Florida could make it tougher to amend state constitution

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — It could become even more difficult to change the Florida constitution via petition drives under a bill approved by a Senate Committee on Monday, a move that comes after recent initiatives legalizing medical marijuana and restoring the voting rights of most felons, and amid proposed petitions that would raise the minimum wage and ban assault rifles.

Petition sponsors would be banned from paying non-Floridians to gather signatures and all paid petition gatherers would have to be registered with the Department of State. The bill would outlaw the practice of basing gatherers’ pay on the number of signatures they collect. It also would require the ballot to name the initiative’s sponsor and to say what percentage of the funds raised for the initiative was donated by Floridians.

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the bill on a 4-2 vote, with Republicans in favor and Democrats opposed. Republican Committee Chairman David Simmons said the bill is to protect the integrity of the petition process and protect it from out-of-state influences.

The bill “seeks to restore the citizen initiative process to the citizens of this state and promotes the transparency of the petition process,” Simmons said. “Petition gatherers must have skin in the game and live under the same laws they propose.”

Right now, in order to place a proposed amendment on a ballot, petitioners have to gather more than 766,000 signatures and they must come from at least 14 of the state’s 27 congressional districts. The proposals need approval from 60 percent of voters.

In arguing for the bill, Simmons cited a constitutional amendment voters approved in 2002 that bans putting pregnant pigs in crates so small they can’t turn around freely. He said it was largely paid for and promoted by out-of-state interests.

But the process of getting a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot and approved by voters has been made difficult in several ways since the pregnant pigs amendment passed. The number of signatures needed to make the ballot was raised, the time allowed to gather those signatures was reduced from four years to two years and the percentage of votes needed to change the constitution was raised from 50 percent plus one vote to 60 percent.

But the Republicans’ push to make it even harder also comes as voters approve amendments that Republicans refuse to put into law, such as medical marijuana and felon voter rights restoration. Other bills moving through the Republican-dominated Legislature would place a question on the 2020 ballot asking voters to raise the threshold to change the constitution from 60 percent to two-thirds approval.

Democratic Sen. Javier Rodriguez said the true motive of the bill is to silence Floridians.

“The only possible reason for this legislation is to undercut the citizens’ initiative,” said Rodriguez. “The entire reason why organizations have resorted to have paid campaigns is because of all the onerous requirements that have been put on by, frankly, forces that really want to maintain control here in Tallahassee.”