Carlos Beruff chaired the 2017-2018 Constitutional Revision Commission (screenshot from the Florida Channel).
In 1968, Florida voters ratified the Constitutional Revision Commission (CRC) to examine the Florida Constitution once every 20 years for possible changes. It’s met only three times since, but bitter reaction from politicians to the last CRC incarnation in 2017-2018 may land the panel on the political equivalent of Death Row.
The CRC is the subject of a proposed constitutional amendment, Amendment 2, that gives voters the option whether to abolish it on the Nov. 8 ballot.
“I believe that it’s too much power to give to one unelected body,” says St. Petersburg Republican state Sen. Jeff Brandes, who sponsored the 2021 proposal to place the CRC’s future on the ballot this year as a constitutional amendment.
On the other side of the debate, the commission remains one of the few avenues for members from the public to affect policy changes that the Florida Legislature won’t address.
“We think it’s closer to a direct democracy and it’s encouraging citizens engagement,” says Cecile Scoon, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, which opposes Amendment 2.
The 37 members of the CRC are made up of the state attorney general, 15 appointees from the governor; nine appointees from the Florida Senate president; nine appointees from the speaker of the Florida House, and three appointees from the chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court.
It’s most recent go round in 2017-2018 seemed to alienate Floridians, starting with its road show that took the 37-member committee around the state as way to get input from the public. But Democrats and left-leaning groups complained of being shut out during those public meetings, which were chaired by commissioner Carlos Beruff, a Bradenton developer and GOP donor who lost to Marco Rubio in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate in 2016. Of the 37-member group, 34 were Republicans and just three were Democrats.
Hillsborough County Democratic Party activist Susan Smith calls those CRC public meetings “highly-partisan” and says that their final product resulted in “confusing, multi-issue amendments that did not reflect public commentary during hearings.”
Some mainstream Florida newspapers weighed in with similar reactions. A reporter for the St. Augustine Record labeled the CRC “a traveling travesty,” while an editorial from the Ocala-Star Banner was headlined, “CRC gives public ideas short shift.”
The building frustration with the CRC came after it unveiled multiple proposals “bundled” into seven separate constitutional amendments that went before the public on the November 2018 ballot, all of which were approved. Among those were seemingly disparate measures like Amendment 9, which bundled banning offshore drilling in state waters with a ban on vaping.
University of Florida College of Law Professor Mary Adkins says that unquestionably the 2017-2018 CRC was the most controversial of the three that have taken place. She notes, however, that this is not the first time there has been an effort to abolish it, referencing an ultimately unsuccessful proposal introduced by former South Florida Sen. Joe Negron in 2012 to put its abolition before the voters. Negron ended up being the Senate President in 2017, which allowed him to select nine members for the most recent panel.
“It’s fairly logical that the Legislature might want to get rid of the CRC because I think they see [drafting policy] as their job,” Adkins says.
Hillsborough GOP Rep. Mike Beltran agrees. He sponsored the bill to abolish the CRC in the Florida House last year and notes that there are four other ways to propose constitutional amendments, including directly from the Legislature.
But despite all the grumbling, it’s no slam dunk that the CRC will soon be consigned to the dustbin of history. It took three legislative sessions before Brandes’ bill to abolish it made it to the finishing line, and even then it passed mostly along party lines, with most (but not all) Democrats voting in opposition.
Among the few Democrats who expressed support for abolishing the CRC was Broward County state Rep. Dan Daley.
“I am comfortable with abolishing the CRC because there are other methods to amend the Constitution and this avenue has been abused in years past,” Daley told the Phoenix. “Appointees are generally ‘in’ with those in power and for the most part do the bidding of those who appointed them. Why does the governor, the presiding officers of the Legislature, etc., need even more power? I support the amendment. “
Some Democrats who support keeping the CRC don’t seem all that enthusiastic.
“It’s a tossup,” Tampa state Sen. Janet Cruz told the Phoenix when asked her thoughts about Amendment 2, adding that there are “solid” arguments both for and against the agency.
Brandes says the fact that the CRC is the only one of its kind in the country should make all Floridians question its value. And he points out that the reason its membership was disproportionately Republican the last time around was because they’re the ones who control the power in Tallahassee.
“If the Legislature is controlled by Republicans and the governor is a Republican, frankly all the appointees are going to push for their policies,” says Brandes. “If the Democrats are in charge, all the CRC members are going to be Democratic.”
Meanwhile, part of the support for this once every two-decade project stems from how more challenging it is to get citizen-driven constitutional amendments on the ballot. “I think that citizens are starting to get the impression that the legislators don’t want to hear from them,” Scoon says.
Adkins says that, among her ideas to improve the CRC, would be for it to enact some “cleanup,” wherein the agency could look at parts of the state’s Constitution that conflict with the U.S. Constitution. She also thinks that, for those who believe the Florida Constitution is a sacred document that has been besmirched with items beneath its dignity (i.e., the 2002 pregnant pig amendment), the Legislature could allow for citizens to place initiatives on the ballot instead of constitutional amendments.
But she defends the issue of bundling, saying that, except for the oil drilling/vaping measure, the other bundled amendments were “fairly related.”
Perhaps nothing illustrates the promise but ultimate frustration for those who believe in the CRC than when happened with St. Petersburg Democratic State Sen. Darryl Rouson and his proposal to make changes to criminal sentencing laws retroactive during the last CRC.
As one of three measures bundled on Amendment 11, Rouson’s proposal called for repealing the “Savings Clause” in the Florida Constitution and allow changes to the criminal code to apply retroactively for certain offenses when the Legislature has lowered sentences and removed some mandatory minimum sentences.
It was a cause championed by advocates of criminal justice reform, and the electorate approved it with more than 62 percent support (it was bundled with two other measures that modernized the Florida Constitution).
However, the measure wasn’t “self-implementing” and required the Legislature to authorize retroactivity through statute.
Four legislative sessions later, no such bill authorizing retroactivity has been enacted. While passing in the Senate Criminal Justice Committee several times, it has never made it to the full Senate floor for a vote.
“Since the voters voted on it, I’ve not been able to convince the Legislature that we need to actually apply it, which is not good,” Rouson says. “But the good news is that template has been set. We just need to keep trying at it.”
Rouson does still support the CRC, and thus opposes Amendment 2. “Primarily because it allows voice to the people,” he says.
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