by Trimmel Gomes
The Florida Legislature is considering bills that would restrict grassroots citizen engagement. For decades, Floridians have used the citizen initiative process to let voters decide, often when the Legislature fails to act. The process has resulted in constitutional amendments to restore the voting rights of some Floridians with prior felony convictions, and others.
Republicans behind House bill 7111 and Senate bill 7096 have criticized the use of paid signature gatherers. But Aliki Moncrief, executive director with Florida Conservation Voters, said they’ve been an essential tool after their volunteers gathered 250,000 signatures to get the Water and Land Conservation Amendment on the ballot, because Florida’s process had become too complex.
“If we had not been able to reach out and bring professional signature gatherers to augment our efforts, we would not have made it to the ballot and we would not have now required the Legislature to set aside funding for conservation,” Moncrief said.
Republicans have long argued the Constitution is a sacred document and should be difficult to amend. But citizen groups say those efforts are silencing citizens by infringing on their First Amendment rights.
Rich Templin, director of politics and public policy with the Florida AFL-CIO, claimed the bills are part of a long-running campaign by business groups upset over a 2004 constitutional amendment which raised the state’s minimum wage by $1 to $6.15 an hour. If passed, the bills would require “interested parties” to file position statements in favor of or against a proposal, invalidate all signatures if a petition gatherer is found ineligible and include a ruling from the Florida Supreme Court determining whether the proposal can be done through the Legislature instead of a change to the Constitution.
“The Legislature is being very smart in not simply asking the voters to strike that provision from our Constitution that allows for the citizens initiative because they understand that the people wouldn’t agree to that,” Templin said. “So what they’re doing instead is death by a thousand paper cuts.”
There is still a 60 percent threshold for voters to pass a constitutional amendment. The changes, if passed, would impact several proposals slated for the 2020 ballot, including amendments to ban assault weapons and expand Medicaid.
Public News Service – FL
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