The Senate voted along party lines to pass a controversial proposal that opponents say will inhibit Floridians’ ability to change the constitution.
Sen. Travis Hutson‘s bill (SB 1794) would raise the threshold for initiatives to trigger judicial review and prevent petition signatures from rolling over to the next ballot. The Republican contends his legislation will prevent the Florida Supreme Court from wasting its time on proposed amendments that never meet the threshold to head to the ballot.
Miami Democratic Sen. José Javier Rodríguez, who fought the bill with amendments Friday and through the committee process, argued that the cases reviewed that don’t meet the ultimate threshold has not overburdened the court.
“That makes no sense. It’s two cases,” he said. “If we want to do something about their workload, we probably ought to do something on criminal justice reform, specifically the death penalty.”
But Ocala Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley posited initiatives have become “endless pieces of policy and budget,” diminishing the constitution’s integrity. Choosing not to take up legislation can be intentional on the part of lawmakers, not negligence.
“I say not giving proper restraint to how people amend the state constitution is a neglect of our duty to protect that constitution and the election process by which people select people in a democratic republic to go and represent them,” he said.
But Delray Beach Democratic Sen. Kevin Rader said the 60% vote threshold for the public to pass constitutional amendments effectively calls for a landslide in Florida.
St. Petersburg Democratic Sen. Darryl Rouson joined his party in opposition.
“Who does the Constitution belong to but the people, and we should not be doing things that are placing barriers to their voice, their opportunity to participate in a participatory government?” Rouson said.
Hutson said input from Republicans and Democrats and from every single committee stop are in the final bill that the Senate later approved.
“It may not be bipartisan on the board, but it certainly is a bipartisan bill in terms of what we did as this work product.”
And Hutson pushed back on Rodríguez’ claim citizen initiatives would become “the ballot for billionaires.” Under the bill, election supervisors would charge initiative organizers to verify each petition signature, a cost expected to be less than a dollar.
“If every supervisor tomorrow went to one dollar as actual cost, it’d be $250,000 and change or the number to get on the ballot, I think it’s $776,000,” Hutson said, and emphasized that the sum was less than $1 million.
The trigger for judicial review would jump to 25% from 10% of total signatures required to make the ballot. Hutson pushed for a 33% threshold, but amended that down to 25% Friday. Those signatures must come from one half, instead of one quarter, of the state’s congressional districts.
Critics contend that by pushing judicial review — the process by which Justices determine whether ballot language is constitutional — further down in the process, groups seeking a ballot initiative would experience greater challenges getting funding to promote their efforts. Many deep-pocketed donors hold off on donating to the cause until the Supreme Court has signed off because it protects their investment.
While the Senate proposal is already a hurdle for citizen initiative supporters, it’s less of one than what the House is proposing. There, the entire process would require signatures from all 27 Florida Congressional Districts, far more than the half the Senate contemplates.
The Senate amendment also asks each county’s supervisor of elections to determine their verification fee based on the actual costs of verifying petition signatures. Previously, the Secretary of State would have set the fee, but the expenses vary county by county. Those fees would go up, adding to the process’ expense.
Critics such as Rodríguez and Senate Minority Leader Audrey Gibson say the measures are not solving any existing problem and they will shut off the ballot amendment process by making it more difficult for citizens’ initiatives to gain approval.
The bill’s other headlining provision would let petition signatures expire if the initiative doesn’t get enough support within one two-year cycle.
Tampa Republican Rep. Jamie Grant is sponsoring the House companion measure (HB 7037). That proposal, requiring a 50% threshold across all districts is slated for a vote but was postponed Monday morning.