April 9, 2020
by Jim Turner, NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
TALLAHASSEE --- Gov. Ron DeSantis signed seven bills into law late Wednesday, including measures that will place additional restrictions on ballot initiatives and provide sales-tax “holidays” around the start of hurricane season and the upcoming school year.
The bills, which legislative leaders formally sent to DeSantis earlier Wednesday, were passed during the session that ended last month.
The most-controversial measure that DeSantis signed was a bill (SB 1794) that imposes a series of additional restrictions on ballot initiatives. Many Republican leaders and groups such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce have long tried to toughen the constitutional-amendment process.
The bill, in part, will require backers of ballot initiatives to submit more petition signatures before triggering Florida Supreme Court reviews that play a critical role in determining whether initiatives go before voters. The bill also will allow county supervisors of elections to charge more to verify petition signatures and will require all proposed constitutional amendments --- including those placed on the ballot by the Legislature --- to have statements about the potential impact on the state budget.
During the legislative session, Republican lawmakers said the bill could help prevent fraud in the initiative process and argued that it should be difficult to amend the state Constitution.
House sponsor James Grant, R-Tampa, argued last month that the changes would prevent the Constitution from being used “as a toy,” alluding to constitutional changes based on ballot initiatives as “a whim that lasts forever.”
But Democrats contended the bill would increase the costs of citizens’ initiatives, which in recent years have resulted in such voter-approved changes as legalizing medical marijuana and boosting money for land and water conservation. A coalition of organizations, including civil-rights groups, voting-rights groups and environmental groups, sent a letter last month to DeSantis urging him to veto the bill.
“Constitutional amendments that pass do so with almost always a higher threshold than elected leaders,” the letter said. “Why should we want to limit a citizen’s ability to enact change? SB 1794 does exactly that.”
Meanwhile, the sales-tax holidays signed Wednesday by DeSantis are part of a tax package (HB 7097) expected to reduce state and local revenues next fiscal year by $47.7 million, according to a staff analysis.
Shoppers will be able to avoid paying sales taxes from Aug. 7 through Aug. 9 on clothes, school supplies and personal computers as students get ready to go back to school. Also, they will be able to avoid paying sales taxes from May 29 through June 4 as people stock up on a variety of disaster-preparedness supplies for the six-month hurricane season.
The Florida Retail Federation, a longtime backer of such tax holidays, issued a statement Wednesday night praising the approval of the bill and pointing to economic problems caused by COVID-19.
"These programs are needed now more than ever," Scott Shalley, president and CEO of the retail federation, said in the statement. "Not only do these important tax-free holidays provide relief to consumers buying necessities, but they will inject a shot of adrenaline into Florida's retail businesses after suffering through the COVID-19 pandemic and forced closures.”
Other parts of the tax bill involve policy issues, such as a change that could lead to more local capital-outlay tax dollars going to charter schools. Another change deals with requirements for hospitals to qualify for a charitable tax exemption.
DeSantis also signed a measure (SB 362) that will extend the authorization of Visit Florida to Oct. 1, 2023. Visit Florida, the state’s tourism-marketing agency, had been slated to expire July 1 unless reauthorized.
House leaders have repeatedly questioned the need for the agency. The Senate initially sought to extend Visit Florida to 2028, with backers of the agency pointing to its role in marketing the state amid negative media coverage of issues such as hurricanes, red tide, algae and diseases outbreaks.
House and Senate leaders ultimately agreed on the extension to 2023.
Another bill that became law with DeSantis’ signature (SB 140) will allow people 18 and older to buy fireworks to legally set off on New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day and Independence Day. Currently, buyers have to sign a waiver stating they will use fireworks for certain purposes such as “frightening birds from agricultural work” and fish hatcheries.
--- News Service Executive Editor Jim Saunders contributed to this report.