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TALLAHASSEE -- Anyone who thought the long, nasty fight over amending Florida's constitution had ended should think again.
Business groups and their traditional adversaries on the issue -- organizations such as the League of Women Voters of Florida and the Florida Public Interest Research Group -- are tangling again this spring.
At stake: a proposal in the state Legislature that would require paid petition circulators to register with the state and bar non-Florida residents, non-U.S. citizens and convicted felons who are ineligible to vote from being paid circulators.
Opponents characterize the proposal, which passed a Senate committee and House council this week, as a machination by deep-pocketed big businesses intent on keeping unfriendly initiatives off the ballot.
The proposal would drive up costs, sideline grass-roots groups and punish voters rather than unethical petition circulators, they say. They argue the state's signature threshold -- more than 611,000 voters for the 2008 general election -- makes it all but impossible to get an initiative on the ballot without using paid petition circulators.
But proponents say it's needed to help clean up a citizens' ballot initiative process that is ripe for -- or rife with -- fraud and abuse, particularly as groups pushing ballot initiatives turn toward out-of-state petition companies.
"If you're true grass roots, it doesn't affect you," said Sen. Bill Posey, R-Rockledge, the measure's Senate sponsor. "It just affects the big special interests that hire bounty hunters to go out and get petitions and pay them by the body -- that's the only person it regulates."
Citing potentially costly -- and eye-catching -- initiatives involving things like pregnant pigs and bullet trains, lawmakers have backed measures meant to make it tougher to amend the constitution or regulate petition circulators in three of the past four years.
This year's proposal comes after a bitter fight between business groups and supporters of Florida Hometown Democracy, a proposed constitutional amendment that would have given voters direct control over local land-use changes.
The measure fell short of the signature requirement to make the November ballot after an expensive campaign by both sides.
"This (proposal) is a direct answer to the success of the minimum wage campaign and their absolute terror over Hometown Democracy," said Rich Templin, communications director for the Florida AFL-CIO, which opposes the bill. The union did not support or oppose the Hometown Democracy proposal.
Debate over this year's proposal has focused on several issues.
One is how widespread fraud is and what the bill would do to stop it.
To back the bill, supporters point to a 2007 report on increased incidents of petition fraud by the Washington, D.C.-based BallotInitiative Strategy Center.
Florida was one of five states featured in the self-described progressive organization's report, which cited several news reports, including one about circulators arrested in 2004 for submitting more than 1,300 apparently fraudulent signed petitions.
The size of the problem is difficult to pin down, though.
Since 2004, the state Division of Elections has received 148 voter fraud complaints in all categories, according to a spokeswoman.
But there are other cases not reflected in that tally. In January, for example, Volusia County Supervisor of Elections Ann McFall flagged another 78 likely fraudulent signed petitions.
Supporters say the proposal would help fend off abuses keeping purely financially motivated out-of-state circulators out of the process. They also say it would protect public safety.
"We owe it to people as a matter of public safety to restrict felons from collecting people's personal information," said Adam Babington, director of coalitions and initiatives for the Florida Chamber of Commerce.
Opponents question the logic.
The bill doesn't call for punishment of petition gatherers who break the rules, while it does call for petitions collected by those people to be invalidated.
It punishes the wrong person -- the voter, said Brad Ashwell, legislative advocate for the Florida Public Interest Research Group.
"There is no reason for this to go forward if it is going to disenfranchise voters," Ashwell said. "You can see what they're really trying to do. They just don't like this process. They don't like the fact that citizens can sidestep the legislative process."
Amending Florida Constitution
The rules for amending Florida's Constitution have been a hot topic for state lawmakers in recent years.
2007: Passed laws creating a process for revoking signed petitions with voters' approval and specifically allowing commercial property owners to have petition circulators removed even when property is open for public use.
2005: Proposed a state constitutional amendment to increase the voter approval threshold on ballot initiatives to 60 percent rather than 50 percent plus one. Voters endorsed the plan in 2006.
2004: Proposed a state constitutional amendment moving up the deadline by about six months for citizens initiatives to get their initiatives on the ballot in a general election year. Voters endorsed the plan the same year.
Passed a law requiring financial impact analysis for proposed constitutional amendments.
*Since 1968, citizens' initiatives have made the ballot 33 times. The Legislature has placed 75 proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot.
Source: Florida Public Interest Research Group, News-Journal Research
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