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House takes aim at process to put constitutional amendments before voters

“A lot of people are not getting the representation that they deserve.”

With Republicans warning of a proliferation of constitutional amendments, the Florida House on Thursday passed a measure that would make it harder for citizens’ initiatives to get on the ballot.

The bill (HB 7111) drew heavy debate, with Democrats contending that groups turn to amending the Constitution because the Legislature often ignores the wishes of voters on issues. For example, Rep. Margaret Good, a Sarasota Democrat, pointed to ballot drives in recent years that broadly legalized medical marijuana and restored felons’ voting rights.

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

But bill supporters said the Constitution has become bloated with issues that don’t belong in the foundation of state government. The bill largely focuses on new requirements for the petition-gathering process, which plays a crucial role in placing citizens’ initiatives on the ballot.

“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,” Rep. Mike Beltran, Lithia Republican, said. “There is no bicameralism, where it goes through the House, it goes through the Senate and it’s presented to the governor.”

The bill, which was approved in a 71-41 party-line vote, comes after voters in November approved 11 constitutional amendments on issues ranging from restoring felons’ voting rights to banning greyhound racing. Two of the measures were placed on the ballot through petition drives, while the rest were put before voters by the Legislature or the state Constitution Revision Commission.

A series of high-profile ballot initiatives also have been proposed for the 2020 ballot, including proposals to raise the minimum wage, expand Medicaid eligibility, ban assault-style weapons and deregulate the electric utility system — issues widely opposed by Republican leaders.

To get on the ballot, initiative backers will have to submit 766,200 valid petition signatures to the state and get approval from the Florida Supreme Court for the proposed ballot wording. If measures go before voters in November 2020, they will need to receive approval from at least 60 percent of voters to pass.

The House bill, sponsored by Rep. Jamie Grant, a Tampa Republican, would make a series of changes in laws dealing with initiatives, such as making it illegal to pay petition gatherers based on the number of petitions they collect.

Also, for example, it would require submission of information about petition gatherers, including their permanent and temporary addresses, and would require the gatherers to sign sworn statements that they will follow state laws and rules.

While petition signatures already collected for the 2020 initiatives would not be affected, the bill would take effect immediately if it is also passed by the Senate and signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis. A Senate version of the bill (SB 7096) cleared one subcommittee and is in the Appropriations Committee.

During the debate Thursday, Rep. Sam Killebrew, a Winter Haven Republican, recounted how he talked with a petition-gatherer who was from New Mexico and traveled across the country to work on such ballot drives.

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

But Democrats argued that the public needs to be able to use the initiative process to amend the Constitution.

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

The News Service of Florida provides journalists, lobbyists, government officials and other civic leaders with comprehensive, objective information about the activities of state government year-round.

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