Florida House takes aim at ballot initiatives

State Rep. James Grant, R-Tampa (News Service of Florida)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – After passing a controversial law last year that clamped down on ballot initiatives, Florida House members Thursday moved forward with a bill that would continue to make it harder to pass constitutional amendments.

The House Judiciary Committee voted 12-6 to approve the measure, which would create additional hurdles for political committees seeking to put proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot. As an example, it would make it significantly harder to trigger Florida Supreme Court reviews that play a crucial role in determining whether amendments go before voters.

The measure (PCB JDC 20-01) is the latest move in years of efforts by Republican leaders and influential groups, such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce, to limit the initiative process. They argue, in part, that the process can lead to big-money donors bankrolling constitutional amendments on issues that should be decided by the Legislature.

“When we allow the citizen petition initiative to run unbridled, what we tell people is that a billionaire can fund a single initiative and trample over every other individual who doesn’t have the time, the obligation, the understanding or the expertise to dive in and understand,” bill sponsor James Grant, R-Tampa, told the committee.

But Democrats and other groups have long argued that the initiative process can be the only route for citizens when the Legislature ignores their wishes. For instance, voters in 2016 passed a constitutional amendment that broadly legalized medical marijuana.

“I think it’s a fundamental question of whether we trust the voters or not,” said Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa. “And if we do, then we should be able to trust this process and allow them to bring these petitions.”

Much of the battle over the years has focused on the costly and time-consuming process of collecting and verifying petition signatures to reach the ballot. The law passed last year placed additional regulations on paid petition gatherers, including requiring them to register with the Department of State and receive petition forms from the agency.

The new House bill would go further and address issues beyond signature gathering.

To get proposed constitutional amendments on the 2020 ballot, committees need to submit 766,200 valid petition signatures to the state and receive approval from the Florida Supreme Court of the ballot wording. To trigger that Supreme Court review, committees need to submit 76,632 signatures, or about 10 percent of the 766,200.

But the bill would increase that 10 percent threshold to 50 percent. That would translate to at least 383,100 signatures if the proposed requirement were in place for this year’s amendments.

Another part of the bill would effectively prevent committees from collecting signatures for one election cycle and then using them for a subsequent cycle, according to a House staff analysis.

For example, constitutional amendments were initially proposed for the 2020 ballot to legalize recreational marijuana use and expand Medicaid coverage. Backers of the proposals had enough signatures to trigger Supreme Court reviews but determined they would not be able to submit enough signatures to reach the ballot. As a result, they announced they would try to get on the 2022 ballot.

Among other changes, the bill could lead to county supervisors of elections charging more for verifying petition signatures. That could increase costs for political committees.

About the Author:

Jim has been executive editor of the News Service since 2013 and has covered state government and politics in Florida since 1998.