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Lawmakers target ballot initiatives, local government spending

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Emily Michot
/
Miami Herald

With time running out in the 2022 legislative session, the Florida House on Thursday approved a controversial campaign-finance bill that would make it more difficult for groups to place proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot.

The measure, which is now ready for action by Gov. Ron DeSantis, also would prevent local governments from sending mailers to voters to promote or oppose proposed referendums, ballot initiatives or issues.

The prohibition would apply even if the communications are limited to factual information, a provision that drew strenuous pushback from House Democrats before Thursday’s 80-40 vote in favor of the measure (HB 721).

The Senate tucked the communications prohibition into an amendment on the bill, which, in part, would place a $3,000 limit on contributions from out-of-state donors to political committees trying to collect enough petition signatures to move forward with citizens’ initiatives. A federal judge less than a year ago struck down a similar law, which did not include the provision about local government communications.

The bill would not bar local governments from “posting factual information on a government website or in printed materials;” hosting or providing information at public forums; or providing “factual information in response to an inquiry.”

The prohibition is aimed at keeping local officials from trying to influence elections on issues such as local tax increases, House Republicans argued during floor debate.

“I think it’s self-dealing for the government to use taxpayer dollars to try to take a side and sway the outcome of an election, and I think that’s wrong,” Rep. Spencer Roach, R-North Fort Myers, said.

But Rep. Felicia Robinson, a Miami Gardens Democrat who previously served on the city council, said the communications ban left her in “total disbelief.”

“We are supposed to be the Sunshine State where we have everything out in the open. And this is telling our constituents, our residents … that we don’t want them to know what they’re voting on,” she said.

But Rep. Mike Giallombardo, R-Cape Coral, pointed to a Lee County School Board referendum in 2018.

The school district spent money on communications such as flyers that were put in kids’ backpacks and mailers sent to voters’ homes “pushing poor me, poor me, but spending a million dollars on doing it,” he said.

“That’s criminal,” Giallombardo said. “It should not be allowed.”

But Rep. Joe Geller, D-Aventura, said that when he was mayor of North Bay Village, officials put a referendum on the ballot asking if citizens wanted to incur bonded debt to improve the village’s sewer system.

“People want to know why you’re doing it. The citizens want the information. What is it going to accomplish, how much is it going to cost,” Geller said. “We’ve achieved a reasonable compromise. You can’t campaign. You can’t say vote, you can’t twist it, but you can tell people what it is.”

Rep. Dan Daley, D-Sunrise, argued that the proposal is another attempt by the Republican-dominated Legislature to chip away at local governments’ home rule, an issue known as preemption.

“We find new ways to screw with cities,” he said.

But Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, said the measure protects taxpayers, arguing that “for too long, cities and counties have been exploiting the loophole” that allows local governments to educate voters about issues.

“I’ve seen it happen time and time and time again. Now we’ve got to the time where, yep, we’re pretty much fed up with taxpayers being screwed, to use Rep. Daley’s analogy,” Ingoglia said. “Cities and counties are using money to influence elections when they shouldn’t, and they’re using the education loophole. What this is saying is that you can’t do that anymore. Stop playing games with taxpayer money.”

The underlying bill with the cap on contributions to ballot-initiative petition drives drew opposition from Democrats and a lone Republican during Senate debate Monday.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said the proposal is unconstitutional because it would limit speech.

"We should not limit people's ability to speak, period,” he said.

But Sen. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, argued the bill targets “billionaires who have contributed literally tens of millions of dollars to influence” states’ constitutions.

The Senate approved the measure in a 22-16 vote.

In July, U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor struck down a similar law that would have capped contributions at $3,000 during the signature-gathering phase. The 2021 law applied to contributions from in-state and out-of-state donors.

Winsor found the law unconstitutionally restricted political speech.

“First, contributions to political committees that advocate for ballot initiatives are ‘beyond question a very significant form of political expression,’” Winsor wrote, partially quoting from legal precedent.

Winsor also rejected a state argument, echoed by Rodrigues on Monday, that the cap should be upheld because it would only restrict contributions during the signature-gathering phase of ballot-initiative campaigns.

The cap would not apply after committees have submitted enough petition signatures to get on the ballot.

“It is unclear … why this would matter for First Amendment purposes,” wrote Winsor, who was appointed by former President Donald Trump, adding that nothing in previous court decisions about campaign contribution limits “suggested that states could restrict speech and expression surrounding ballot initiatives so long as the restriction covered only part of the initiative process.”

Supporters of this year’s bill have tried to draw a distinction because the proposed limit would only apply to out-of-state donors. Most of the legislative session will end Friday, though lawmakers will have to vote Monday on a new state budget.