The House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday advanced Rep. Jamie Grant‘s legislation making it harder to get citizen petitions on ballots.
The Tampa Republican’s bill (HB 7037) includes several provisions raising the threshold of voter petitions to trigger language review, transparency measures requiring disclosure of out-of-state participation and shortening the time groups have to gather petitions. It would also require groups pushing for a ballot initiative to pay the full cost of the signature verification process with local Supervisors of Elections offices.
Grants argues the change would save taxpayer dollars by only burdening the courts with judicial review if a ballot initiative was well on its way to the needed signatures for the ballot and reduced the fiscal burden on local Supervisors of Elections by not burdening them with subsidized petition verification. But critics argue the bill would increase the state’s costs to run elections, putting most of that burden on the local governments who administer elections.
Grant’s measure would not increase the total number of petition signatures needed to make the ballot, but it would increase the threshold for triggering a Florida Supreme Court review from 10% of the ultimate petition threshold to 50%. That signature count, 766,200 for the 2020 ballot, is updated each year based on voter turnout in the previous election.
While Grant contends that provision limits the burden on the Florida Supreme Court, critics argue it would cripple their ability to make the ballot. On one hand, it would leave less time to fix any problems with ballot language uncovered during judicial review. On the other, it could hinder a group’s ability to raise money because large donors often wait to contribute until after the review is complete in order to ensure their money is being wisely spent.
Florida Conservation Voters Executive Director Aliki Moncrief shared that concern.
“If the intent is to protect the constitutional process, to protect the citizens initiative process, unfortunately, I think measures like this do the exact opposite by making it only possible for billionaire special interests to be able to access this tool,” Moncrief said.
Grant denied his bill is a slow whittling of citizens initiatives and citizens’ voices.
“I would simply suggest it is pedal to the metal preservation of a republic,” he said.
The proliferation of proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot is problematic to some lawmakers. However, Aventura Democratic Rep. Joe Geller brought up his citizen referendum proposal, famously used for California propositions.
“A lot of things that our citizens have had no alternative to do except try to amend the constitution,” he said. “We could have a much lower impact if we simply allowed statutes to be created by referendum that would only have to pass by a 50% vote, and that would require lower, simpler petition requirements.”
Grant criticized Democrats for rejecting the proposal, which he says is not a slight against the minority party or efforts in their favor.
“When the assertion is made that this is a special interest-driven bill, I would encourage those individuals who want to recite history to remember the actual history of this body, because the party that is currently in the back rows used to be in the front rows with far more significant numbers, and that was in my lifetime,” Grant said. “But some of those individuals want to get up here and deny history as if it doesn’t exist and cite parts of history that they want to.”
Grant also said he and Judiciary Chairman Paul Renner thought it was a bipartisan bill when it was first proposed.
“I thought, and Chair Renner thought, when we took on this objective, it would be a disarmament. It would be a financial arms treaty,” Grant said. “And some members on the House floor last year mocked the notion that a Russian oligarch could fund an amendment to our charter of liberties. And then a citizenship initiative popped up, and people were singing a very different tune.”
Grant’s bill passed 20-10. It heads next to the House State Affairs Committee.