The Florida legislature is considering legislation to abolish Florida’s unique Constitution Revision Commission (SJR 362; HJR 249). This is a terrible idea and here’s why.
The CRC and the state’s constitutional initiative process were put in the 1968 constitution as a way to allow citizens direct access to the state’s fundamental governance document. This direct access is especially important when there are issues that the public may feel important, but the legislature is reluctant to act. Recent examples are: drawing nonpartisan district lines (Fair District Florida in 2010); assuring the state allocate funds for buying land for conservation (Amendment 1 in 2014); medical marijuana (2016); felon voting (2018); and assuring adequate provision of education of children is a ‘paramount’ duty of the state (1988).
Some 17 other states have the initiative process to amend their constitutions. But Florida is the only state which convenes a commission every 20 years to examine the constitution and make recommendations for change. These proposals go directly to the citizens for a vote. In 2018, the CRC put seven amendments on the ballot, and all were ratified by the citizens. One amendment proposed by the CRC never made it to the ballot; the title and ballot summary were deemed misleading by the state supreme court.
So why change the system? In one word—bundling. Five of the seven CRC proposed amendments incongruously merged unrelated proposals into single amendments. For example, Amendment 9 coupled banning offshore drilling with vaping in public places; Amendment 7 expanded death benefits for first responders and also placed restrictions on universities’ ability to raise student fees.
I agree that the bundling was at best inappropriate; yet, citizens supported every CRC amendment (and 4 of the 5 measures put on via initiative or by the legislature). And there are ways to deal with the bundling problem without abolishing the CRC. SJR 74 and HJR 53 would require the same single-subject requirement that now applies to other constitutional proposals to the CRC. SJR 74 has passed the Senate; HJR 53 is awaiting House action.
Both the efforts to abolish the CRC and require single-subjects are constitutional amendments and require a 60 percent vote of the House and Senate and of the public to become law.
A bit of history of the CRC: It was convened for the first time in 1977-78; second in 1997-98. While the first CRC ‘s proposals were not initially adopted by voters, roughly half were later put into the constitution or statute including the right to privacy, pretrial release and accessible polling places. The second CRC offered nine proposals; eight were adopted including requiring Florida to provide efficient, safe, secure and high-quality free public schools, and establishing public campaign financing. A few proposals were ‘bundled” by both CRCs, but nothing close to the most recent incarnation which bundled all of its proposals except ethics and dog racing.
So instead of abolishing the CRC, let’s set about improving it. One way is the single-subject provision. But there are other improvements that would help. For example, current elected state and local officials should be barred from serving on the CRC. If it is the people’s process, it should be non-elected people serving in this venue.
And the chair of the CRC should be appointed by the CRC members—not by the governor. The CRC chair is in a pivotal position of setting the rules, calling the meetings and providing intellectual leadership of the Commission’s activities. The CRC chair should not be a political envoy of the appointer but should have standing and respect of all the members.
An important change could be made to the appointments process. Why give the governor 15 appointments, the house and senate leadership nine each, and the supreme court 3 (the attorney general automatically serves)? Why not give more seats to the supreme court to reflect its equal status in state governance? Another welcome change would clarify that the state’s open-meeting laws apply to the CRC, a change that could be amended by the legislature without a constitutional provision.
The CRC process is worth saving. We draw on no less a source than Thomas Jefferson who thought that each generation should have the ‘solemn’ opportunity to update its constitution. The CRC is Florida’s innovative approach to Jefferson’s direction. Let’s not make hasty decisions to undercut this stellar example of Florida’s popular governance.
Dr. Carol S. Weissert is the LeRoy Collins Eminent Scholar and a Professor of Political Science.
The featured image is from Wikipedia.