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Sunday, September 01, 2019
$15 minimum wage, utility deregulation move close to making ballot, but opposition looms (Orlando Sentinel)
Our Florida Constitution reflects the will of the people. But will corporate allies of controversial Flori-DUH Governor RONALD DION DeSANTIS "monkey this up?"
$15 minimum wage, utility deregulation move close to making ballot, but opposition looms
TALLAHASSEE — Proposed constitutional amendments are nearing the finish line, gaining almost enough petitions to make the 2020 ballot. But the prospect of whether voters will get to decide to increase the minimum wage or deregulate the utility market is anything but certain.
Potential obstacles include a new law restricting how petition gatherers can be paid and placing new regulations on them, a dark money group is pushing its own ballot measure increasing competition among amendment proposals, and a new conservative majority on the Florida Supreme Court that might take a more skeptical view of all ballot measures.
GOP lawmakers who passed the law said they were trying to provide more transparency and prevent out-of-state billionaires from tampering with the state constitution.
Yet, dark money groups that don’t have to disclose their donors have popped up, pushing their own ballot measures, which advocates of the utility proposal say is designed to muddy the waters and keep them from getting on the ballot.
“It’s a pain in the ass, and you can quote me on that,” said Alex Patton, chairman of Citizens for Energy Choices, the group pushing the energy deregulation measure. “I have no idea how much the utilities are paying to be an annoyance, but I’m not sure it’s good money well-spent.”
A wide range of business and political interests have lined up against the so-called “energy choice” amendment.
It would forbid the major investor-owned utilities – Florida Power & Light, Duke Energy, Tampa Electric Company – from generating their own power. Instead they would limited to building and maintaining their electric grids.
Consumers would be able to choose their electric provider, which supporters claim will drive costs down as new competition arrives, but critics contend deregulation would lead to price spikes and a more unreliable system.
Patton believes the major utilities are behind Keep Our Constitution Clean PC, a political committee gathering petitions for a ballot measure to require voters to approve an amendment twice, over two election cycles, before it becomes law.
Through July, the committee has raised and spent more than $841,000 on petitions, with all of the money coming from a non-profit group of the same name. The group is a 501(c)(4), a social welfare organization that isn’t required to reveal its donors until 2020 because it didn’t form until this year.
Jason Haber, a Fort Lauderdale-based lawyer and chairman of Keep Our Constitution Clean PC, did not return a call seeking comment.
The committee has hired an army of petition gatherers, and Patton contends the intent is to increase his costs and overwhelm his efforts to get signatures.
According to the state’s new database for registered petition gatherers, there are 920 signature gatherers registered for the amendment requiring voters to approve each amendment twice, and 341 registered to get signatures for the “energy choice” proposal.
So far, state records show the Keep Our Constitution Clean amendment has only gathered 32,529 petitions.
Other amendments face major opposition from big business interests, such as the push by Orlando attorney John Morgan to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2026. But Patton said his ballot measure is an existential threat to the utilities, raising the stakes and giving them more of a motive to target his proposal.
“Somehow it all traces back to the utilities. I believe it in my soul,” Patton said.
Opponents of the energy choice amendment, which include big business lobbies such as Associated Industries of Florida as well as Floridians for Affordable Reliable Energy, a group backed by former Florida Democratic Party leaders and elected officials, also note that Patton’s group, Citizens for Energy Choice, hasn’t disclosed its donors, either.
Apart from a small amount of initial funding from Infinite Energy, a Gainesville-based gas and electric company, nearly all of the $3.9 million the group has raised has come from Coalition for Energy Choice, another 501(c)(4).
Patton responded by saying the group is funded by large-scale electricity users and solar companies, but didn’t name the specific donors.
“That’s a hell of a lot more disclosure than you’re getting from these other groups,” Patton said.
According to the Division of Elections website, Citizens for Energy Choices has collected 412,672 signatures. To make the ballot, they’ll need to get 766,200 by Feb. 1, 2020.
Patton says his group has collected much more than that, but there’s a backlog of certifying them at local supervisors of elections and at the Division of Elections as a result of the new law.
Morgan’s minimum wage amendment proposal has gathered 628,860 signatures, according to the state. Morgan has said the new law was designed to block the minimum wage increase from the ballot but that it won’t stop him from getting the necessary signatures.
The new law requires more scrutiny of petition gatherers – they’re required to register with the state and have a Florida address, and fines of up to $1,000 for “willfully” filing petitions more than 30 days after receiving them.
Rep. James Grant, the legislator who helped push through the law, said lawmakers need to do more to ensure greater transparency on behalf of groups seeking to change the constitution.\
“There was progress made with the (new law), but I do not think that we have finished the work that needs to be done,'' he said.
Grant said he’ll look to add another layer of reporting in the 2020 legislative session to require groups like Keep Our Constitution Clean PC to report their donors upfront. He says that should be the case even for measures he agrees with.
“We’re talking about the foundational governing document of the 17th-largest economy in the world,” Grant said. “We’re the third-largest state in America. Nobody should be messing with our governing document without having to disclose whether or not they live under it.”
In addition to the new petition hurdles, the new-look Florida Supreme Court could block the utility measure from making the ballot in the first place. Patton and utility executives were on hand Wednesday as the court heard oral arguments in the case, with supporters’ lawyers arguing in favor and opponents’ attorneys asserting the amendment is misleading.
The court has a new 6-1 conservative majority after Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed three new justices shortly after taking office this year, replacing three liberal justices who faced mandatory retirement. The former 4-3 liberal majority often approved proposed amendments for the ballot but frequently with dissenting voices from conservative justices.