Senate legislation to make it harder to get citizen initiatives on the ballot is ready for a vote in the House.
By 23-17 vote that broke close to party lines, the Senate approved a bill (SB 1890) to cap donations to political committees backing proposed constitutional amendments at $3,000 during the signature gathering process, the same restriction for donations to statewide candidates.
Estero Republican Sen. Ray Rodrigues, who is carrying the bill, said wealthy donors contributing to campaigns to amend the Florida Constitution is a new phenomenon.
“This will return the citizen initiative process to what it should be, an initiative of grassroots, citizens support rather than the playground for wealthy, out-of-state billionaires,” Rodrigues said.
In the past, some wealthy donors have poured millions of dollars into political committees backing ballot initiatives. Republican lawmakers and the Florida Chamber of Commerce contend the proposal is needed to stop deep-pocketed donors, including out-of-state donors, from financing ballot initiatives on policy issues that should not be in the state Constitution.
At least one lobbyist has likened the measure the “anti-John Morgan bill” after the Orlando-based attorney who has been the main driver of several successful ballot initiatives, including the recent minimum wage increase and the legalization of medical marijuana.
There’s no limit on donations to such committees now, and other than for committees backing signature-gathering efforts, the bill doesn’t propose one.
Democrats and St. Petersburg Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes opposed the bill. Among those to speak out in debate was Miami-Dade Sen. Jason Pizzo.
“How dumb do we think Floridians are that they can be bought, that so many billboards or impressions will change their mindset or their heart?” Pizzo asked.
State lawmakers haven’t placed a limit on their own campaigns, he noted, calling it hypocritical.
“I’m going to go raise a couple million dollars after Session from some really rich people. They’re not going to change my vote. They’re not going to tell me and direct how and what I’m going to do or what decision I’m going to make for my family,” Pizzo said. “How dumb do we think our constituents are?”
He capped his debate with one more “this is dumb” for good measure.
The citizen initiative process is one of five ways to amend the Florida Constitution. Voters must approve citizen initiatives by a 60% vote.
Lawmakers in recent years imposed a variety of restrictions on the citizen initiative process to limit paid signature gatherings and shorten the time for gathering signatures.
The legislation could reduce the amount of resources available during the signature collection process. Opponents contend, and proponents hope, fewer initiatives will make it to the ballot stage if the bill passes.
Lantana Democratic Sen. Lori Berman said the bill represents “death by a thousand cuts” and would “legislate it to death.”
Members gave their initial approval to the bill (HB 699), carried by Palatka Republican Rep. Bobby Payne, during a floor session on Tuesday. A vote on that or a similar bill in the Senate , carried by Estero Republican Sen. Ray Rodrigues, is expected Wednesday. Meanwhile, the Senate could pass either of the bills that day.
If the legislation becomes law, it would take effect in July.