The Legislature has once again approved a bill to limit spending in the ballot initiative process after last year’s proposal met legal roadblocks. But critics argue Republicans’ fix is still unconstitutional.
By an 80-40 vote, which saw two Democrats vote with Republicans, the House gave the bill (HB 921) its final legislative approval, preparing it for Gov. Ron DeSantis’ signature.
The proposal, 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 regarding 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 and opposing proposed constitutional amendments at $3,000 during the signature-gathering process.
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. Last week, Estero Republican Sen. Ray Rodrigues told senators the new version attempts to “thread the needle” on what is overly broad.
Last week, the House approved the bill 77-39, with only Miami Beach Democratic Rep. Mike Grieco crossing party lines to vote yes. The Senate followed that up Monday with a 22-16 vote near party lines after Sanford Republican Sen. Jason Brodeur presented the bill.
However, the Senate made two changes, including one requested by Democrats, requiring the House pass the measure a second time.
One change, touted by Lighthouse Point Democratic Sen. Gary Farmer and Orlando Democratic Rep. Anna V. Eskamani, would apply the bill’s restrictions equally to committees sponsoring and opposing ballot initiatives. Initially, the bill would have only applied to committees sponsoring the initiatives.
Aventura Rep. Joe Geller was one Democrat who recognized Drake for listening to their concerns.
“I do think that this amendment helps to make the bill at least more constitutional, if that’s the thing,” Geller said. “I mean, I kind of think it either is or it ain’t constitutional, but I guess it eliminates one thing.”
However, the Senate also made a change that would prevent local governments from promoting local referendums even with factual information, which drew consternation from Democrats. The public could still ask for information on the referendums, but local governments and local officials could not initiate those discussions.
Under current law, local governments and officials can promote ballot measures if they stick to the facts. Republicans argue local governments have found a loophole to influence the vote.
“You simply take out the words, vote for or vote against. The effect is the same,” Drake said. “We’re trying to discourage local governments from using taxpayer funds to provide electioneering communications designed to influence the vote of constituents in these referendum questions.”
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 he would likely sign last year’s 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, that 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.
Democratic Reps. Mike Grieco, of Miami Beach, and Anika Omphrow, of Lauderdale Lakes, voted with Republicans in favor of the bill
If the bill becomes law, it will take effect July 1.