The road ahead looks certain to be tougher for those looking for a populist end-run against the Legislature.
A bill adding various procedural roadblocks for the kinds of citizens’ ballot initiatives that have become part of the constitution in recent years was teed up on Thursday for a House vote.
HB 7037, filed by Rep. Jamie Grant, firms up requirements for political committees pushing citizens’ initiatives.
Grant described these “statutory changes” as a continuation of reforms from last year, bringing “transparency” to the process, and keeping the state’s foundational document from “being amended on a whim.”
“This year’s bill looks a little more like what we saw as the House product last year,” Grant said.
Despite 2019’s best efforts, Grant depicted a lawless frontier when it comes to citizens’ initiatives, which he likened to “marketing campaigns” more so than sincere policy pushes.
Groups are “openly and arrogantly advertising … breaking the law,” Grant added, citing ads on platforms like Indeed that he has “screenshots of” in his office.
Allowing petition circulators to be challenged in court is envisioned as a safeguard against such nefariousness.
The bill also includes what Grant calls “transparency warnings,” messaging on the ballot that provides reassurances that the initiative does what is claimed.
Citizens’ groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, take issue with “making petition signatures expire much faster and requiring an enormous number of signatures to be collected even before a proposal can move past the first legal hurdles.”
That first legal hurdle is judicial review of ballot language, which is currently triggered when gatherers reach 10% of the 766,200 needed for ballot access.
That review includes a test of whether the ballot language complies with the U.S. Constitution.
“We up the threshold,” Grant says, citing wasted resources for reviewing non-viable ballot initiatives.
Grant’s legislation originally proposed increasing that to 50% of the threshold needed in a quarter of the state’s congressional districts, but boosted it to all districts with a strike-all amendment adopted, conforming with the committee bill and a Senate committee bill on the same topic.
The bill presents a number of new and potentially challenging requirements.
The Financial Impact Estimating Conference would no longer be charged with giving the impact on local and state economies of any ballot item. Thus, findings such as “legal pot good for state economy” would be outside of the scope, removing a potential argument for a given future ballot initiative.
“If there’s a negative or indeterminate impact on the budget,” however, “disclaimers” will be provided on the ballot, Grant said.
Ballots would also identify sponsors and whether out of state collectors were used for petitions.
Additionally, supervisors of elections would charge “actual costs” for petition verification, a raise from a dime per document. This new cost can extend from 42 cents to a dollar per petition.
This would “end the subsidy” of things “citizens find morally or philosophically reprehensible,” Grant contended.
Changes would apply post-2022 to petition collection.
Grant did offer one olive branch to Democrats: leaders of the House and Senate will likely not be given the chance to weigh in on the Constitutionality of proposed initiatives in the “final product.”
Currently, the House bill offers that prerogative to the Speaker and Senate President, but the Senate version does not.
Polling backs up this push. A survey from the supportive Florida Chamber of Commerce shows 60% support for keeping the Constitution “clean.” A majority of Republicans, independents, and Democrats all back the concept.
Florida House Democrats have formally opposed the legislation as a caucus. However, momentum seems to be against them here.
More action on this front is ahead Friday when the Senate version (SB 1794, carried by Sen. Travis Hutson) is on the Special Order calendar.