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Florida defends contribution cap on committees proposing constitutional amendments

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The Florida old Capitol Building, in Tallahassee, Florida. (iStock Photo)

Florida defends contribution cap on committees proposing constitutional amendments

June 18, 04:00 PM June 18, 04:00 PM

U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor gave Florida a June 15 deadline to defend a new state law that caps donations at $3,000 to political committees backing proposed constitutional amendments during the signature-gathering process.

Florida’s Attorney General’s Office met that deadline Tuesday, filing a motion to dismiss the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida’s (ACLU) request for a preliminary injunction against implementing the law, which was adopted by the Legislature in April, signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis in May and goes into effect July 1.

In a 14-page petition, Florida lawyers maintain the contribution cap is “temporary” because it only applies until supporters have submitted enough petition signatures to qualify for the ballot. Afterwards, there is no donation restrictions.

The state maintains the cap is necessary to ensure amendment drives aren’t only funded by deep-pocketed special interests from out-of-state.

“Here, the challenged provision creates a temporary, targeted cap on contributions to ballot initiative committees during the signature-gathering process to ensure the integrity of the state’s process for amending the Florida Constitution,” the state said in its motion.

The cap gives Florida voters “assurance that funding for the initiative … has not been provided by a small handful, or even a single, very well-heeled special interest donor,” the state argues.

On May 8, the ACLU of Florida filed the federal lawsuit in the Northern District of Florida in Tallahassee seeking to strike down Senate Bill 1890 after DeSantis signed it into law the day before.

In early June, the ACLU and three committees sponsoring 2022 constitutional amendment petition drives filed a motion seeking a preliminary injunction against implementing SB 1890 on July 1.

The motion claims the cap is unconstitutional and would prevent committees from collecting enough signatures to get proposed amendments on ballots.

“If not enjoined, plaintiffs’ efforts to engage with voters, convince voters to support their initiatives, collect petitions and advance their initiatives will be severely impaired,” the motion states. “Indeed, if SB 1890’s contribution limit is not quickly struck down, plaintiffs will be unable to put their initiatives on the ballot.”

SB 1890, dubbed the “John Morgan law” after the Orlando attorney and his law firm bankrolled successful medical marijuana and minimum wage amendments, violates the First Amendment, plaintiffs argue.

“SB 1890 restricts that marketplace by limiting the resources initiative advocates can muster to promote their ideas, persuade voters to support their efforts and collectively impart ideas on matters of public concern,” their May 8 motion said. “The restriction cannot be justified by any significant state interest.”

To reach the 2022 ballot, supporters must submit 891,589 valid signatures for each proposal by Feb. 1. In their motion, plaintiffs said the committees would need to spend more than $9 million each to collect and submit petition signatures by the deadline.

Florida attorneys Tuesday claimed the cap doesn’t cause “irreparable injury” to the committees.

“The cap may affect the timing of a campaign conducted in 2021, but plaintiffs provide no support for the assertion that the very existence of the contribution cap eliminates the possibility of a successful petition initiative campaign,” the state’s motion reads. “The cap does not eliminate the right to seek to amend the Constitution, it does not cap overall contributions to the sponsoring committees, and it does not create any time limitations for the initiative process.

“In other words,” it concludes, “plaintiffs have not established that it is the cap on contributions that will prevent them altogether from successfully achieving ballot placement for their initiatives in a future general election ballot.”

Winsor has not indicated when he will rule on the motions or scheduled hearings on ACLU’s lawsuit.

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