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Panel finds no easy answers on costs of voter rights restoration

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A state panel struggled Monday to figure out a price tag for the proposed Florida Voter Restoration Amendment, which would automatically restore voting rights to felons who have completed their sentences.

The Financial Impact Estimating Conference heard testimony from a variety of state criminal justice agencies indicating it might be hard to nail down what the amendment would cost. The panel planned to reconvene next week for additional study.

Amy Baker, coordinator for the Legislative Office of Economic and Demographic Research, the Legislature’s policy-analysis arm, said lawmakers might have to clarify the meaning of key terms.

“We’ve got several issues we are struggling with,” Baker said during a break in proceedings.

The proposed amendment’s ballot summary says: “This amendment restores the voting rights of Floridians with felony convictions after they complete all terms of their sentence including parole or probation. The amendment would not apply to those convicted of murder or sexual offenses, who would continue to be permanently barred from voting unless the governor and Cabinet vote to restore their voting rights on a case-by-case basis.”

State elections officials certified in September that supporters had collected 71,000 petition signatures to place the initiative on the ballot, pending review by Attorney General Pam Bondi and the Florida Supreme Court. It could go on the ballot in 2018.

But the amendment doesn’t define felony sexual offenses or murder — might that latter include manslaughter or attempted, members of the panel wondered during the morning’s testimony.

And does “complete all terms of their sentences” include victim restitution? Orders to repay court costs and fees? And what if those orders have been converted into civil judgments for nonpayment — would that bar an ex-felon from recovering his or her voting rights?

“It is likely the Legislature is going to have to get involved in determining what the different terms mean,” Baker said.

Michael Moline is a former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal and managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal. Previously, he reported on politics and the courts in Tallahassee for United Press International. He is a graduate of Florida State University, where he served as editor of the Florida Flambeau. His family’s roots in Jackson County date back many generations.

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