TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Republican lawmakers slipped language into a bill in the final hours of Florida's legislative session Friday that could make it more difficult for citizens to change the constitution through petition drives.
Republicans have grumbled for years about having constitutional amendments passed through citizens' petitions forced on them. Last year 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.
The bill now heading to Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis would require paid petition gatherers to register with the secretary of state, outlaw paying gatherers based on the number of signatures they collect and create fines if petitions aren't turned in within 30 days. The petitions would also have the name and permanent address of the gatherer.
Democrats said that will discourage people from collecting petitions in an amendment process that's already difficult. Republicans said it would help prevent fraud — a problem Democrats said doesn't exist — and keep out-of-state interests from meddling with the Florida constitution.
"This is just terrible," said Democratic Sen. Kevin Rader. "Some of the best amendments that have been done in the last few years have been done by the petition method ... What have the citizens done that has been so awful and so bad?"
Rader also noted that lawmakers didn't bring the matter up for a full chamber vote until the last day of the 60-day session just a few hours before midnight.
Republican Sen. David Simmons said he supports the changes because it protects the integrity of the constitution and said other states have enacted similar restrictions.
"Why are we doing this? It's because this is a continuing problem across the nation," Simmons said.
Current law requires petitioners to gather more than 766,000 signatures to place a proposed amendment on the ballot. The bill was also passed as petitions are being circulated to ban assault rifles and raise the minimum wage.
There's some history. Back when Republican Jeb Bush was governor, Republicans were frustrated with voter-approved changes to the constitution that included class-size limits in public schools, protections for pregnant pigs and more, so in 2006 they asked voters to raise the threshold to pass an amendment from a simple majority to 60%. The irony was the amendment passed with 57.8% of the vote.