Legislation that could make it harder to get citizen petitions on ballots divided the Senate Committee on Ethics and Elections along party lines.
Republican Sen. Travis Hutson’s bill (SB 1794) passed the committee on a 4-3 vote. While critics argue it guts the citizen petition process, Hutson counters it provides more transparency. Debate on the bill was so heated and took so long, the committee was forced to postpone consideration of another bill (SJR 1216) that would put a constitutional amendment on this November’s ballot limiting the terms of local school board members.
Hutson’s legislation would expand the scope of the Florida Supreme Court review to include federal and state constitutional questions, create a cause of action for citizens to challenge a petition circulator’s registration, and reduce the time petition signatures are valid from two years to less than two years.
The bill increases the petition signatures that must be verified before the Secretary of State refers the proposal to the Attorney General and FIEC from 10% of the number of statewide electors to 50%. Critics lament that provision gives them less time to iron out any problems with ballot language after review and could hamper fundraising efforts because large dollar donors tend to wait until ballot language has been approved before shelling out money to further the initiative.
The bill also requires a supervisor of elections to charge the actual cost for verifying a petition signature instead of the current 10 cents per signature, which increases costs for groups working on petition initiatives. It also requires a description of how much an initiative costs the state or impacts its revenues.
Ashley Lukis, a lawyer speaking on behalf of Keep Our Constitution Clean, said that in gathering support for the group’s own petition, they found violations by other signature gatherers.
“Over the past six months or so, Keep Our Constitution Clean representatives have cataloged dozens and dozens and dozens of violations of Florida’s election code,” she said. “Specifically, in regard to the ways in which petition circulators are being paid.”
Democratic Sen. José Javier Rodriguez offered 10 amendments to the legislation. Some of those include penalties for filing a frivolous challenge to anyone’s right to vote as well as extending the deadline for petitions to qualify for the 2020 ballot by 30 days and keeping signatures valid for two years.
Republicans on the committee voted down all of Rodriguez’s amendments.
Rich Templin, legislative and political director for the AFL-CIO, speculated the bill was prompted by the minimum wage bill on the 2020 ballot. He said the changes would make it harder for citizen grassroots groups to get initiatives on the ballot and easier for billionaires and out-of-state groups because they’ll be the only ones who would be able to afford it.
“At the end of the day, this will be the nail in the head of the citizens’ initiative process,” he said. “A process that I have watched over 15 years — nail after nail after nail after nail,” he said.
While Hutson called the failed amendments unfriendly, he also pledged to work with Democrats to find compromises.
But Democratic Sen. Oscar Braynon remembers last year’s fight on HB 5, which was the origin of Hutson’s bill this year. He said he gets frustrated with the partisanship.
“Numbers get closer, but things get more divided, and things get more partisan,” he said. “And it was never on display more for me this session than in this committee this season.”
The bill now heads to the Senate Judiciary Committee. It would take effect this year, but it doesn’t affect the validity of petition forms gathered before its effective date.
A similar bill in the House (HB 7037) got a nod from the House Judiciary Committee where it originated earlier this month, also along party lines. It’s slated for its first committee stop on Wednesday.