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Senate panel cracks down on voter-driven Constitutional changes

Direct democracy is in the GOP crosshairs.

Legislative Republicans continue to explore ways to make citizens initiatives tougher to pull off, with one bill of two on the Wednesday agenda clearing Rules and heading to the Senate floor.

A second bill, even stricter than the one that moved in some respects, was temporarily postponed.

Democrats offered heated debate over Sen. Travis Hutson‘s bill (SB 1794) calling it “nefarious” legislation akin to “death by a thousand cuts.” And even Republicans acknowledged the bill needed work before voting to move it forward.

That work is likely to happen on the Senate floor, complicating the path given that the House version also has cleared committees.

This legislation proposes, after an amendment Wednesday, increasing the threshold for judicial review from 10% of the total signatures needed from a third of the state’s congressional districts to 33% from half of the Congressional districts. Right now the total number of signatures needed to get an initiative on the ballot is 766,200, but that number will change after this year. The state determines the threshold based on voter turnout in presidential elections.

Hutson expressed concerns that major metropolitan areas have too much pull because of population density in urban areas and explained that’s why the increased threshold is needed.

Democrats pushed back. Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez offered an amendment, which failed, that would have changed the bill’s name to the “Direct Democracy Limitation Act.”

He went on to describe the measure as a “nefarious” bill.

Under the bill, the Financial Impact Estimating Conference would no longer be charged with providing voters information on the impact to local and state economies of any ballot item. Thus, findings such as “legal pot good for state economy” would be outside of scope, removing a potential argument for future ballot initiatives.

“Voters are told what kind of fiscal impact the proposal will have,” Hutson noted regarding the budget, if “indeterminate” or “negative,” but not “positive.”

Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes, heated in debate against judicial review provisions he likened to “legislative bondage,” nonetheless was up on the bill in the end.

Per the bill, the Attorney General would be given new latitude to reject an initiative as “facially invalid under the U.S. Constitution.”

Additionally, the House Speaker and Senate President would be given a formal mechanism to weigh in regarding potential conflicts between proposals and Florida’s Constitution.

“The bill requires transparency … including whether the sponsor used out of state circulators,” Hutson noted.

Petition circulators could have their legitimacy challenged by anyone.

“We want to make sure no one’s committing fraud,” Hutson explained, citing an “abundance of caution.”

The bill contains another burden for initiatives. The process of petition verification, now as cheap as 10 cents a petition, would reflect actual costs that range from 42 cents all the way to $1.02 if the bill passes, which would make the petition certification process significantly more expensive.

The sum total of changes drove Senate Democratic Leader Audrey Gibson to decry “fuzzy math.”

Citizen testimony, from the ACLU and AFL-CIO and elsewhere, predominately panned the bill as an attempt to abridge direct democracy. The supportive Florida Chamber harbored no such concerns, however.

Testimony in favor of the bill was so scant that multiple Republican Senators noted it in debate, with Sen. Anitere Flores questioning whether lawmakers want citizens’ initiatives at all.

Intense pushback made no difference though. Just like the House version (HB 7037), the Senate bill is ready for the floor.

Meanwhile, the TP’d bill still awaits, even as the calendar is unfavorable.

A still-to-be-heard committee bill from the Senate Judiciary Committee (SPB 7062) proposes a joint resolution that amends Article XI, section 3 of the Florida Constitution.

The goal in that bill is even more stringent. Currently, petition gatherers must obtain signatures from 8% of the total number of voters in the most recent presidential election, gathered from at least half of Florida’s 27 congressional districts. The proposed change would up that requirement to signatures from all of the state’s districts.

Supporters argue it is not only possible, but common for initiative proponents to gather all their signatures in the state’s largest cities. That means voters in those concentrated areas could ostensibly determine what makes the ballot on behalf of the entire state.

The bill must pass with 60% of the vote in the Senate and the House, where an identical bill (HB 1793) is on the Calendar.

The Senate side may be a heavy lift judging from the rocky reception for the Hutson bill.

This is a developing story. Please check back for updates. 

Written By

A.G. Gancarski has been a working journalist for over two decades. Gancarski has been a correspondent for FloridaPolitics.com since 2014. In 2018, he was a finalist for an Association of Alternative Newsweeklies "best political column." He can be reached at a.g.gancarski@gmail.com.

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