Measure to up the percentage needed to amend the constitution gains momentum
The Legislature is on the verge of putting a measure on the 2022 ballot that would raise the existing 60% voter threshold for amending the Constitution to a two-thirds majority.
HJR 61 by Rep. Rick Roth, R-Palm Beach Gardens, is scheduled for a House vote on April 20. A companion, SJR 1238 by Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez, R-Doral, makes its final committee stop in Rules the same day.
At an April 14 Judiciary Committee meeting, Roth said protecting the Constitution is paramount after government imposed lockdowns to fight COVID-19, and “citizens’ rights are under attack everywhere.”
Roth said the measure would be a safeguard against deceptive ballot campaigns waged by special interest groups who want to circumvent the Legislature. A biased media that “doesn’t tell both sides of the story” only adds to voter confusion, Roth insisted.
“It is getting more difficult, not easier, for you to know what is really going on,” he said.
The measures would require a “66 and two-thirds percent” majority “except that the repeal of an amendment or revision need only be approved by the same percentage of elector votes as was required at the time of passage of such amendment or revision.”
So called “joint resolutions” require a three-fifths vote by the House and Senate to reach the ballot — but not the governor’s signature.
The measure would appear on the 2022 ballot and take effect the following year — meaning it would only have to meet the existing 60% threshold to succeed.
That prompted Rep. Michael Grieco, a Democrat and North Bay Village attorney, to accuse the sponsors of being “intellectually dishonest.”
“Would you agree to having that higher standard for your ballot measure?” Grieco asked Roth.
Roth said 60% is “sufficient.” Unlike citizen’s initiatives, the joint resolution has survived multiple votes in legislative committees, where it was publicly debated, Roth said.
Grieco called the measure “voter suppression.”
Grieco and other critics say the initiative process has become more important in a state where the minority Republican Party has cemented lopsided majorities in the House and Senate after controlling the last two redistricting cycles.
“I strongly believe in representative government, but I think that it has been bastardized by gerrymandering,” Grieco said. “We’re trying to make it even more difficult for people to have a voice.”
But Rep. Spencer Roach, R-North Ft. Myers, said Florida has more avenues for amending the Constitution — five — than any other state.
In addition to the citizen’s initiative and legislative proposals, the Constitution can be amended through a constitutional convention, the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission, and the Constitution Revision Commission. All methods require voter approval.
However, the Legislature is also on the verge of putting another measure on the ballot that would ask voters to abolish the Constitution Revision Commission. The Senate voted 27-12 on March 25 to approve SJR 204 by Judiciary Chair Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg. A House companion, HJR 1179 by Rep. Mike Beltran, R-Valrico and an attorney, is awaiting a final House vote.
The House and Senate are also poised to sign off on HB 669 by Rep. Bobby Payne, R-Palatka, and SB 1890 by Sen. Ray Rodrigues, R-Ft. Myers. The measures would set a $3,000 limit on contributions to political committees that sponsor constitutional amendments.
Advocacy groups, noting that there currently is no cap, say the measure would cripple citizen initiative drives.
Roach told the Judiciary Committee that the U.S. Constitution has been amended just 27 times since it was ratified in 1789, but the Florida Constitution has been amended 140 times in the last 50 years.
“I think it’s too easy to amend the Constitution,” Roach said.
Florida AFL-CIO lobbyist Rich Templin warned that nearly two thirds of the 140 amendments Roach referred to were sponsored by the Legislature. The list includes property tax rollbacks, and tax breaks for veterans and their surviving spouses, measures that did not garner a two-thirds majority, Templin said.
Florida is a highly diverse state, Templin stressed.
“Believing that two thirds of the voters are going to agree on anything is wishful thinking,” he said. “If you want to protect the Constitution, stop passing joint resolutions.”
The Judiciary Committee voted 13-6 to approve HJR 61 and sent it to the House floor.