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House committee passes Amendment 4 bill along party lines

“It’s blatantly unconstitutional as a poll tax,” one Democrat said.
BRONTE WITTPENN | Times With a grin on his face, Rodney Johnson, 47, walks out of the County Center after registering to vote for the first time on Tuesday, January 8, 2019. Johnson was released from prison in 2000. Since the passing of Amendment 4 Johnson is allowed to register to vote. "I feel full and completed," Johnson said. "To be able to to get my voice back and have my own rights." He adds he now feels better when he speaks to his children.
Published Mar. 19
Updated Mar. 19

A Florida House committee approved a bill addressing the rollout of Amendment 4 despite concerns that it would limit the number of former felons who could have their voting rights restored.

Voting along party lines, Republicans advanced the measure, which would require felons pay back all court fees and costs before being eligible to vote, even if those costs are not handed down by a judge as part of the person’s sentence.

That standard goes beyond the old system, which only required someone pay back restitution to a victim before applying to have their civil rights restored. And Democratic representatives and others blasted it.

“It’s blatantly unconstitutional as a poll tax,” said Rep. Adam Hattersley, D-Riverview.

READ MORE: Amendment 4: The House is hearing the first bill tomorrow. Here’s what’s in it.

At issue was how broadly or narrowly to interpret the amendment, and whether the Legislature needs to do anything at all.

Advocates of Amendment 4 believe no bill is needed, and that lawmakers are just meddling. Already, felons are registering to vote — and voting — across the state.

But elections supervisors and others have said they want help interpreting the historic amendment, which Floridians passed last year. It allowed more than 1 million ex-felons to have their voting rights restored, except for those convicted of “murder” and “sexual offenses.”

Committee chair Jamie Grant, R-Tampa, said he took the language explicitly at its word, and he pointed to testimony Amendment 4 lawyers gave to the Supreme Court.

Nobody defined what “sexual offenses” meant, Grant said, so he included every felony sexual offense on the books, including prostitution and placing an adult entertainment store within 2,500 feet of a school.

“There is absolutely zero significance to the term ‘felony sex,’” Grant said. "Had the language said ‘sex offender,' that would have meant something.”

And he said he cited Amendment 4′s own advocates before the Supreme Court, who said completing someone’s sentence could include fees and court costs.

And he considered it offensive to consider the fines a poll tax.

“To suggest that this is a poll tax inherently diminishes the atrocity of what a poll tax actually was,” Grant said. “All we’re doing is following statute. All we’re doing is following the testimony of what was presented before the Florida Supreme Court explicitly acknowledging that fines and court costs are part of a sentence.”

Neil Volz, political director for the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which advocated for Amendment 4, said after that “mistakes were made” before the Supreme Court.

He pointed to Tuesday’s party line vote as evidence that Amendment 4 had become political.

“Today, we saw the beginning of the politicization of Amendment 4,” he said. “We think we can do better than that.”

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