Florida Senate OKs new hurdles for constitutional amendments

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — It would become much harder for citizens to change the Florida constitution through petition drives under a bill passed by the Florida Senate on Monday.

The bill would raise the threshold for the number of signatures required before the Supreme Court reviews an initiative for placement on the ballot. Right now, that review is triggered once a petition has signatures from at least 10% of voters in at least one-eighth of the state’s congressional districts. The new threshold would require signatures from 33% of voters in at least half the state’s districts. Florida has 27 congressional districts.

The bill passed 23-17. It still needs House approval.

This is the second year in a row the Republican-dominated Legislature has sought to make changing the constitution through a citizens initiative more difficult. Last year, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill that requires paid petition gatherers to register with the secretary of state, outlaws paying gatherers based on the number of signatures they collect and creates fines if petitions aren’t turned in within 30 days.

Democrats criticized the new bill as another effort by Republicans to silence Floridians. Democratic Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez called the bill “the ballot for billionaires,” saying it would make it too difficult for grassroots efforts to change the constitution.

“You wonder what the danger is,” said Democratic Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez. “What are we accomplishing here? We’re just making the citizens initiative process more costly and complicated, forcing operations from grassroots to professional.”

Republicans have grumbled for years about having constitutional amendments passed through citizens’ petitions forced on them. In 2018, it was an amendment that restored voting rights for most felons once they’ve completed their sentences. In 2016 it was an amendment that legalized medical marijuana. Other voter approved initiates have set class size limits, raised the state’s minimum wage based on inflation and set aside money for conservation land purchases.

It’s already difficult to use a petition drive to change the constitution. Petitioners have to gather more than 766,000 signatures to place a proposed amendment on the ballot, and 60 percent voter approval is required.

But Republicans said it should be even harder.

“We’ve created a cottage industry. If you want something different and you didn’t get it from the Legislature, just go around them and go put it in the constitution,” said Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley.