The 22-story Florida Capitol towers over the old Historic Capitol. Credit: Diane Rado
Democrats and voting rights advocates blasted the first bill introduced in the Florida Legislature Tuesday that seeks to add clarity and definitions to Amendment 4, the constitutional amendment that restores voting rights to an estimated 1.4 million felons in the state.
The measure, approved by more than 64 percent of Florida voters last fall, calls for the automatic restoration of voting rights for felons who have completed their sentences, with the exception of those who are charged with murder and/or sexual felonies.
The biggest criticism is that the bill seeks to define “completion of a sentence” to include court fines and fees that are not part of the original sentence handed down by a judge.
“That singular move that we’re going to go from what we’re doing today to changing it tomorrow – to move the line of what it means to be a completion of sentence, and realize that will restrict the ability to vote for thousands of Floridians, especially people who are poor. Especially people of color. And that is something that we really need to think about,” said Neil Volz, the political director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, the advocacy group that worked to pass Amendment 4.
Volz testified before the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee on Tuesday. He and other supporters of Amendment 4 say that the measure is “self-implementing,” meaning that the voters knew exactly what they were voting for when they approved it in November, and that there is no need for the Legislature to add anything to it.
But state attorneys and county elections supervisors have come before the Legislature in the past couple of months to say that they want legislative guidance to help them determine what specific offenses might fall under the category of murder and sexual felonies, as well how to determine if a criminal sentence has been completed.
“The reality is, Florida is absolutely ill-equipped and unprepared to make Amendment 4 work,” said state Rep. Jamie Grant, a Republican from Tampa Bay who authorized the committee’s staff to write the bill introduced on Tuesday.
The bill was approved on a party line vote, with Democrats on the losing end.
“The will of the voter was not to go as far as this bill has gone,” said state Rep. Michael Grieco, a Democrat from Miami-Dade County. “The Legislature should have done this years ago. You’re talking about almost 45 states who have this on the books in some ways, many of them have done this legislatively, and they didn’t wait for over six million voters to tell us to do what is our jobs. It was already the right thing to do.”
In making his speech to the committee, Grant said that the public should “take us at our word” that the Legislature was not attempting in any way to subvert the will of the voters with his legislation.
But critics like the League of Women Voters of Florida disagreed.
“The reality is that the Florida Legislature has earned a reputation of spending millions of taxpayer dollars in defense of indefensible noncompliance with the intent of voter initiatives through the years,” said President Patricia Bingham, who went on to mention the class size amendment, the Fair Districts amendment and the Florida Land and Water Conservation amendment as examples of why voters are cynical about Republican legislators’ intentions when it comes to implementing popular citizen-led measures.
Grant also said that the attorneys for Amendment 4 who came before the Florida Supreme Court last year made contradictory remarks from what advocates are now saying. He said those attorneys acknowledged last year that fines and court costs were part of a sentence and that ballot measures were “messy and there will be ‘details to be ironed out.’”
“We’re imperfect people and we make mistakes and we’re willing to acknowledge them,” admitted Volz after the committee meeting.
Volz served as a chief-of-staff to former Ohio Republican Congressman Bob Ney before they both pled guilty to accepting lavish gifts for political favors in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal in 2007.
Along with Desmond Meade, he has been the face of Amendment 4 over the past year. The two men helped organize hundreds of former felons to come to Tallahassee last week to speak to legislators about other steps to help those recently incarcerated get integrated back into society. He called the partisan vote on Tuesday the “beginning of the politicization of Amendment 4.”
“This is not about political science or battle of the lawyers,” he told reporters afterwards. “This is about real people. Real people’s lives who live in our communities, who are ready to reintegrate, ready to move forward in a way that the voters so kindly and graciously afford us who have past felony convictions.”
The bill now moves on to another committee in the House; a companion bill in the Senate has yet to be filed.
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