By Joseph Bonasia, Florida Rights of Nature Network
I had never seen anything like it when it comes to petition-gathering: volunteers hurriedly handing out multiple clipboards and clusters of six, seven, and eight people intently signing petitions at the same time.
Over 1,600 registered Florida voters at a recent arts and crafts festival in Cape Coral signed petitions, wanting to qualify a “Right to Clean and Healthy Waters” Constitutional Amendment for the 2024 ballot.
Democracy doesn’t get more democratic than this.
Petitioning was “so cherished” in the 18th century, the American Bar Association says, that framers included a right to petition our government for the ‘”redress of grievances” in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights where our freedom of speech, religion, and assembly are also enshrined.
Non-partisan Freedom Forum states, “Many of the nation’s founders considered petitioning to be the most important First Amendment freedom, believing it would protect the rest of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution itself.” It is, they say, a way “to speak truth to power.”
Amending Florida’s Constitution should not be easy, of course, and it isn’t. By Nov. 30, 891,589 signed and verified petitions are needed to get the issue on the ballot. Once there, it will likely need millions of dollars to advertise the amendment and educate the public on what it will do. It’s a daunting challenge.
But the Florida Legislature may make that challenge more difficult still.
Currently, 60% of voters are needed to turn a proposed amendment into law, a threshold much higher than most other states, and 10% higher than it had been in Florida prior to 2006.
Now, however, HJR 129, “Requiring Broader Public Support for Constitutional Amendments or Revisions,” has been introduced in the Legislature by Rick Roth (R-Palm Beach), former Vice-President of the Florida Farm Bureau. It would require 66.67% of voters to pass the amendment.
Worse, this bill is part of a disturbing pattern on the part of our Legislature.
Gathering nearly 900,000 signed and verified petitions in four years is challenging. To do so within two years is significantly more so, and in 2011, the Legislature reduced the petition circulation period from four to two years.
FloridaRightToCleanWater.org, the political committee sponsoring the “Right to Clean and Healthy Waters” amendment, is, so far, a completely grassroots, volunteer effort. But we recognize the limits of volunteer efforts, and the benefits professional petition-gathering would bring. Getting paid per signature incentivizes petition-gatherers to higher levels of productivity. In 2019, the Legislature banned pay-per-signature petition-gathering, handicapping citizen initiative efforts.
In 2020, tired of polluted water, 89% of Orange County residents passed their historic Rights of Nature / Right to Clean Water Charter amendment. Ignoring the will and clear mandate of the people and disregarding home rule principles, the Legislature preempted the authority of local governments to pass rights of nature laws and laws granting citizens “any specific rights relating to the natural environment not otherwise authorized in general law or specifically granted in the State Constitution.”
Legislators were more interested in protecting special interests than in protecting Florida waters and the health, safety, and welfare of citizens. Their preemption did what it was meant to do: it snuffed out similar local efforts elsewhere in Florida.
Trampling the will of the people and the public interest, it was this preemption that spawned the drive to amend our constitution with a “Right to Clean and Healthy Waters.”
In Florida, 80% of our approximate 1,000 springs are impaired. Nearly a million acres of estuaries and 9,000 miles of rivers and streams are contaminated with fecal bacteria. Seagrass beds are nearly in a death spiral, which is a primary reason why manatees have recently died in record numbers.
Red tides have increased dramatically in frequency, duration, and virulence. Blue-green algae blooms are common and present the threat of neurodegenerative disease. No state has more acres of polluted lake water than does Florida. No state has lost more acres of wetlands than has Florida.
No state, it seems, champions the rights and freedoms of its citizens as proudly as does Florida, but we don’t have a constitutional, fundamental right to something as critical to our well-being as clean water, and our freedom to swim, fish, boat, shell, paddle, work, live and breathe is curtailed in polluted, unhealthy natural environments.
We have grievances with our government that need redressing: an environmental regulatory system that fails to protect us and Florida waters, and the preemption of local government authority to provide adequate environmental protections in light of that failure.
Exercise your First Amendment Right. Speak truth to power. Go to FloridaRightToCleanWater.org to sign and mail the petition.
Joseph Bonasia is Chair of the Florida Rights of Nature Network.
“The Invading Sea” is the opinion arm of the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a collaborative of news organizations across the state focusing on the threats posed by the warming climate.