The House has approved a measure to limit donations to citizen initiatives, prepping it for Gov. Ron DeSantis‘ desk.
The bill (SB 1890), passed 75-40 along party lines, would cap donations to political committees backing proposed constitutional amendments at $3,000 during the signature gathering process. That’s the same restriction placed on donations to statewide candidates.
Estero Republican Sen. Ray Rodrigues, who filed the bill, has said wealthy donors contributing to campaigns to amend the Florida Constitution is a new phenomenon. Palatka Republican Rep. Bobby Payne, who sponsored the House version (HB 699), shared those sentiments.
“Let me remind you that this bill was trying to stop millionaires, which we’ve seen, 25 millionaires, billionaires contribute over $70 million to out-of-state elections in the last four years, 12 of which have been in Florida,” Payne told House members.
Payne, a Palatka Republican, said the constitution is the state’s “fundamental document” and many of the changes that have been made could have been handled in statutes. The Legislature can more easily change statutes to address “circumstances, knowledge improvement, demographic changes (and) policy preferences,” he said.
“It’s our duty to make sure that only the best ideas from people from our state, from Florida, are part of our guiding document,” he said.
In the past, some 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 dubbed the measure the “anti-John Morgan bill” after the Orlando-based lawyer who has been the main driver of several successful ballot initiatives, including the recent minimum wage increase and the legalization of medical marijuana.
West Palm Beach Democratic Rep. Omari Hardy referenced the allusions made to Morgan with the bill.
“This is about limiting the ability of citizens to put measures on the ballot that this legislative body doesn’t like, doesn’t want to see become law and wants to make it as hard as possible to give voters that sort of choice,” Hardy said.
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.
“Once you get the ballot or the initiative that’s gone through the certification process, game on. Spend what you want,” Payne said Friday.
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. Democratic Rep. Anna V. Eskamani said campaigns to get initiatives on the ballot have increased because of recent legislation.
The new 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.
With backers of proposed amendments required to submit 891,589 petition signatures to get measures on the 2022 ballot, paid petition-gathering drives likely would cost millions of dollars.
“This bill does more than just limit contributions to $3,000 to support petition gathering for constitutional amendments,” Orlando Democratic Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith said. “It may actually ensure that no citizen-led constitutional amendment makes it before voters ever again.”
Rep. Joe Geller, an Aventura Democrat, also questioned the constitutionality of the contribution caps.
“This is an attempt to limit core political speech. You can’t do that,” Geller, a lawyer, said.
Republican Rep. Blaise Ingoglia said the measure would ensure more than one donor is propelling the campaign.
The citizen initiative process is one of five ways to amend the Florida Constitution. Voters must approve citizen initiatives by a 60% vote for provisions to get amended to the constitution.
The Senate passed the measure by a 23-17 vote that broke close to party lines, with Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes the only one to break ranks by voting no.
It remains unclear whether any citizens’ initiatives will reach the 2022 ballot. The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday blocked a proposed constitutional amendment aimed at legalizing recreational marijuana use, saying the proposed ballot wording would have been misleading.
The committee supporting that proposal, known as Make It Legal Florida, had raised and spent about $8.2 million to try to get on the ballot, with almost all of the money coming from marijuana firms based in other states, according to state campaign finance information.
If the legislation becomes law, it would take effect in July.
The News Service of Florida contributed to this post. Republished with persmission.