative process,” said Nicholas Warren, staff attorney with the ACLU and lead attorney in this lawsuit.

“The law is an infringement on the free speech rights of Floridians and seeks to undermine Floridians’ ability to directly participate in their democracy,” Warren wrote in answer to a Phoenix query.

Attorney General Ashley Moody is defending the new law, arguing it does not quell free speech because the cap on contributions applies only to the point when an initiative has gained enough voter signatures to be placed on the next general ballot. After that point, the limit no longer applies.

The 31 citizen initiatives are listed by the Division of Elections in connection with the 2022 general ballot. (While labeled active, some were begun as far back as 2013 and still have not qualified for a ballot).

Based on the current size of Florida’s electorate, each must collect nearly 900,000 voter signatures for its proposed amendment to be placed on the next ballot.

Joining the ACLU in the court challenge are three voting-rights committees pitching their own citizen initiatives:

Sean Shaw, attorney and former lawmaker. Credit: Wikipedia.

The committees are Fair Vote Florida, Our Votes Matter, and Florida Votes Matter, each chaired by Sean Shaw, an attorney, former state representative, 2018 candidate for state attorney general, and son of the late Leander J. Shaw Jr., the first African- American chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court.

The three measures aspire to expand voter participation in elections by making it easier to register to vote and by striking a legislative requirement added after the referendum that ex-felons pay all outstanding legal debts before they may vote.

One group that may have little to fear from the impending cap on contributions is an initiative to legalize sports betting statewide in Florida for the first time, regardless of the new gambling compact between the state and the Seminole Tribe of Florida that lawmakers approved in a recent special session on gambling. (The federal government has yet to approve the compact, which gives the tribal exclusive purview over sports betting.)

That’s because the sports betting ballot initiative, under the auspices of a political action committee titled “Florida Education Champions,” is backed by multi-billion-dollar sports-betting and fantasy-sports titans DraftKings and FanDuel, according to Christina Johnson, a spokeswoman for the sports-betting PAC.

With that kind of backing, the PAC — comprised of three CPAs, a registered agent who is lawyer, and a political consultant — could quickly build a huge financial war chest before the contribution limit takes effect on Thursday. The ballot initiative won approval from the state just last Thursday to begin collecting signatures and accepting contributions.

The sports-betting initiative pledges that any tax revenue from sports betting would be earmarked for education.

Charles O’Neal, chairman of political committees pitching five environmental conservation initiatives for the 2022 ballot, said his supporters hope to succeed with an all-volunteer effort. But he still wants to see the cap on contributions to citizen initiatives struck down.

“I support the ACLU’s effort to get rid of the $3,000 cap,” O’Neal said. “The Florida Legislature should be encouraging citizen involvement, especially through the citizen initiative process, if the goal is to represent the citizens of Florida.”

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Laura Cassels
Laura Cassels

Laura Cassels is a reporter, former statehouse bureau chief, and former city editor. She is a classical pianist, a Florida State University graduate and proud alum of the Florida Flambeau, an independent college newspaper.