Florida Republicans aim to take away the best weapon progressive groups have left. Here’s how.

Two bills Republicans introduced this week would make it far more difficult to gather the signatures needed to get constitutional amendments before voters.
Rep. Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast
Rep. Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast
Published March 28, 2019|Updated March 28, 2019

TALLAHASSEE — Republicans in Tallahassee control both chambers of the Legislature and the governor’s mansion, and they’ve appointed every member of the Florida Supreme Court.

Now, they’re taking aim at the last realm outside their grasp: Voters’ access to amending the Florida Constitution through ballot initiatives.

Two bills Republicans introduced this week would make it far more difficult to gather the signatures needed to get constitutional amendments before voters.

And they would thwart two major amendments that could appear on the 2020 ballot, one raising the minimum wage and the other allowing “energy choice,” advocates for those ideas say.

“These people — the swamp — are literally changing the rules in the middle of the game,” Alex Patton, chairman of a committee trying to get an energy choice amendment initiative on the ballot. “We have been working on this for eight months. It’s blatant. And it’s absolutely shameful.”

John Morgan, the Orlando attorney who bankrolled the constitutional amendment for medical marijuana, is behind another proposal to raise minimum wage to $15 an hour. He said lawmakers are trying to thwart the “will of the people.”

“They want to be able to pay people slave wages and they want to be able to do it forever,” he said. “If they can get away with paying less than $8, they can do it. They do it every day with illegal aliens.”

Republican Rep. James Grant of Tampa said he is trying to make it harder to change the state’s constitution, but he’s not targeting any proposals in particular.

And Rep. Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, said the effort is to prevent out-of-state billionaires from financing petitions and to stop potential fraud.

“What we’re really trying to rein in is making sure outside influences outside the state are not coming in and manipulating our constitution,” Renner said, adding that there is nothing in state laws preventing a “Russian or a North Korean” from working to change the constitution.

Their bill and another being heard in the Senate on Monday would be, by far, the strongest effort yet to stop groups from changing the constitution.

Locked out of power in Tallahassee over the last two decades, progressive groups have successfully had their policies passed by voters approving of amendments protecting environmental lands and restoring voting rights to felons.

The bills lawmakers are pushing specifically target 2020, a crucial presidential election year in which other groups hope to get before voters amendments banning assault weapons and requiring Medicaid expansion.

On Thursday, the House Judiciary Committee voted along party lines, 12-6, to advance Grant and Renner’s bill.

The bill would require that ballot initiatives:

• Pay petitioners by wage or hour, not by signature gathered.

• Include the name of the initiative’s sponsor on the ballot.

• Disclose the percent of money raised by sources in-state.

• Print in bold, capital letters: “MAY REQUIRE INCREASED TAXES OR A REDUCTION IN GOVERNMENT SERVICES” if the amendment will cost money.

• Print the Supreme Court’s ruling determining whether the proposed amendment could be carried out by the Legislature.

• Allow for interested parties to weigh in, and file a 50-word “position statement” either for or against the proposal to be posted on the Department of State’s website.

The language also specifies that the bill will apply to all revision or amendment initiatives that are proposed for the 2020 election ballot. While petitions already signed wouldn’t be affected by the bill, key initiatives still have a ways to go in the signature-collecting process.

Many groups pushing ballot initiatives have hired out-of-state companies to fly people into Florida and help collect signatures. Both Morgan and Patton have hired such companies, as did the groups behind last year’s Amendment 4, which passed with 64.5 percent of the vote last year.

“We feel it is specifically directed at what we are trying to do,” said Patton. “This is very smart, special interest [groups] trying to kill the ballot petition initiative. They do not like pesky citizens bypassing Tallahassee.”

The proposal, put forward by the Citizens for Energy Choices political committee, calls for the customer’s “right to choose” and would loosen the grip of private utility monopolies like Florida Power & Light, Gulf Power, Duke Energy and Tampa Electric Company, which are major donors to Republican lawmakers. It would allow customers to pick their electricity providers from a competitive market or give them more options to produce and sell solar energy themselves.

Patton said he feels Grant’s bill bows to the investor-owned utilities, who donate millions to campaigns and business interest groups in Florida every year. An amendment like the one his committee is proposing would significantly impact the bottom line of those groups.

“This is more about entrenched special interests not wanting anybody to play in their sandbox,” Patton said. “They get what they want. But the petition process is specifically designed to bypass that.”

Patton said the rule to require residency for signature-gatherers is a “poison pill” that will set him back millions of dollars. He uses a firm that sends professional signature gatherers from as far as California — a process typical of larger firms across the country.

It’s not just progressive groups that hire them, though. In 2016, a utility-backed measure to limit rooftop solar expansion got onto the ballot with signature collecting solicited from firms based in Michigan, Nevada and Wyoming. It did not pass.

Morgan, who briefly toyed with the idea of running for governor in 2018, said he can understand why progressives see ballot initiatives as a way to make their ideas reality. Ideas like energy choice and $15 minimum wage poll well, but Morgan said that’s what scares a conservative-leaning legislature.

“They believe this will pass,” he said. “But special interests and the people who want to pay slave wages .. that’s who’s in charge.”

Grant said he hasn’t studied the “energy choice” idea and doesn’t have an opinion on it. He doesn’t believe in the idea of a minimum wage but said that special interests weren’t behind his bill.

“This is a Paul Renner and Jamie Grant agreement, from the first time we talked,” he said.

He said he doesn’t believe the state constitution should be used to make policies, noting that they never come out.

“It should be difficult to amend the constitution,” he said. “There’s a reason why the U.S. Constitution only has 27 amendments.”

Lawmakers have steadily made it more difficult to amend Florida’s constitution, limiting the amount of time a group has to collect signatures and raising the threshold for an amendment passing to 60 percent.

And this session, they’re advancing another bill that raises the threshold to two-thirds.

Grant and Renner’s bill would not affect signatures already gathered for 2020, but both Morgan and Patton still have to collect hundreds of thousands more before they make the ballot.

“Look what I had to do to get my initiative enacted. I had to sue the state,” he said. “But what happens if you’re not John Morgan?”