1. Opinion

Editorial: Don't make it harder for voters to amend Florida Constitution

EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN   |   Times Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections office assistant Tracy Edwards checks through petitions for medical marijuana, and water and land conservation in 2014.
EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections office assistant Tracy Edwards checks through petitions for medical marijuana, and water and land conservation in 2014.

Florida lawmakers have demonstrated time and again they have no respect for voters who have used the constitutional amendment process to make their voices heard. After spending years ignoring the intent of approved amendments (see state lottery, environment, felons rights), the Florida Legislature wants to prevent amendments from even getting on the ballot. Gov. Ron DeSantis should strike a blow for a bedrock principle of democratic rights and veto this legislation that is aimed at silencing voters and further strengthening the legislative branch.

A citizen initiative is one of several routes for placing an amendment to the Florida Constitution before the voters. Citizens have used them in response to the Legislature's refusal to advance popular public priorities, from protecting environmental lands to extending voting rights to felons. But a bill passed this year would make it more costly and difficult to gather the necessary signatures to get citizen petitions on the ballot. This is outright harassment by a Legislature that is as arrogant as it is out-of-touch.

The bill, HB 5, targets the routine practice by advocacy groups of hiring out-of-state companies to help collect the hundreds of thousands of voter signatures needed to place an amendment on the ballot. The measure requires that canvassers register with the state, providing their name, date of birth, permanent address and temporary Florida address. The state could require "any information" to verify a canvasser's identity or address, and canvassers would be subject to fines or even enforcement action by the attorney general if they failed to submit signed petitions within a 30-day window. Paying canvassers by the petition would be outlawed, punishable as a first-degree misdemeanor, leaving companies to offer only hourly rates or some other form of compensation.

The net effect is that companies would face more red tape in hiring canvassers, and canvassers would lose the incentive for hustling to gather petitions in a narrow time frame.

Lawmakers say the changes are aimed at keeping outside organizations from unduly influencing public policy in the state. That's rich coming from a Legislature awash in out-of-state campaign contributions. Legislators also complained that citizens are abusing the petition process and diminishing the sanctity of the state Constitution. But the facts once again expose their hypocrisy. Of the 12 amendments on the 2018 ballot, seven were proposed by the Constitution Revision Commission, three by the Legislature and just two by citizen initiatives. The hurdles facing the average citizen are already high enough.

The Legislature wants these changes now because advocates hope to get several measures on the 2020 ballot - from deregulating the market for electricity to banning assault weapons - that don't stand a chance in the Legislature.

This bill is a bad-faith effort to restrict the only practical option Floridians have to put their own priorities to a vote. It also creates a new form of state-sanctioned dishonesty that would impact any future citizen initiative. Any amendment that might increase costs, decrease revenues or hurt the economy "must include a statement indicating such" in bold type on the ballot. But there is no such requirement for any amendment that might actually help consumers or boost the economy.

DeSantis should veto this legislation. It is an anti-democratic bill that further aligns lawmakers and powerful special interests against average citizens who have no where else to turn but the ballot when their voices are ignored in Tallahassee.

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