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FL Citizen-Initiated Constitutional Amendments: Florida Senate Wants More Restrictions

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TALLAHASSEE, FL – A Senate bill that would impose a slate of restrictions on petition-gatherers seeking to put proposed citizen-initiated constitutional amendments on ballots in Florida advanced to the chamber’s floor.

But Senate Bill 1794, like its House companion, House Bill 7037, needs revisions, key Republican lawmakers warned Wednesday before approving the measure with a 10-7 partisan vote in the Senate Rules Committee.

“I will support the bill today,” Sen Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, said, “but there is plenty of room for tightening this up. I would not support this bill on the floor.”

“This bill is very cumbersome,” Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, said. “A more accurate debate would be, do we really want a citizen’s initiative process?”

For the 61 people who signed up to speak against SB 1794, the 40 state advocacy groups that oppose it and Democrats, the answer from Republicans is obvious: no.

Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, offered several names for the bill, including the "Direct Democracy Limitation Act" and "Ballots For Billionaires Act."

Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami, suggested the "Killing By A Thousand Cuts Act."

“I cannot support the 1,001th cut,” he said.

SB 1794, sponsored by Sen. Travis Hutson, R-Palm Coast, would:

Raise the threshold for judicial review: Right now, 10 percent of registered voters (76,000) from one-third of the state’s 27 congressional districts (nine) are required to trigger a mandated Supreme Court language review.

Hutson’s bill raises the threshold to 33 percent (252,000) from at least 14 congressional districts to avoid “wasting the court’s time.”

Opponents said the increase would triple costs “just get something looked at” and the Supreme Court has not complained about reviewing ballot language.

Require supervisors to track costs for per-petition cap: Hutson said counties pay most of the costs of petition verification, between 42 cents and $1.05 each.

“They’re having to pay for this out of their own pockets, and I don’t think that is right for taxpayers,” he said.

Hutson said the measure doesn’t cap the county “burden” but it might, noting the suggestion came from a lobbyist representing elections supervisors.

Senate Minority Leader Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, called the numbers “fuzzy math.”

Reduce the time petitions are valid: Petition signatures now are valid for two years from the date they are signed. Hutson’s bill would require they be re-validated Feb. 1 of even-numbered years.

Increase geographic distribution: Current law requires a measure garner 766,000 voter signatures and include at least 8 percent of voters in half – 14 – of the state’s congressional districts.

Hutson’s bill will require measures do so in two-thirds – 18 – of districts.

Legislative and fiscal review: Current law requires the state’s Financial Impact Estimating Conference (FIEC) analyze a proposal’s fiscal impact.

SB 1794 would allow the attorney general to determine whether a proposal is “facially invalid under the U.S. Constitution” and provide the House speaker and Senate president with “a mechanism to weigh-in” on proposals.

Hutson submitted an amendment to include only “indeterminate” or “negative” FIEC reviews.

“What we’re concerned about here is negative impact," Hutson said. "That is why we left the positive out.”

“This (amendment) really explains what we’re doing here,” Braynon quipped.

Republicans joined Democrats in objecting. Hutson withdrew the amendment.

The bill requires transparency to ensure petition sponsors aren’t using out-of-state circulators, Hutson noted.

“We want to make sure no one’s committing fraud” in the interest of an “abundance of caution,” he said.

When asked to cite examples of fraud in Florida, Hutson could not do so.

Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, said there is ample evidence nationwide of “tremendous corruption and abuse” by “a band of traveling individuals who go state-to-state, abuse the system” in gathering signatures.

“For those who say there is no fraud, they are flatly ignoring the facts,” he said.

Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said amending the constitution should be a “rigorous process” and citizens in a representative democracy have “elections when the Legislature fails to act.”

Bradley chided proponents.

“If you are in favor of this bill, stand up and tell us why," he said. "Enough of the waiving in support. I just told you why I am in favor of it.”

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said it “should be difficult but not be impossible” to amend the constitution, cautioning he will not support the bill on the floor “without changes.”

“It’s frustrating” that committee members “have stated for the record that there are provisions in the bill they don’t like, but we’re not fixing it today,” Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Ft. Lauderdale, said. “This is not the version of the bill that will be voted on, yet the public is not going to have a meaningful opportunity” to be heard on it.

This piece appeared in the The Center Square and was reprinted by the Columbia County Observer with permission or license.

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