Even with an amendment that allows felons to seek and obtain waivers of financial obligations to allow them to vote, passionate opposition still split the House Judiciary Committee along party lines Tuesday as it approved a bill tying Amendment 4 voting rights restoration to all fees, fines, and restitution ordered by courts.
The committee, chaired by state Rep. Paul Renner, a Palm Coast Republican, ran a full four hours as Renner allowed two full hours for presentations and debate on House Bill 7089 after taking care of nine other bills, including a comprehensive criminal justice reform committee bill approved by the committee.
In the end, hostilities ran hot as backers of Amendment 4 who oppose the bill’s insistence that fees, fines, and restitution be paid continued to charge that it misses the spirit and intent of the constitutional amendment approved in November by 64.5 percent of voters, restoring voting rights to felons [except those convicted of murder or sex felonies] who’ve completed all terms of their sentences..
Bill sponsor state Rep. James Grant, a Tampa Republican, angrily accused critics of changing their positions from what was presented to voters, and before that to the Florida Supreme Court when it approved the bill’s language.
The financial obligations become a longterm roadblock to many felons who expected that they could vote once they had completed incarceration, parole, and probation. In some cases, the debts can be tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars or even millions of dollars, as some testified they faced. With debts like that, and with many felons having to work low-wage jobs, the only ones they can find, that can mean never.
Yet Grant, Renner and others argued that this was known to the backers of Amendment 4 before the November vote because their legal representative Jon Mills acknowledged such when he argued for the amendment’s language before the Florida Supreme Court, and because the websites of the two primary groups promoting Amendment 4 also mentioned fines, fees, and restitution on their webpages.
But there is a hitch that the bill’s opponents pushed hard and Grant brusquely dismissed: In many cases judges convert financial obligations to civil liens and settlements, and that should complete the criminal court’s business. No, Grant replied; judges’ can’t waive those, only the parties receiving them can do so. He offered an amendment, approved by the committee, that would provide for such waivers from crime victims and the Department of Corrections.
But Grant refused to accept that judges can do that on their own and that left the sides battling Tuesday.
At stake are an estimated 1.4 million Floridians who figured they may have regained the right to vote with the passage of Amendment 4. Many already have registered to vote starting with the amendments implementation date of Jan. 8, yet could lose that privilege again. [Another part of the amendment would give them amnesty for breaking voter registration law if they’re proven wrong.]
“I have significant debts, so do many people,” offered Democratic state Rep. Ben Diamond of St. Petersburg. “The idea that we’re going to require the repayment of all that debt, which is a civil obligation, before we restore the right to vote is just not something I can support.
Grant insisted that Mills’ argument before the Supreme Court defined what voters would be voting on. And it called for payment of financial obligations. Period. And now that is part of the Florida Constitution, leaving the Florida Legislature no options. That critics say otherwise, he charged, is an attempt to change what voters put into the constitution.
“You can’t just look at the Florida Constitution and say, ‘What is my desired outcome and how do I manipulate history? How do I manipulate language? I do I change my story to get the outcome I want in something as sacred as the constitution?'” Grant bellowed.
“You’d have to bury your head 12 feet into the sand to even get down a pathway to believe that a former Speaker of the House doesn’t understand the legislative process, and a member of the bar, a dean of Florida law school [all references to Mills] doesn’t understand the consequences of oral argument before the Supreme Court lets that language go through Door No. 1. And if that language never went through Door No. 1, we’re never here,” Grant added.
Grant didn’t stop there. He went after other objections to the bill, saying “it takes intellectual gymnastics to try and keep up with all of the different objections with what is in the bill, and exactly what has happened in history.”
Those objections have come in dozens from felons, legal and civil rights groups, and others, who charged that the bill, and its companion in the Florida Senate, SB 7086, have the practical effect if not the political intention of limiting the number of felons who ultimately will be allowed to vote, an affront to the Amendment 4 campaigns. Some have compared the bill’s financial requirements to a poll tax, which Grant sharply disputed, saying it’s not the fines that took away the voting rights, it was the felony conviction.
Coral Nichols, who runs a Seminole nonprofit called Empowered to Change that helps people turn their lives around, said she has served a seven-year prison sentence for embezzlement, followed by 10 years of probation, and now she has $190,000 in restitution. It was converted to a civil lien, and she pays $100 a month, all she can afford.
“I will be 190 years old before I am eligible to vote,” she pointed out. “If you cannot come a little closer and figure out how you can allow me to vote while I continue to pay on my restitution, I’m not sure what else we’re going to be able to accomplish together. There’s got to be a way to allow me to register and allow my voice to be heard as well as so many other people, while still allowing me to pay on my restitution. I’m a law-abiding citizen. I impact my single day by keeping people out of the judicial system and helping them not become convicted felons.”
Grant and Renner insisted they were for redemption and second changes, and restoration of voting rights, and for Amendment 4. But they argued their legal options were made clear by the pre-election acknowledgements of financial obligations as parts of a felon’s sentence.
“We all believe in redemption, and we all believe in restoration. We support the idea of people getting their rights to vote back. We also support the Constitution, and that process is so important that we have only once choice here, and that is to get it right, to fully and completely implement what the voters told us they wanted,” Renner said. “Anyone who comes to the podium and says they know exactly what that is has omniscience reserved to God.”