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Florida Republicans Making It Harder To Pass Citizen Initiatives

people be filling out a ballot
Pascal Fassbender
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Florida requires approval of 60 percent of voters to change the state Constitution. Despite that hurdle, voters in recent years have approved numerous changes.

For the third year in a row, Florida legislators want to make it more difficult to amend the Constitution of the State of Florida.

Florida requires the approval of 60% of voters to change the constitution. Republicans want to raise the bar higher - to about 67% of voters.

“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,” said Rep. Rick Roth, R-Palm Beach Gardens, the House sponsor of the bill. “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 of Florida said a 67% threshold is too high, noting 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 phased minimum wage increase to $15 an hour, voting rights restoration for felons, land and water protection, and reforms to the redrawing of political districts. All had stronger support from Democrats and their allies than from Republicans.

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

The bill’s Republican sponsor, 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.

The bill narrowly cleared the Republican-controlled Senate Ethics and Elections Committee on a party-line vote of 5 to 4.

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 Senator 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 chambers 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.