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  1. Opinion

Florida lawmakers to voters: Sit down and shut up. | Paula Dockery

Campaign signs, both for and against the proposed constitutional amendments, adorned the lawn outside the downtown St. Petersburg Hilton a week before election day last year. Times (2018)
Published Jun. 20

It comes as no surprise that the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature has a history of opposing citizen initiatives amending the state Constitution.

A few examples: High-speed rail, fair districts, medical marijuana, land and water conservation and restoration of rights for felons. Voters approved them all, yet the Legislature ignored them, delayed them or implemented them in a way not intended by voters.

It's also no secret that legislators keep making it harder for Floridians to get citizen initiatives on the ballot and to get them passed.

In 2003, the Florida Senate formed a committee that traveled the state taking public testimony on the constitutional amendment process. Then the committee ignored most of what Floridians said in its recommendations to the full Senate. As a result, the Legislature passed reforms that made it more difficult to get initiatives to the ballot.

The Legislature also placed a measure on the ballot that raised the threshold needed to pass a citizen-initiated amendment from a majority to 60 percent. It passed with 58 percent of the vote in 2006.

In its latest effort, the Legislature made it more difficult to gather petitions.

What is new and disappointing is that Gov. Ron DeSantis is jumping on the "citizens shouldn't have a voice on proposing changes to their constitution" bandwagon.

DeSantis' rationale for signing HB 5 into law made no sense. At the bill signing, DeSantis said, "Last year, we had so many amendments that I think we need reform."

There were 12 constitutional amendments on the 2018 ballot. The Legislature put three on the ballot. The Constitution Revision Commission, which meets every 20 years, placed seven amendments on the ballot. And two—just two—made it to the ballot by citizen initiative after the sponsoring groups jumped through all the hurdles demanded of them.

Although DeSantis justified signing HB 5 because there were too many amendments on the ballot, he pushed changes that only addressed citizen initiatives, accounting for only 16 percent of the ballot measures.

It appears the sheer number of proposed amendments wasn't his real reason—or the Legislature's. Then why not address the Constitution Revision Commission's amendments? Unlike citizen initiatives or legislative joint resolutions that are restricted to a single subject, the commission's ballot measures bundled several unrelated issues into one amendment. Why no reform there?

Why no changes to the legislative process that produced three proposed amendments, or 25 percent of those on the ballot?

Hard to come to any other conclusion: The Legislature's beef is with who puts them on the ballot. It doesn't like it when the pesky voters do it.

DeSantis also decried the influence of out-of-state special interests as a reason to curb constitutional amendments. Really? If out-of-state special interests are so distasteful to him, why did he take so much of their money for his gubernatorial campaign?

Clearly this was meant to go after the only means citizens have to get issues important to them on the ballot. These initiatives are started in Florida by Floridians.

Now DeSantis is openly advocating for a separate election day for ballot questions. Why do that? He says it's to "declutter" the ballot. The real reason? There is a much lower voter turnout for a special election. I'd be willing to bet that, if passed, their legislative joint resolutions—especially for tax breaks and anti-abortion measures—will be exempt from the separate election date.

The governor and the Legislature fear several citizen initiatives that could make it to the 2020 ballot. They would ban assault weapons, raise the minimum wage to $15 and open Florida's primary elections.

While Ban Assault Weapons NOW—the group behind the assault weapons ban– is awaiting Florida Supreme Court review, it still needs to collect another 700,000 petitions to add to the 100,000 already collected. The provisions of HB 5 will make its job more costly and time-consuming going forward.

But you can help by going to bawnfl.org to download a petition to sign and send in. You can also share the link with your family and friends.

Polls show that over 60 percent of voters favor an assault weapons ban, yet the Florida Legislature refuses to act—perhaps because of an out-of-state special interest, the National Rifle Association.

If the governor and Legislature would just pay attention to what the voters ask of them, citizen initiatives wouldn't be necessary.

Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland. She is now a registered NPA. PBDockery@gmail.com.

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