Tallahassee, where free speech is the first casualty of debate| Steve Bousquet

Tallahassee, where free speech is the first casualty of debate| Steve Bousquet

Despite their overwhelming superiority, Republican state lawmakers persist in marginalizing the voices of citizens and they launch complex and controversial legislation with as little advance notice to the public as possible, writes Sun Sentinel Columnist Steve Bousquet. (AP)

They decide which ideas are heard and which ones are silenced. They have the votes to set the terms of debate. They decide the outcome.

Despite their overwhelming superiority, they persist in squelching or marginalizing the voices of citizens and they launch complex and controversial legislation with as little advance notice to the public as possible.

It happened again Thursday. With 20 minutes left in a two-hour hearing, the House Judiciary Committee brought up a bill to impose new hurdles for individuals and groups who want to amend the state Constitution.

The proposal, a longstanding priority of big business, has quietly been in the works for weeks, but it’s been a closely-guarded secret. The bill surfaced about 36 hours before the hearing as a proposed committee bill or PCB — Tallahassee jargon that signals that it’s a priority of House leaders, which means it’s going to pass.

It’s no secret that Republicans don’t like what they see: Interest groups, some aligned with Democrats and often with help from deep-pocket out-of-state donors, are changing the system by collecting voters’ signatures through the initiative process to amend the Constitution.

The timing of this latest push is definitely no accident.

It comes at a time when proponents are gathering signatures in support of proposals with far-reaching impact dealing with energy choice, open primary elections and a $15 minimum wage.

The minimum wage initiative is led by Orlando lawyer John Morgan, who successfully directed the effort to legalize medical marijuana in the state, and it has the potential to dramatically affect voter turnout in the upcoming presidential election in 2020.

That scares Republicans and their allies.

So Republicans want to make it harder by requiring that petition gatherers must be legal residents of Florida and must register with the state; requiring the state to provide space online to opponents to sound off with opposing arguments; requiring initiative sponsors to disclose on the ballot how much money came from Florida; and making it a crime to pay petition-gatherers based on how many signatures they collect.

If the bill becomes law, the ballot question must tell voters whether passage would require a tax increase. If a petition-gatherer doesn’t register with the state, a voter’s signature on a petition could be nullified — both major changes to Florida law.

They are all controversial ideas that deserve to be debated thoroughly.

But the bill sponsor, Rep. James Grant, R-Tampa, a studious and well-informed lawmaker, sounded Iike the guy in that old Federal Express TV ad as he raced through an explanation as time ticked away.

“Do we like the idea that a single billionaire can fund the petition process to put things into the Constitution, threatening the sovereignty of the state?” Grant asked.

Opponents were livid.

“The Legislature wants the sole authority to put stuff on the ballot,” said David Cullen of the Sierra Club. “Have a little respect for future voters who may disagree with you. That’s the essence of democracy.”

Aliki Moncrief of Florida Conservation Voters, an opponent of the bill, told lawmakers that the Legislature must demonstrate a compelling state interest in restricting political speech that’s protected by the First Amendment.

Speakers who waited nearly two hours to register objections were given one minute to speak, or 30 seconds. Republicans rightly extended the meeting by 15 minutes, but it made little difference, and the constant reminders to people to cut short their testimony set a poor example for democracy.

Grant tweeted afterward “how unfortunate it was that this bill did not have more time today.” A lengthy debate on the contentious insurance issue known as assignment of benefits dominated the hearing.

When a Democratic lawmaker on the committee, Rep. Ben Diamond of St. Petersburg, spoke for less than a minute, the panel’s chairman, Rep. Paul Renner interjected: “I can’t have you filibuster to the end. I’m sorry.”

Renner told reporters afterward that the changes are needed because Russians tried to interfere with the 2016 election in Florida and that they might try again in 2020.

The bill passed on a straight party line 12-6 vote. (Supporters included Rep. Chip LaMarca, R-Lighthouse Point, and the nays included Democrats Joe Geller of Aventura, Mike Gottlieb of Davie and Amy Mercado of Orlando).

It’s not yet slated to be debated in any other committees, but Renner gave assurances that it would be. The Senate version (SB 7096) surfaced Thursday and will be debated for the first time on Monday, April 1.

The subject is too important to shoehorn into the last half hour of a meeting, but the Republican strategy of striking hard with little advance notice is not new, and Democrats did it when they were in control.

It’s especially effective this session because the House has so many freshman members with very little training who are still learning the ropes and can easily be overwhelmed by too much information.

After the vote, the veteran lobbyist Rich Templin of the Florida AFL-CIO held up his index finger and said: “One day. We had one day to react to something that threatens Floridians’ constitutional rights.”

Steve Bousquet is a columnist for the South Florida Sun Sentinel in Tallahassee. He can be reached at scbousquet@gmail.com or (850) 567-2240. Follow him on Twitter @stevebousquet.

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