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Republicans Seek To Raise Threshold For Amending Florida's Constitution

A school zone in Tallahassee
Valerie Crowder
A school zone in Tallahassee

Florida requires approval of 60% of voters to change the Constitution. But despite that hurdle, voters in recent years have passed numerous changes, including restoring voting rights for felons and enacting a $15/hour minimum wage. But Republicans want to raise the bar higher, to 67% of voters.

The House sponsor is Rep. Rick Roth of Palm Beach County.

“It should not be easier to put an amendment in our state Constitution than it is to pass the same law through the legislative process,” Roth said. “The people get to vote on their representatives every two years but never get to vote on the PACs and lobbyists that push the amendment process.”

Roth’s bill passed the House Public Integrity and Elections Committee, 11 to 6, with all Republicans present voting yes and all Democrats voting no.

Trish Neely of the League of Women Voters said a 67% threshold is too high, and that several recent ballot initiatives that had widespread support would have failed.

“We believe strongly that altering the Florida Constitution should not be a simple process, but we also believe that it should not be an impossible process,” Neely said. “Sixty percent is a pretty high mark. Moving it to 66 and two-thirds percent there are some things that simply won’t get passed.”

Neely cited four recent amendments that got above 60% but less than 67%: a minimum wage increase, voting rights for felons, land and water protection and reforms to redrawing of political districts. All had stronger support from Democrats and their allies than from Republicans.

A second bill that gaining steam would impose strict contributions from donors to pay for the high costs of gathering voters’ signatures on initiative petitions. Senate Bill 1890 would limit those contributions to $3,000 until an initiative is approved for ballot placement by the state Supreme Court.

The bill’s sponsor, freshman Sen. Ray Rodrigues of Estero, described “out of state billionaires” that he said have too much influence over amending the Constitution. Speaking with reporters afterward, Rodrigues declined to address a question of why Republicans don’t abolish the initiative process entirely.

“Have you got a question about the bill?” Rodrigues said. “I believe I articulated inside why I think this bill’s important, and that’s as far as I’ll go.”

The bill narrowly cleared the Republican-controlled Senate Ethics and Elections Committee on a party-line vote of 5 to 4, as freshman Sen. Jennifer Bradley cited constitutional concerns with limiting speech on one side of a ballot initiative. If only one Republican opposed the bill, it would have failed.

Democrats argued that existing legal requirements make it extremely difficult to change the Constitution. They tried to make the $3,000 limit apply also to political committees under the control of individual lawmakers, but the proposal failed on an unrecorded voice vote. Legislators can still collect donations in unlimited amounts, including from special interests directly affected by the Legislature.

Speaking in opposition, Democratic Sen. Tina Polsky of Boca Raton said Republicans are unfairly trying to make it impossible for citizens to exercise direct democracy.

“It’s the people’s document. It’s not the legislature’s document,” Polsky said. “It’s quite frustrating from many of our perspectives. The group in power is making it harder for the people not in power to speak their minds.”

The two-thirds vote for passage will be on the 2022 general election ballot if it passes both houses by a three-fifths margin, or by at least 24 of the 40 senators and 72 of 120 House members. The two-thirds requirement itself would need to win approval by 60% of voters to become law.

Steve Bousquet has covered state government and politics for three decades at the Sun Sentinel, Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald. He was the Times' Tallahassee bureau chief from 2005 to 2018 and has also covered city and county politics in Broward County. He has a master's degree in U.S. history from Florida State.