Senate tees up ballot initiative limits on out-of-state influence after 2021 defeat
Ray Rodrigues. Image via Colin Hackley.

The bill would also ban foreign contributions in the petition-gathering phase.

Senators are nearing a vote to curb out-of-state influence in the ballot initiative process, revisiting the measure after it was struck down last year.

The bill (HB 921), filed by Eucheeanna Republican Rep. Brad Drake, would limit non-Floridians from donating more than $3,000 and out-of-state political committees from receiving donations worth more than $3,000 when it comes to ballot initiatives in the petition-gathering process.

The provision comes after a federal judge ruled against the state in July over similar legislation to limit the influence of money in the petition-gathering process, saying it violated the First Amendment. The measure would have capped all donations to political committees backing proposed constitutional amendments at $3,000 during the signature-gathering process.

The Senate version (SB 1352), carried by Sanford Republican Sen. Jason Brodeur, initially did not contain the out-of-state influence provision and instead only addressed foreign contributions. However, as the sponsor of last year’s bill, Estero Republican Sen. Ray Rodrigues shepherded the new attempt to constrain funding for constitutional amendment initiatives, which have gone against Republican lawmakers’ interests in recent years.

While Judge Allen Winsor in the Northern District of Florida called last year’s law a violation of the First Amendment, Rodrigues said the judge’s criticism was that the bill was too broad.

“We are attempting to thread the needle and put that limit on out-of-state entities who are attempting to influence our state constitution,” Rodrigues told Senators Thursday.

When the Senate returned Friday, members amended the bill to cover committees opposing ballot initiatives, not just those sponsoring ballot initiatives.

Drake had argued committees can’t oppose ballot initiatives during the petition gathering process because the initiatives haven’t been formalized yet. However, Rodrigues said Republican Sen. Jennifer Bradley and Democratic Sen. Jason Pizzo argued targeting one side of the process could spell problems in the courts, and Democratic Sen. Lori Berman identified a case in which a committee opposed a ballot initiative this year.

“That illustrated not only the need for this but that you guys are right from a legal standpoint as well,” Rodrigues said.

The Senate is expected to pass the bill Monday, which would require sending it to the House again before it could go to Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The House approved the bill 77-39 on Wednesday, with only Miami Beach Democratic Rep. Mike Grieco crossing party lines to vote yes.

A second provision would ban contributions from foreign governments, foreign political parties, foreign businesses and foreign citizens, as well as people who aren’t U.S. citizens and who aren’t granted permanent residence. That doesn’t include dual citizens.

Federal law already prohibits donations from foreigners and foreign entities to elections. However, a decision the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) issued in November opened the door to foreign donations for state ballot initiatives.

After Sine Die in 2021, DeSantis suggested to reporters that he would likely sign the bill despite questions over its constitutionality. Those questions stemmed from the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision protecting political contributions as free speech.

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 they believe should not be in the state constitution.

At least one lobbyist dubbed the 2021 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.

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. Democrats contend the costs for campaigns to get initiatives on the ballot have increased because of recent legislation.

The proposed legislation could reduce the amount of resources available during the signature collection process. Opponents fear, and proponents hope, fewer initiatives will make it to the ballot stage.

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.

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.

Renzo Downey

Renzo Downey covers state government for Florida Politics. After graduating from Northwestern University in 2019, Renzo began his reporting career in the Lone Star State, covering state government for the Austin American-Statesman. Shoot Renzo an email at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @RenzoDowney.

One comment

  • margaret

    March 5, 2022 at 12:17 pm

    Legislatig by ballot initiatives is a poor way to govern. Legislators should be elected based upon their positions which should be clearly stated during their campaigns. Then, voters should hold them responsible.

    As a bellweather state, Florida is showing many dangerous trends toward authoritorianism and concentration of power into the hands of wealthy donors and their stooges, such as DeSantis and his enablers in the Legislature. Ballot initiatives should only be used for extraordinary circumstances not addressed in Tallahassee Sessions.

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