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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Changing citizen initiative rules to silence voters

SCOTT KEELER   |   TimesVisitors head into Florida's Capitol building on the first day of the annual sixty day session, Tuesday, March 5, 2019. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis addressed a joint session of the Florida Legislature Tuesday in Tallahassee.
SCOTT KEELER | TimesVisitors head into Florida's Capitol building on the first day of the annual sixty day session, Tuesday, March 5, 2019. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis addressed a joint session of the Florida Legislature Tuesday in Tallahassee.
Published Apr. 5, 2019

Voters frustrated with the Florida Legislature's repeated failure to address their concerns have taken action by approving constitutional amendments on issues such as protecting environmental lands, automatically restoring voting rights to most felons and legalizing medical marijuana. Lawmakers have responded by pushing legislation regarding the amendments that undermines the clear intent of the voters. Now they are taking an even more cynical approach by advancing legislation that would make it harder for citizens to get constitutional amendments on the ballot. Their arrogance is breathtaking.

A citizen initiative is one of five routes for putting an amendment to the Florida Constitution before all Florida voters. But two bills speeding through this legislative session would make it far more difficult to gather the necessary signatures to get petitions on the ballot. They also seek to sow confusion among voters and enlist the courts to interfere in what should be a political decision.

The bill, HB 7111, passed the House Judiciary Committee in a party-line vote in March and seeks to cut off citizen ballot initiatives at their source. A petitioner would have to register their name, date of birth and residential address with the state, and attest that they are a Florida resident. That targets the routine practice by advocacy groups of hiring out-of-state companies to fly canvassers into Florida to help collect signatures. The bill also requires that petitioners be paid by a set wage, not by the number of petitions they gather. Any petition collected by an unregistered canvasser would be declared invalid and not counted, and paying canvassers per-petition would constitute a crime.

The House bill also requires new requirements whose only purpose is to sow voter doubt. Florida's secretary of state would allow any person to file 50 words in opposition or support, and publish that statement on the department's web site. The bill requires a second study on the effect a petition might have on the state and local economy. If the measure has a financial impact, the ballot must include a statement in bold, capital letters: "May require increased taxes or a reduction in government services." The Florida Supreme Court must also answer "yes" or "no" on the ballot to the following question: "Can the proposed policy be implemented by the Legislature without the need for a constitutional amendment?"

The House bill also requires that the ballot disclose the percentage of contributions a sponsor raised from in-state sources. Rep. Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, said the bill's goal "is making sure outside influences outside the state are not coming in and manipulating our constitution." That's rich coming from a politician who in last year's election collected tens of thousands of dollars in contributions from out-of-state companies.

A Senate version (SB 7096) is similar, though it would require canvassers to be Florida residents for at least 29 days before being allowed to operate. That's another hurdle to bringing in petition firms from across the country.

There's no secret what's happening here and why. The Legislature is targeting professional canvassers because they are the only practical means for gathering the signatures necessary (766,200 in 2018) to get on the general election ballot. And they're moving to change the law for these amendments beginning in 2020 because that's when advocates are looking to take several populist measures to voters, from deregulating the market for electricity to increasing the minimum wage.

When the Legislature fails to act, voters have demonstrated they are willing to act themselves. So now lawmakers want to make it harder for voters to go around them. It is a direct assault on democracy, and voters should raise their voices and make it clear they won't stand for it.

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