Republican lawmakers pass bill to make it harder to amend Florida’s constitution

Rep. Jamie Grant’s measure, among other things, would require that ballot initiatives pay petitioners by wage or hour, not by signatures gathered.
Rep. Jamie Grant, R- Tampa, on the floor of the Florida House.
Rep. Jamie Grant, R- Tampa, on the floor of the Florida House.
Published May 4, 2019

A bill to limit citizen-driven ballot initiatives — like those from the 2018 election that expanded medical marijuana and sought to give ex-felons the right to vote — was nearly dead.

Until it wasn’t.

In a move characteristic of the final days of the 2019 legislative session, the bill language was thrown onto the lifeboat of a different, unrelated bill in a last-ditch effort to pass the proposal.

Rep. Jamie Grant’s bill was tacked onto a tax-cut bill as an amendment while he was on the floor explaining a controversial bill to implement Amendment 4.

His bill had passed along party lines off the House floor last Thursday, but died in the Senate earlier this week.

“We ought to be in a posture that upholds the integrity of the constitution,” the Tampa Republican said on the floor. “There is a troubling trend of putting policy in the constitution.”

Grant’s amendment, which passed in both chambers late Friday night, makes the bill active upon being signed into law. It will be in effect for 2020, a crucial presidential election year in which other groups hope to get amendments before voters to ban assault weapons and require Medicaid expansion.

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

This session, the majority party tried to advance another bill that raises the threshold to a two-thirds vote, which died. A separate bill by Republicans aimed to abolish the Constitution Revision Commission, a 37-member body that meets every 20 years to review and proposes changes to the state constitution. That bill was never brought for a floor vote.

Sen. David Simmons, who presented Grant’s amendment in the upper chamber Friday night, almost put forward a similar amendment to an elections administration bill, but it was withdrawn last week.

Grant’s amendment, among other things, would require that ballot initiatives pay petitioners by wage or hour, not by signatures gathered. It also requires that gatherers — who must be registered as an in-state petition circulator with the Secretary of State — turn in petitions to supervisors of elections within 30 days of being signed, and disclose whether out-of-state signature gatherers were hired.

The rule also requires that ballot language include the name of the initiative’s sponsor and the percent of money raised by sources in-state. If the proposal includes a negative financial impact on the state or local economy, a statement indicating such must be printed in bold print on the ballot.

Also printed onto the ballot will be the Supreme Court’s ruling determining whether the proposed amendment could be carried out by the Legislature. A 50-word “position statement” from any interested parties either for or against the proposal will be posted on the Department of State’s website.

Since Democrats lost the majority in Tallahassee, progressive groups have seen their leading policies passed by voters who approved amendments like protecting environmental lands and restoring voting rights to felons.

While petitions already signed wouldn’t be affected by the bill, initiatives like energy choice and raising the minimum wage still have signatures to collect. The hourly wage for petition gatherings will come at a high cost, said Alex Patton, who is leading the initiative for an energy choice ballot question in 2020.

He said the amendment is the “ultimate of swampy moves,” and will make petition gathering much more expensive.

“Now only big money people can afford to do it,” Patton said. “It’s short-sighted, it’s anti-democratic and it’s a shame.”

Will Abberger, of the Trust for Public Land, helped pass a 2014 amendment, known as Amendment 1, which was approved by 75 percent of voters and sends some tax revenue to the state’s Land Acquisition Trust Fund. He said they turned to the ballot initiative process after five years of unsuccessfully lobbying the Legislature.

“We lobbied for five years, had the endorsement of every major newspaper in the state but we couldn’t convince the Legislature,” Abberger said.

Aliki Moncrief, director of Florida Conservation Voters, said she thought the way Grant filed the late amendment was “outrageous.”

“Beyond the pale is putting it lightly. This is affecting citizens’ fundamental rights,” she said. “For them to sneak it through … it goes to show how little respect they have for Florida voters that they are even willing to entertain this.”

The Sierra Club’s David Cullen agreed that the bill thwarts the people’s constitutional rights.

“There are people in Florida who disagree with them,” Cullen said. “Life is tough and then you die.”