It’s July 1, three days before Floridians gather with their families and friends to barbecue, head to the beach and set off fireworks, to commemorate our nation’s Independence Day — the Fourth of July. But the first of July carries a different significance. It’s the effective date for the state budget and a number of new laws passed each year by the Legislature take effect.
It’s a date that will spark a different type of firework — the legal kind.
More than 100 bills become state statutes July 1, including some of the hotter issues that are being targeted in lawsuits by groups that opposed the bills when they were in the legislative process.
One of those bills that was signed into law Friday by Gov. Ron DeSantis is an elections overhaul measure that includes requirements to implement Amendment 4, which was overwhelmingly passed by voters in 2018. The amendment automatically restores the voting rights of ex-felons who have paid their debt to society.
The measure is being challenged over what those debts include.
The implementing law says those debts include fines, fees and legal costs. Critics, including Senate Democratic Leader Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, call it a poll tax an argue the law undermines the “very basic language contained of the amendment.”
“Requiring individuals who have fulfilled their time served to pay for the right to vote is unconstitutional,” said Gibson. “The vast majority of Floridians who supported Amendment 4 never intended to pass a reincarnated poll tax. Their intent was to approve a second chance for returning citizens to participate in the democratic process.”
Opponents of the financial requirements say most ex-felons don’t have the means to pay all of their legal costs.
The amendment is the focus of a lawsuit filed by voting- and civil-rights groups, including the Florida State Conference of the NAACP, the League of Women Voters of Florida, the Orange County Branch of the NAACP and several felons,
“To suggest that this is a poll tax inherently diminishes the atrocity of what a poll tax actually was,” the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jamie Grant, R-Tampa, insisted during debate in the legislative session. “All we’re doing is following statute. All we’re doing is following testimony of what was presented before the Florida Supreme Court explicitly acknowledging that fines and court costs are part of a sentence.”
Supporters of the rules say supporters of Amendment 4’s own attorney told the Florida Supreme Court during the court’s review of the amendment’s ballot summary, that the measure would require financial costs be paid that were included in a person’s sentence, parole and probation.
“It specifically includes all matters included in the sentences, including probation and parole,” attorney and former Florida House Speaker Jon Mills told the court. “So that means all matters, anything that a judge puts in a sentence.”
Mills was asked if that included any fines?
“Yes, sir,” Mills responded.
While the group’s challenge the requirements in federal court, the Felons Right Restoration Coalition (FRRC), which led the push to pass the amendment, is raising money to help ex-felons pay their legal costs.
“Now that @GovRonDeSantis signed #Amendment4 legislation @FLRightsRestore is excited to register ALL eligible returning citizens, and raise funds to #unlockthevote,” Desmond Meade, FRRC’s president posted on Twitter Friday.
“In the first full day of the#FinesandFeesFund, we have raised over $70,000 to help Florida returning citizens fulfill lingering financial obligations and move on with their lives!” FRRC posted on its Twitter feed Sunday. “THANK YOU to everyone who has already given.”