‘We’re taking rights away’: Measure to restrict citizen ballot initiatives advances to House floor
TALLAHASSEE, FLA. 3/1/21-Rep. Mike Beltran, R-Lithia, center, is joined by Sens. Jennifer Bradley, R-Fleming Island, left, and Sen. Manny Diaz, Jr., R-Hialeah, as he makes a statement on proposed legislation to reduce the theft by foreign nationals of intellectual property from Florida businesses, government, and academic institutions, Monday at the Capitol in Tallahassee. COLIN HACKLEY PHOTO

Voters must approve citizen initiatives with a 60% vote share for provisions to be added to the constitution.

Legislation that would limit changes the public can propose to the Florida Constitution cleared its final House committee Tuesday amid opposition from Democrats and activist groups.

The measure (HJR 1127), sponsored by Lithia Republican Rep. Mike Beltran, would limit the subject of citizen initiatives to procedural matters or to the structure of government or the constitution. The proposed constitutional amendment cleared the House Judiciary Committee in a 14-6 vote split along party lines. Now, it’s on to the House floor.

“The purpose of this bill is to prevent special interests from putting policy matters into our constitution that are best made or amended through the legislative process,” Beltran said.

The citizen initiative process is one of five ways to amend the Florida Constitution. Voters must approve citizen initiatives with a 60% vote share for provisions to be added to the constitution.

Interest groups have used the citizen initiative process in recent years to pass constitutional amendments on issues that were unpopular in the Legislature, including establishing felons’ right to vote and raising the minimum wage. In the past, some donors have poured millions of dollars into political committees backing ballot initiatives.

The measure was scrutinized by committee Democrats, who questioned the intent and potential impact the legislation could have on issues not taken up by the Legislature.

“Is it really best that the Legislature make decisions and not the citizens of Florida on the ballot?” Brandon Democratic Rep. Andrew Learned questioned. “Shouldn’t the people of Florida have a vote in that process? If the people of Florida at the ballot aren’t a check on the Legislature, I don’t know what is.”

Rep. Ben Diamond, a St. Petersburg Democrat, echoed Learned’s concerns, citing previous constitutional amendments approved by Floridians that were never taken up by the legislative body.

“Over and over again, it’s been the citizens under this process that have initiated change — change because they feel that their government isn’t listening,” Diamond said, listing off popular citizen initiatives that have cleared. “There’s an argument being made up here that only we can do those things, only those of us sitting on this side of the dais have the ability to work through those ideas and come to a conclusion as to what is best for Florida, and I reject that notion.”

Lawmakers in recent years have imposed a variety of restrictions on the citizen initiative process to limit paid signature gathering and shorten the time for acquiring signatures. Diamond criticized previous moves to restrict the citizen initiative process, calling it an “effort by Tallahassee to just shut it down.”

“Every year, there’s been a different sort of clever iteration of a bill to say, ‘All we’re doing is is limiting the amount of money that can do this or that on the citizen initiative process,'” Diamond said. “When we think about the influence of special interests on the development of Florida law, we have to recognize that the citizen initiative process has been one of the key safeguards against that, in terms of allowing citizens to have a direct voice.”

A slew of organizations opposed the proposal during public testimony, including the Florida ACLU, United Faculty of Miami Dade College, Florida Conservation Voters, SPLC Action Fund, Sierra Club of Florida, Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy and the Central Florida Labor Council.

Rich Templin, a lobbyist for the Florida AFL-CIO, spoke against the legislation Tuesday and argued the measure conflicts with the recent rhetoric echoed by the state’s Republican leadership, coining Florida a beacon of freedom.

“We’ve heard a lot about rights and freedoms over the last year and a half here in this building — ‘Florida is the freest state, we’re gonna secure rights for people,'” Templin said. “We’re talking about rights all the time. And then every once in a while, we’re taking rights away, which is exactly what this is.”

Templin went on to argue that the purpose of the citizen initiative process is to address the Legislature’s failings.

“Section Three is there to handle an unresponsive legislature. Keep in mind, minimum wage, felon voting, all of those were bills. Those were bills that were filed year after year after year and never even got a hearing,” Templin said. “Why is it that these measures that pass by 70% couldn’t get a hearing?”

The measure did have at least one proponent in public comment — the Florida Chamber of Commerce, which waived in support.

Proponents argue the legislation is part of a broader effort to reserve the constitution for functional matters, not policy matters.

Rep. Cord Byrd, a Neptune Beach Republican, said that if the resolution clears the Legislature, it will still have to be cleared by the people on the ballot.

“If this passes the House and Senate, it goes to whom? The people for a vote,” Byrd said.So the very same people who are opponents to this bill who say we need to let the people have a voice, that’s exactly what would happen.” 

Byrd went on to say that the state is not a direct democracy, but rather a representative republic, which is reflected in the legislation.

“We are not a direct democracy — that word,democracy,’ does not appear in the constitution. We are a representative republic that uses democratic means to elect those representatives,” he said. “This bill allows the people of Florida to decide if they want to be more like Florida, or more like California.”

Beltran also defended the legislation, arguing that many other states do not have a citizen initiative process, and that it is not a fundamental liberty.

“The idea that a citizen initiative process, one that today is unencumbered, is some part of fundamental liberty, I just reject that notion,” Beltran said. 

He also said the Legislature is checked by the public every two years, when voters decide if their lawmakers have represented them well.

“If we’re doing bad things that they don’t like or we’re not doing good things that they want us to do, they have an opportunity every two years to let us know that and if necessary, replace us with somebody else,” Beltran said.

If the Legislature passes Beltran’s resolution, voters would have to approve his proposed amendment before it is added to the constitution.

Beltran helped pass a proposal last year to abolish the Constitution Revision Commission. That proposal will be on the ballot in November.

Sanford Republican Sen. Jason Brodeur is carrying the Senate version of Beltran’s citizen initiative measure (SJR 1412). While Beltran’s measure now awaits a vote in its final committee before it heads to the House floor, Brodeur’s version has not been scheduled for a committee hearing yet.

Kelly Hayes

Kelly Hayes studied journalism and political science at the University of Florida. Kelly was born and raised in Tampa Bay. A recent graduate, she enjoys government and legal reporting. She has experience covering the Florida Legislature as well as local government, and is a proud Alligator alum. You can reach Kelly at [email protected].


  • Old Voter

    February 1, 2022 at 10:09 pm

    Bad legislation. The legislature is deeply offended by any citizens initiative. They want sole authority to make law. Yes, there have been some Ill advised amendments, but there have been many more Ill advised bills passed.
    The citizens initiative is a powerful reminder to the legislature to pay attention to the voters and don’t just make everything the party line.
    Vote against it.

  • tom palmer

    February 1, 2022 at 10:41 pm

    If the Florida Legislature truly represented the people of Florida and not the lobbyist elites, citizen initiatives would be largely unnecessary.

  • Karen Fisk

    February 4, 2022 at 11:21 pm

    The citizen initiative forces the Legislature to listen to their constituents’ needs (what an idea!) instead of exclusively to those of their sponsors and lobbyists. Let the people be heard!

Comments are closed.


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