TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida voters are deciding whether to get rid of a commission that meets every 20 years to recommend changes to the state constitution, the only such panel among the U.S. states that refers amendments directly to a statewide ballot.
Opponents of the Constitution Revision Commission say it has gone beyond its original mandate, lacks accountability and has become a venue for new statewide policy to be proposed to a group of temporary officials who — in contrast to the elected Legislature — are unelected appointees.
The commission isn’t the only way to refer state amendments to voters. The Legislature can do so, as can citizens through initiative petitions.
Still, some citizen groups don't want to lose the commission, which Common Cause Florida calls “an important pathway Floridians have to change their state’s constitution." The group is urging voters to reject the measure in voting that started in Florida on Oct. 24 and culminates Nov. 8.
The commission was created in the late 1960s and met in 1977-78, 1997-98 and 2017-18. Its critics say it was only intended to propose clean-up language or delete obsolete provisions, though the constitution gives it broad authority to set its own rules, procedures and agenda.
The governor, Senate president, House speaker — who in some years can be all from the same political party — appoint 33 of the panel's members. The Supreme Court chief justice appoints three members, and the attorney general is an automatic appointee.
Critics say the panel's membership is politically driven and includes unaccountable bureaucrats, political donors and lobbyists.
“It’s run by people who follow no rules and who are not elected,” said Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes, who sponsored the bill to put the measure on the ballot. “What we see is this body who, with one-party control of the Legislature and governor’s mansion, can effectively rewrite the constitution and I think that’s something both Republicans and Democrats should be concerned about.”
In the latest meeting, the commission placed seven proposed constitutional amendments on the 2018 ballot. Voters approved all seven. Some lawmakers complained that the commission had bundled different subjects into single proposed amendments. For example, one measure banned oil drilling in state waters and also barred vaping in places where smoking is banned.
In any case, the commission’s recommended ballot issues were overshadowed that year by a citizens' initiative measure to automatically restore voting rights for most felons who have completed their sentences, which also passed. Republican lawmakers later insisted the law be clarified to require that felons pay all fines, restitution and legal fees as part of their sentences to regain their right to vote.
It’s not the first time voters have been asked to abolish the commission. In 1980, voters rejected a similar ballot question, with 56.5% voting no and 43.5% voting yes. That’s when the governor’s office and Legislature were controlled by Democrats. They’re now controlled by Republicans.
Back in 1980 such ballot measures required a simple majority of yes votes to pass. However, they now require a higher hurdle, with approval by 60% of voters.