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Florida lawmakers look to limit out-of-state donors on citizens’ initiatives drives

The House voted to place a $3,000 limit on contributions. The Senate may do the same.
The State of Florida Capitol complex in Tallahassee.
The State of Florida Capitol complex in Tallahassee. [ Times (2012) ]
Published Mar. 2

TALLAHASSEE — Florida lawmakers are taking another run at large donors to drives to put proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot.

The House on Wednesday voted 77-39 to approve a campaign finance bill that includes placing a $3,000 limit on contributions from out-of-state donors to political committees trying to collect enough petition signatures to move forward with citizens’ initiatives. The Senate could add the limit to a similar bill Thursday.

The House bill would narrow a 2021 law that a federal judge blocked on First Amendment grounds. That law included a $3,000 limit on all donors — not just out-of-state donors — to committees supporting initiative petition drives.

Related: Judge blocks Florida's contribution cap limit on ballot initiatives

Supporters of the bill said proposed constitutional amendments should be backed by Floridians, not out-of-state special interests.

“We have out-of-state and out-of-country interests that are attempting to influence our Constitution,” Rep. Mike Beltran, R-Lithia, said.

But Democrats contended that the bill is part of years of efforts by Republican leaders to make it harder to pass citizens’ initiatives. Political committees typically have to raise and spend millions of dollars to collect the hundreds of thousands of petition signatures needed to reach the ballot.

“This has been an incremental attack on citizens’ initiatives,” said Rep. Tracie Davis, a Jacksonville Democrat who added that the bill has a “ton of constitutional issues.”

Committees need to submit 891,589 valid petition signatures to get initiatives on the ballot, a number that will increase in the future.

In some cases, past citizens’ initiatives have been largely funded by Floridians. For example, wealthy Orlando lawyer John Morgan bankrolled initiatives that broadly legalized medical marijuana and required increasing the state’s minimum wage.

But large amounts of out-of-state money have poured into other initiative drives. For instance, the Nevada-based Las Vegas Sands Corp. during the past year contributed more than $73 million to an initiative aimed at allowing casinos in North Florida. A political committee spearheading the initiative did not meet a Feb. 1 deadline for submitting the required number of petition signatures to the state, though a legal battle about the initiative continues.

Related: Florida elections offices seeing suspected fraudulent petitions in gambling effort

The 2021 law and this year’s proposal target the period when committees are trying to collect signatures. The $3,000 limit would not apply to contributions after enough signatures are submitted — effectively allowing unlimited contributions in the months before the November elections.

The American Civil Liberties Union and three political committees filed a lawsuit last year challenging the $3,000 contribution limit that applied to Florida and out-of-state donors.

U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor on July 1 issued a preliminary injunction against the law, saying it would improperly curtail political speech.

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“First, contributions to political committees that advocate for ballot initiatives are ‘beyond question a very significant form of political expression,’” Winsor wrote, partially quoting from legal precedent.

The state “bears the burden of justifying restrictions on political expression by advancing at least ‘a significantly important interest’ that is ‘closely drawn to avoid unnecessary abridgment of associational freedoms,’” Winsor, who was appointed by former President Donald Trump, wrote.

Supporters of the new bill appeared to try to draw a distinction with the 2021 law because of the focus on out-of-state donors.

“I think the initiative should be made by the citizens of Florida and not by outsiders,” Rep. Bobby Payne, R-Palatka, said.

But Democrats have long argued that people support citizens’ initiatives because lawmakers ignore the wishes of voters. Rep. Dotie Joseph, D-North Miami, said the proposal is an extension of the Republican-controlled Legislature trying to block initiatives. Wednesday’s vote was along party lines.

“Time after time, this body votes to limit the voice of the citizens,” Joseph said.

The Senate is scheduled Thursday to take up its version of the campaign-finance bill (SB 1352). Sen. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, filed a proposed amendment Wednesday that would add the $3,000 limit on out-of-state donors.

By Jim Saunders, News Service of Florida

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