Gov. Ron DeSantis had the power to right a terrible wrong. All he had to do is veto House Bill 5, which Republicans rammed through on two party-line votes in the final days of the 2019 session. But DeSantis signed it into law Friday. Shame on him.
The citizen initiative process is a sacred right in Florida, and the government had no business trying to change it. Their failure is an attack on democracy and deprives constituents of a right afforded to them by the state constitution.
The Florida Legislature sometimes does something so cynical, heavy-handed and undemocratic that it demands corrective action from the only person powerful enough to stand in its way.
That would be Gov. Ron DeSantis, who had the power to right a terrible wrong. All he had to do is veto House Bill 5, which Republicans rammed through on two party-line votes in the final days of the 2019 session.
But DeSantis signed it into law Friday. Shame on him.
The bill is an attack on direct democracy — the ability of everyday Floridians to avoid a resistant Legislature and take matters into their own hands by amending Florida’s Constitution through citizen initiatives.
The initiative process is how Floridians legalized medical marijuana, expanded land and water protections, reduced class sizes, required local approval of more casino gambling and restored voting rights to most convicted felons.
Efforts are underway to create a $15-an-hour minimum wage, allow recreational marijuana, open the energy market to competition, ban assault-style weapons and open primary elections in a way that would send the top two candidates regardless of party to the general election ballot.
Getting an initiative on the ballot is no easy feat. Grassroots efforts are not enough in a state this big. To collect signed petitions from 766,200 verified Florida voters — from every corner of the state, in a narrow timeframe — you have to hire people.
So the GOP-controlled legislature decided to raise the degree of difficulty.
They made it a crime to pay petition-gatherers by the signature. They also want petition workers to register with the state and witness every signature or risk a perjury charge. Petitions not submitted within 30 days would trigger a series of escalating fines up to $1,000. Initiatives would require an economic impact statement on the ballot of up to 150 words, twice the existing limit of 75 words, as if Florida ballots weren’t long enough already.
The changes will increase the costs of future petition drives, meaning rich and powerful interests will increasingly be the only ones able to afford them.
How’s that for direct democracy?
Democrats in the House and Senate valiantly fought the changes, but Republicans prevailed, 22-17 in the Senate and 67-43 in the House.
They did so despite Article XI, Section 3 of the Florida Constitution, which clearly states: "The power to propose the revision or amendment of any portion or portions of this constitution by initiative is reserved to the people."
Democrats rightly accused Republicans of violating their oaths of office to "support, protect and defend the Constitution." But Republican lawmakers listened harder to the special interests who back their campaigns and hate these petition drives.
HB 5’s constitutionality should be challenged in court.
The bill applies only to petitions gathered after the bill is signed. Then the state will have to write rules to implement the changes, a cumbersome process that takes months. The practical effect will be to "freeze" some of the amendments working their way toward the 2020 ballot, including an assault weapons ban, recreational marijuana, open party primaries and the expansion of Medicaid.
Signed petitions are due by Feb. 1. Citizens used to have four years to gather them, but the Legislature cut that to two, further increasing the need to hire full-time signature-gatherers.
The Legislature was wrong to change the rules in the middle of the game. Lawmakers who voted for HB 5 should go back and read the Constitution. They and DeSantis are on the wrong side of justice.
A version of this editorial first appeared in the South Florida Sun Sentinel.