TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday signed a bill that would limit out-of-state contributions to political committees trying to place proposed constitutional amendments on the Florida ballot.
But a week before the signature, opponents signaled the bill would face a court fight.
The bill (HB 921) includes a $3,000 limit on contributions from out-of-state donors to committees trying to collect enough petition signatures to move forward with citizens’ initiatives. It came after U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor in July issued a preliminary injunction against a 2021 law that limited contributions from in-state and out-of-state donors to initiative drives.
While the new bill was narrowed to only apply to out-of-state donors, attorneys for the ACLU Foundation of Florida last week set the stage for a challenge. They requested that Winsor approve filing briefs on the bill — a request that Winsor granted.
In last year’s preliminary injunction, Windsor found that the 2021 law unconstitutionally restricted speech. But the overall challenge to the 2021 law remains pending, with the ACLU and other plaintiffs seeking a summary judgment against the contribution limit.
In the request filed last week, the ACLU attorneys said their brief would address “why the relief sought in the pending motion for summary judgment encompasses” the new law, which is slated to take effect July 1.
“Plaintiffs brought this pre-enforcement action to achieve peace of mind and certainty that they would not face civil or criminal consequences for exercising their First Amendment rights,” the March 30 request said. “Plaintiffs’ prosecution of this case has been guided by their desire to reach a speedy, thorough, and final resolution of those issues. A full airing of arguments now will place the court in a better position to finally resolve this case prior to the new bill’s effective date and give plaintiffs the needed certainty about their rights and obligations.”
Critics of this year’s bill argued during the legislative session that it would be unconstitutional.
“We should not limit people’s ability to speak, period,” Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said.
But supporters drew a distinction with the 2021 law because the contribution limit in the new version would only apply to out-of-state donors. They said wealthy out-of-state people and groups should not be able to bankroll efforts to change the Florida Constitution.
“I think the initiative should be made by the citizens of Florida and not by outsiders,” Rep. Bobby Payne, R-Palatka, said during a floor debate.
The 2021 law and this year’s bill were part of years of efforts by Republican leaders to make it harder to pass citizens’ initiatives. Political committees typically have to raise and spend millions of dollars to collect the hundreds of thousands of petition signatures needed to reach the ballot.
The 2021 law and the new measure would limit contributions during the petition-gathering phase of initiatives. The limit would not apply after initiatives qualify for the ballot.
But Winsor, who was appointed to the bench by former President Donald Trump, said in last year’s preliminary injunction that the limit would improperly curtail political speech.
“First, contributions to political committees that advocate for ballot initiatives are ‘beyond question a very significant form of political expression,’” Winsor wrote, partially quoting from legal precedent.
The state “bears the burden of justifying restrictions on political expression by advancing at least ‘a significantly important interest’ that is ‘closely drawn to avoid unnecessary abridgment of associational freedoms,’” Winsor wrote.