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Florida House panel OKs further restrictions on petition-gathering process

In the waning minutes of the 2019 legislative session. Rep. Jamie Grant, R-Tampa, grafted a raft of amendments imposing restrictions on petition-gatherers onto an unrelated bill.

House Bill 5 was quickly adopted by the House and hustled over to the Senate and approved.

The new rules extend the state’s voter registration system to petition-gathering, requiring citizen initiative organizations sponsoring signature drives have their own numbered, serialized petitions provided by county elections offices.

HB 5 requires petition-gathers to have a permanent Florida address, bars out-of-state entities from ballot campaigns, and prohibits signature gatherers from being paid on a per-petition basis.

The rules went into effect July 1 and have been cited by at least one sponsor of a prospective 2020 ballot measure as “an unconstitutional alteration of the initiative petition process.”

Make It Legal Florida (MILF), the committee sponsoring a proposed constitutional amendment seeking to legalize recreational marijuana, has filed a lawsuit challenging the rules, which it says have forced it to withdraw from November’s ballot.

This year, Grant isn’t waiting until the session’s last day to slip amendments into a bill to further restrict the petition-gathering and initiative process.

On Thursday, he championed a bill crafted before fellow members of the House Judiciary Committee that would raise the threshold of voter petitions to trigger language review, require disclosure of “out-of-state participation” and shorten the time petition signatures are valid.

The House Judiciary Committee subsequently approved PCB JDC 20-01 in a 12-6 partisan vote. Depending how it fares in a legal review, it could be on a rocket-docket for the House floor.

The bill would not increase the number of verified petition signatures needed to make the ballot – currently 766,200, a number updated annually based on voter turnout in the previous election – but it would increase the threshold for triggering the mandated Supreme Court review of ballot language from 10 percent (76,000) to 50 percent (383,000).

The measure would require sponsors to pay local supervisors of elections offices for the signature verification and reduce the amount of time petition signatures are valid from two years to Feb. 1 of even-numbered years.

Grant argued the 50-percent threshold would save taxpayer dollars by ensuring the Supreme Court only reviews measures likely to make the ballot and said gatherers would still have almost two years to meet signature requirements if they begin drives after even-year elections.

Grant said it should be “really hard to amend the constitution.”

“The Florida Constitution should be owned by the citizens of Florida,” he said, claiming out-of-state groups spend millions to convince state residents to amend the constitution.

Grant’s comments drew sharp criticism from committee Democrats and advocacy group representatives.

Floridians for Freedom chair Jodi James said the Supreme Court’s language review is a pivotal step in gaining legitimacy and supporter.

“Until I get to 10 percent, nobody is going to write me a big check,” she said, claiming the 50 percent threshold is too high.

AFL-CIO Legislative Director Rich Templin said the 50 percent threshold is designed to “kill” citizens’ capacity to petition for change. He disputed Grant’s contention that the process is dominated by deep-pocket, mostly liberal, groups, noting the point of the petition process is to ensure the constitution is not manipulated by special interests but by the people.

“None of that has changed, but what we did with those changes is we actually took the process away from the people and made it now a wholly owned process by the millionaires and billionaires,” Templin said. “No one can collect those (signatures) with volunteers anymore.”

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