TALLAHASSEE — What a difference two years make.
In 2012, there were 11 statewide ballot questions, perplexing many voters who didn’t understand all the proposed changes to the state’s constitution.
Now, it looks like voters may see only two amendments on the 2014 ballot.
That may come as relief to a Florida electorate that must choose a governor, attorney general, chief financial officer and agriculture commissioner. What’s more, every U.S. and state representative seat is up for election.
The dearth of ballot questions isn’t for lack of trying. Twenty of them are in the works for 2014 but 17 haven’t yet garnered a single valid petition signature, according to Division of Elections records.
Each initiative needs almost 700,000 signatures, and the deadline for reporting signatures to the state is Feb. 1.
Those with no signatures include the oldest proposal, one that would create a single-payer health care system in the state, which has been on the books since September 1995.
Another, prohibiting state money for research that “destroy(s) a live human embryo,” has just two signatures.
That leaves two measures that have any steam behind them.
One would allow the medical use of marijuana and the other would fund land and water conservation, with 174,207 and 499,437 valid signatures respectively, as of Thursday afternoon.
Representatives for both efforts say they’re sure they will have enough valid signatures to get on the ballot.
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Other initiatives with no signatures include those that would prohibit trees from being cut “to enhance billboard visibility,” create a recall mechanism for the governor and state lawmakers, and open the state’s primary elections to all voters regardless of party.
The slow movement on so many measures belies complaints in the last election cycle that it’s too easy to amend the Florida Constitution. They include former Gov. Jeb Bush.
A favorite argument is an amendment approved by Florida voters in 2002 giving constitutional protection to pregnant pigs against pens that are too small.
“Few initiatives actually make it onto the ballot because it’s difficult and expensive to mount them,” said Deirdre Macnab, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida.
“The bar is already so high it takes an extremely organized effort to have any success,” Macnab said.
Under a formula set out in the constitution, each initiative needs 683,149 signatures, from at least 14 of the state’s 27 congressional districts. Signatures must be verified by local supervisors of elections, who can charge up to 10 cents per name for the review.
In the past 10 years, 200 proposed constitutional amendments have been filed with the Division of Elections and 48 have made it onto a ballot, state records show. Of those, 25 were approved by voters.
“We haven’t been collecting signatures for probably 10 years now,” said Irving Vinger, the Palm Beach County physician behind the single-payer measure. “Now that the Affordable Care Act has passed, we may finally close that” proposal.
That measure once had 22,867 signatures, records show, but they have all expired. The division’s website says a signature on a petition is good for only two years.
Direct-democracy tools such as initiatives and referendums — efforts to repeal a law previously passed by lawmakers — came out of the populist and progressive movements of the last century as a check against corporate influence over government.
Today, the Florida Constitution allows citizens, through the initiative, or state lawmakers to submit changes to the constitution for a vote. Amendments must be approved by 60 percent of voters.
All 11 proposed constitutional amendments up for a vote in 2012 were sponsored by the Legislature.
Three passed, all having to do with property taxes: A homestead discount for veterans disabled from combat injuries, a homestead exemption for surviving spouses of vets and first responders, and a homestead exemption for certain low-income seniors.
For the 2014 cycle, the Division of Elections is sending proposed amendments to the Attorney General for legal review when they garner 68,314 signatures from at least seven congressional districts.
If the Attorney General has concerns about the petition, it goes to the Supreme Court, and the court must render an opinion by April 1 on whether it can go on the ballot.
That’s what happened to the medical marijuana amendment. Attorney General Pam Bondi and lawmakers opposed the measure, saying the language was unclear and misleading.
The court heard arguments Dec. 5. A decision in the state’s favor could stop the measure from getting on the ballot in time.
The constitution can also be changed by the Constitutional Revision Commission, which meets every 20 years and is next due to convene in 2017, and by a constitutional convention, called by petition and statewide vote.
What Florida doesn’t permit is changing or enacting a state law, or statute, by an initiative process. Another 21 states do allow it, according to the nonprofit Ballot Initiative Strategy Center in Washington.
Citizen initiatives in Florida also require the creation of a political committee, which has no time limit on its existence. That explains the age of some of the amendment drives.
People United for Medical Marijuana is the committee behind the medical pot initiative, for instance.
Its online finance records go back to 2009, but fundraising didn’t kick into high gear until it got the backing of famed personal-injury attorney John Morgan.
The committee has raised and spent more than $1.3 million this year, with Morgan supplying about $1 million himself.
The legal challenge aside, “our level of confidence is getting higher every day” of getting enough valid signatures, said Ben Pollara, campaign manager behind the medical marijuana initiative. “We’re rocking and rolling.”
Between volunteers and paid workers, he said they have collected nearly 700,000 signatures, including those already verified. Pollara is shooting for 1 million.
And William Abberger, spokesman for the conservation amendment, said he also expects that measure to be on the ballot.
That petition now has 950,000 total signatures, with a verification rate so far of about 80 percent, he added.