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Florida House OK's Restrictions on Petition Gathering for Ballot Measures

ballot iniatives: republicans tightening up the rules

TALLAHASSEE – House Republicans say Florida voters are overwhelmed by proposed constitutional amendments.

On Thursday, they took a step to reduce this burden by revising the state’s petition-gathering process.

Despite heated opposition, the House advanced House Bill 7111, sponsored by state Rep. James Grant, R-Tampa, in a 71-41 partisan vote.

The measure has been transmitted to the Senate, where a companion replica awaits adoption and assured endorsement by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

HB 7111 bans petition sponsors from paying non-state residents to gather signatures and requires all paid petition gatherers to register with the state. It also prohibits basing signature-gatherers’ pay on the number of collected signatures.

The bill would require the ballot to name initiative sponsors and describe the percentage of money raised from Floridians and by out-of-state sources. It mandates the Department of State post on its website anyone’s position statements on initiatives, up to 50 words.

HB 7111 would require petition gatherers to provide permanent and temporary addresses, sign sworn statements to obey state regulations and requires signed petitions be delivered to the supervisor of elections within 10 days or be invalidated.

The bill initially included a Florida residency requirement for paid petition-gatherers, but that provision was removed during committee deliberations.

As he has explained during HB 7111’s committee hearings, Grant again said Thursday that special interest groups, and people recruited by special interest groups, have abused the petition process.

He said the use of petitions has manipulated the constitutional amendment process into becoming a “secondary place for statutes to be made.”

“Somebody with a couple of million dollars can come in from out of state, gather up these signatures, put it on the ballot and then send out some mailers,” agreed state Rep. Mike Beltran, R-Lithia. “There is no bicameralism, where it goes through the House, it goes through the Senate, and it’s presented to the governor.”

State Rep. Sam Killebrew, R-Winter Haven, said prior to November’s election, he spoke with a professional petition-gatherer from New Mexico who traveled across the country to participate in ballot drives.

“Don’t think that everybody who is out there getting these petitions is passionate about the issue,” Killebrew said.

Democrats contend the reason why Republicans don’t like the petition process is because it works in providing advocacy groups and citizens an opportunity to address issues the GOP-controlled Legislature ignores.

State Rep. Margaret Good, D-Sarasota, said examples of amendments voters “imposed” on an unwilling Legislature include the 2016 measure legalizing medical marijuana and last November’s Amendment 4, which restored felons’ voting rights.

“A lot of people are not getting the representation they deserve,” Good said. “That means they have to do things like put constitutional amendments on the ballot.”

“Very often, our citizens feel that the legislative process has not gotten them to the place they want to be,” concurred state Rep. Richard Stark, D-Weston. “So, they file petitions to go on the ballot to change the law that we haven’t been able to do.”

A petition initiative needs more than 766,000 signatures to get on a ballot and must be approved by 60 percent of voters to pass.

HB 7111 would not apply to petition signatures already collected for the 13 prospective 2020 ballot measures that have secured preliminary ballot-language approval by the state Supreme Court after achieving qualifying signature-gathering benchmarks.

All must have 766,200 verified signatures by February 2020 to be on the Nov. 3, 2020, ballot.

In November, Florida voters approved 11 constitutional amendments, ranging from restoring felons’ voting rights to banning greyhound racing to repealing a clause in state law that prohibited retroactive application of new criminal sentencing guidelines.

Only two measures were placed on the ballot by petition, with the remainder proposed by the state Constitution Revision Commission, which meets every 20 years to review possible amendments to the state constitution.

All the prospective measures on the 2020 ballot, however, could be citizen-initiated.

Among them is Florida for a Fair Wage’s $15 minimum wage initiative, which would raise Florida’s minimum wage to $10 an hour on Sept. 30, 2021, and increase it by an additional $1 an hour each year, capping at $15 an hour on Sept. 30, 2026.

Other possible ballot measures include petition-initiated proposals to expand Medicaid, ban “assault-style” weapons and deregulate the electric utility system – issues opposed by state Republicans.

This piece appeared in the Watchdog.org and was reprinted by the Columbia County Observer with permission or license.

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