Petitions may face hurdles

Groups urge Gov. Charlie Crist not to sign the bill that encumbers ballot initiatives.

Published May 20, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - The next time someone asks you to sign a petition for a ballot initiative at a park or a mall, that person may be wearing a badge advertising that he or she is being paid for each signature collected.

As always, you're free to sign or keep walking. But if you sign, you'll have several months to change your mind and have your name removed from the list.

Those are two of many changes to Florida's initiative petition law passed in the recent legislative session.

Gov. Charlie Crist says he has not decided whether to sign or veto the bill.

For the past three years, the Florida Chamber of Commerce has lobbied lawmakers to impose new limits on groups that gather voter signatures for ballot initiatives.

The chamber contends that it's much too easy to amend Florida's Constitution, that a profit motive leads to fraud in signature gathering, and that voters should know whether petition circulators are being paid by interest groups.

The group has lost high-profile ballot battles in recent years, like the 2004 amendment that raised the minimum wage, and is fighting a proposed 2008 initiative that would require voter approval for land use changes.

The chamber had plenty of supporters in the Legislature this year, and both houses gave overwhelming passage.

"Most people will sign anything, no matter what it says, to avoid the hassle, " said Rep. Joe Pickens, R-Palatka, calling paid petition circulators mercenaries.

But the chamber's success in the Legislature has outraged groups active in ballot initiatives, many with liberal agendas hostile to the chamber's probusiness philosophy.

They say the changes would pose new barriers to individuals' constitutional right to petition their government. They want a veto.

"This is a nightmare, " said Dianne Wheatley-Giliotti of Palm Harbor, a leader in the League of Women Voters of Florida.

She framed her challenge to Crist this way: "You call yourself the people's governor. What are you doing to protect the people's right to petition their government?"

Crist said both sides' arguments have merit. Then he recalled the words of former Gov. Reubin Askew, who spearheaded a ballot initiative on ethics reform in the 1970s and who has offered advice to the new Republican governor.

"Gov. Askew told me something. It's important to remember whose Constitution it is, " Crist said.

Other critics of the legislative changes include the Florida AFL-CIO, American Cancer Society, Common Cause, Florida Public Interest Research Group, Humane Society and People for the American Way.

Among their biggest complaints is a new requirement that petitions to be submitted to election supervisors within 30 days of being collected. Political groups say that's too little time in statewide, grass roots volunteer efforts, and would encourage them to rely even more on paid petition circulators to meet the new deadlines.

"We're talking about volunteers who are going door to door, " Laura Beven of the Humane Society told senators at a hearing in March. "It takes a lot longer to get those signatures and get them back to a central location."

Mark Herron, an election-law expert who represents groups pushing ballot initiatives, said it was revealing that the Florida Chamber of Commerce was touting the changes as reform.

"The most powerful special interests in this town, and in this state, are in favor of this legislation, " Herron said.

But such criticism did little to slow the bill's momentum: It passed the Senate, 27-9, and the House, 96-22. The only Republican who voted against it was Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico.

The bill SB 900, sponsored by Sen. Bill Posey, R-Rockledge, is formally called the "Beatrice T. Posey Truth in Petition Act" after the senator's mother.

The senator said she once signed her name to a petition after being told that her son supported the issue in question, which he didn't, only to find out she could not revoke her signature.

"You shouldn't be married to that petition for life, " Posey said. "You ought to be able to get off of it."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Fast Facts:

Changing the rules

A bill awaiting final action by Gov. Charlie Crist would change the rules, effective Aug. 1, for collecting signatures on ballot initiatives in Florida:

- Paid petition circulators must wear prominent badges that identify them as paid.

- Petition forms must be submitted to election supervisors within 30 days of being signed by voters.

- Voters have 120 days to revoke signatures after being verified by election supervisors (a separate bill would make it 150 days).

- Election supervisors must make petition-revocation forms available to the public.

- Names and addresses of petition circulators must be legible on forms signed by voters.

Source: Florida Legislature