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Why do Republicans want to make it harder to amend the Florida Constitution? | Editorial
They aim to silence voters who want action.
SCOTT KEELER   |   TimesRep. Jamie Grant, R- Tampa, center,  is congratulated by House members after passage of the Amendment 4 bill restricting felon voting rights in May 2019.
SCOTT KEELER | TimesRep. Jamie Grant, R- Tampa, center, is congratulated by House members after passage of the Amendment 4 bill restricting felon voting rights in May 2019.
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Mar. 4, 2020|Updated Mar. 4, 2020

Having grown comfortable ignoring the will of voters who seek constitutional amendments as a last resort to shape a better Florida, the Legislature wants to go even further and make it even harder to even get these amendments on the ballot. The House will consider legislation, HB 7037, Thursday that builds on the Legislature’s harassment tactics last year that seek to kill these amendments in their infancy. This is another play by the ruling class in Tallahassee to continue flouting the voters’ wishes on everything from improving education and protecting the environment to restoring voting rights for felons.

Citizen initiatives are one way to place an amendment to the Florida Constitution before the voter, and Floridians have used them in response to the Legislature’s refusal to deal with pressing public concerns. The bill the House takes up Thursday would create new hurdles to a process the Legislature already made more cumbersome and costly last year. The goal, of course, is to stifle citizen amendments - and by extension, the voters’ legitimate voice and rightful role in Florida’s democracy.

Citizen amendments already must jump through several hoops before being cleared for the ballot, a requirement intended for sponsors to demonstrate their public support and legitimacy. The House bill, though, carries that weeding process to the extreme. Now to trigger a Florida Supreme Court review of a ballot proposal, petitioners need to submit 76,632 valid signatures, or 10 percent of the 766,200 required to place the amendment on the ballot. The House bill would quintuple that threshold, to 50 percent, which translates to 383,100 signatures, some 306,000 more than currently required.

The bill also creates legal cover for further legislative sabotage. The bill requires that citizen amendments be referred to the Senate president and House speaker, who “may direct legislative staff to prepare an analysis” of whether the amendment is vague “or will cause unintended consequences.” One can only imagine how the majority party in Tallahassee will weaponize this authority. The bill also gives researchers under the governor and Legislature the opportunity to discredit an amendment by concocting horror stories of how it would hurt the budget of state and local governments. That’s more ammunition for the special interests who already control the state capital.

The governor and the Legislature already cracked down on citizen initiatives last year, creating new hurdles making it harder and more expensive for petition gatherers to operate and increasing penalties on those who make a mistake. This legislation marks another step in closing citizen access to Florida’s bedrock charter of rights and liberties. And it further tilts the balance to a legislative branch that has routinely undermined citizen amendments supported overwhelmingly by voters.

The Legislature is not fixing a problem with citizen amendments but the problem of them arising. Lawmakers are trying to tamp down the clamor for gun control, energy deregulation and other issues. They want to avoid the legal battles that come when they undermine successful initiatives, such as the restoration of felons’ voting rights under Amendment 4. The Legislature should recognize Floridians see this legislation for what it is: another arrogant power grab aimed at silencing voters who are demanding action.

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Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.

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