Group seeking to make clean water a constitutional right in Florida restarts ballot measure efforts

The Florida Right to Clean Water committee now aims to get its proposal before voters in 2026.

click to enlarge Group seeking to make clean water a constitutional right in Florida restarts ballot measure efforts
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A group seeking to make clean water a constitutional right in Florida has restarted efforts to get the measure on the ballot.

The committee fell short of collecting nearly 900,000 valid signatures of registered voters for placement on the 2024 ballot. But the committee now is aiming to get its proposal before voters in 2026.

“We've got an infrastructure now with hundreds of seasoned volunteers,” Joseph Bonasia, the registered agent for the Fort Myers-based political committee, said during a conference call with supporters Thursday. “We've got a lot of momentum. … More specifically, our ambassadors are going to have to triple their productivity.”

The proposal would establish “an enforceable, fundamental right to clean and healthy waters” and allow lawsuits against state agencies for harm or threatened harm to lakes, rivers, wetlands and other types of water bodies.

Bonasia said the revamped effort includes some tweaks to a proposed ballot initiative the committee initially launched in 2022. The revisions, he said, were made to “protect it” from being scrapped by the Florida Supreme Court, which reviews initiatives to ensure they comply with constitutional requirements.

The ballot summary of the initiative says it would create “an enforceable, fundamental right to clean and healthy waters, authorizing a person to sue for equitable relief when a State executive agency, by action or inaction, allows harm or threat of harm to Florida waters.

The amendment also says it would provide “for strict judicial scrutiny of such action or inaction; adds to available remedies; identifies affected constitutional provisions; provides for enforcement; defines terms; and requires attorney’s fees and costs to prevailing plaintiffs.”

Members of Friends of the Everglades, who hosted Thursday's call, maintain that Florida is facing a “water crisis on multiple fronts.” State water policies currently don’t carry enough sanctions for failing to hit pollution reduction targets, they contend.

“This is not just an environmental issue, it is also a public health issue,” Friends of the Everglades Executive Director Eve Samples said. “Even if you're not directly on the water, you can be impacted by poor water quality and our state policymakers’ failure to do something about it.”

The Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation and Calusa Waterkeeper and support the measure.

Bonasia said his group doesn't don’t plan to hire paid workers to gather the hundreds of thousands of signatures required to make it on the ballot, a process that can cost tens of millions of dollars. Bonasia said his group plans to continue relying on its members and to use mailers to raise awareness about the proposal.

Bonasia estimated that the pared-down signature-gathering approach will still require about $6 million to $8 million.

As a comparison, the Smart & Safe Florida committee spent $40 million on a proposal that would authorize recreational marijuana for adults ages 21 and older, which will appear on the November ballot as Amendment 3. The bulk of the funds were spent on signature-gathering and legal fees, and the committee has raised another $15 million as it gears up for the next phase of the campaign.

Also, the Floridians Protecting Freedom committee spent roughly $17.9 million to gather signatures for a proposal that would enshrine abortion rights in the state Constitution, which will appear on the November ballot as Amendment 4.

According to the state Division of Elections’ website, the committee raised a total of $55,988 over the past two years and had $20,000 on hand as of March 31.

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