Commentary

CRC’s fate is on the ballot – for once Florida legislators want you to vote

November 4, 2022 12:09 pm

The Florida Capitol. Credit: Michael Moline

Right now, all the Florida newspapers and television stations are full of stories and ads urging you to vote. It’s your civic duty! Vote today!

The political parties are after you to vote, too: From billboards to robocalls to text messages, you can’t get away from the drumbeat of go-vote-go-vote-go-vote. I’m surprised there aren’t any bands singing about it on the radio. Can you imagine?

You tune in a country music station and hear, “Wooo-hoo, let’s all boot-scoot to the polls!” Then you switch to a funk station and you hear, “Uh! Get up and get down…to cast your ballot!”

Yet amid all the get-out-and-vote clamor, the message we keep getting from the Florida Legislature is: “Eh, why bother?”

Maybe it’s because they work in what’s been declared “The Most Phallic Public Building in America.” Or maybe it’s because they just hate being told what to do by people who aren’t giving them campaign contributions.

Whether it’s a voter-approved constitutional amendment that cut class sizes, one that granted ex-felons the right to vote, or one that required spending millions on buying environmentally sensitive land, our lawless lawmakers have acted as if the voters’ wishes do not matter.

They don’t even respect local referendum votes. Just ask the folks in Key West who voted to put limits on environmentally damaging cruise ship traffic there.

The Legislature passed a bill tossing out that referendum, and then Gov. DeSantis signed it. Poof! Just like that, the voters’ will became a won’t.

But now our legislators want you, the voters, to help them with something. They actually want you to go to the polls and vote on a constitutional amendment that asks whether to abolish the Constitutional Revision Commission.

You may not have ever heard of this agency. It lacks the high profile of, say the Department of Building Unnecessary Toll Roads — er, I mean Transportation. You could live in Florida 19 years and never hear about it.

That’s because it meets every 20 years. And it’s pretty important. The last time it met, back in 2018, it approved a ballot item that wound up shutting down almost the entire U.S. greyhound racing industry.

“The bottom line is that the CRC saved the lives of thousands of dogs,” said Carey Thiel, executive director of Grey2K USA, an animal welfare organization that worked with the commission to make that happen.

Thiel is one who sings the praises of the CRC. As you might guess, he is not a fan of abolishing it.

“The CRC is being attacked by special interests who have an iron grip on the Florida Legislature,” he told me. “This is a direct attack on the voters.”

Snagging snakes in Humbuggus

Florida isn’t where greyhound racing started, but it’s where it first became a hit.

Dog owners used to turn their greyhounds loose to chase down real rabbits. Modern dog racing began with Owen P. Smith, who disliked hearing the sounds those rabbits made when the dogs caught them.

Smith invented a mechanical rabbit — or as he called it in his 1910 patent, an “Inanimate Hare Conveyor.” His robot rabbit zipped around an oval course. He and some partners then implemented his invention at the first greyhound track in California.

It failed, perhaps because that state did not allow gambling.

Other no-bet tracks failed too. Then, in 1922, Smith and his partners opened a track in a South Florida town then known as Humbuggus, later renamed Hialeah (although Humbuggus remains a much more accurate name, I think).

The track was so close to the Everglades that the owners had to hire someone to catch the snakes that tried to slither in. Nevertheless, that Florida track became the first commercially successful dog track in the U.S. It allowed a form of betting that got around the laws against it.

The track owners also installed electric lights, allowing blue-collar bettors to flock to the track at night after work. Tourists turned out too. Another track opened, across the state in St. Petersburg, in 1925. Miami Beach and Orlando got tracks in 1927, Sarasota in 1929.

In 1931, during the Depression, Florida legislators eager for a surefire source of funding legalized and taxed betting on horse and dog races. Dog tracks spread across the state, popping up in Tampa (1932), Sanford and Jacksonville (1935), Pensacola (1946), and Key West (1953).

Dog tracks snagged celebrities like Sinatra and DiMaggio the way the Hialeah snake-catchers used to snag rattlers and moccasins. Dog racing became a part of Florida’s iconography, like the palm trees and beaches. Greyhounds popped up in the credits for “Miami Vice” along with bikinis and fast boats.

In 2017, as the dog-racing industry was in decline, Florida still had more dog tracks than any other state — 11 out of the 17 nationwide.

“Florida really was the industry,” Theil said.

But there was a seamy underside. Some dogs were being mistreated, doped up to run faster, even slaughtered.

In 2002, for instance, a former Pensacola track guard was arrested after authorities discovered that he’d shot 1,000 to 3,000 greyhounds and buried them on his property in Alabama. He said he’d been paid $10 each to get rid of them.

Enter Thiel’s group, which hoped to reform the industry.

Playing both sides

Thiel tried to work through the Florida Legislature.

Between 2011 and 2018, the Legislature considered 17 bills he’d proposed. Each one called for various reforms to improve the state’s greyhound racing tracks.

One required the tracks’ owners to report greyhound injuries to the state, which you would think would be a no-brainer.

Or he asked them to ban the use of anabolic steroids in the competing dogs — again, a no-brainer.

There was even a bill to let tracks that were losing money on dog racing — and a lot of them were by this point — to end it while still offering poker as well as simulcasting races that were held elsewhere.

Not one of those bills passed. They might pass the House or the Senate, but not both.

At first, Thiel was pleased that his organization’s issues were getting heard. He figured the tracks had such powerful lobbyists that he just couldn’t overcome their influence.

Eventually, though, he realized the truth: The legislators were just playing off both sides.

They would dangle the threat of passing the Grey2K-backed reforms to get the racing industry’s dander up. The tracks would make big campaign contributions to make the threat go away, he said.

Clearly it was time to do something drastic. Something involving the CRC.

Cats to herd, dogs to save

The CRC, not unlike the Beatles’ White Album, was first unveiled in 1968.

That’s the year that Florida adopted a new state Constitution. The old one dated to 1885 and was definitely due for some updates — one provision banned marriage between people of different races.

The new Constitution established the CRC and required it to meet every 20 years to put forward any fixes to the document.

There are other ways to amend the Constitution, including getting the Legislature to offer an amendment. But other than the CRC, the only way we citizens can get one passed is via a petition, and that has to jump through a lot of hoops to get on the ballot.

The CRC, on the other hand, can just put amendments directly on the ballot. All that’s left is for the voters to say yes or no.

The commission met in 1977-78, 1997-98 and 2017-18. Its track record has been — well, let’s call it “mixed.”

“The first time, in 1978, the group got overambitious and packed 87 constitutional changes into eight ballot questions which were all defeated at the polls,” the Daytona Beach News Journal noted last month. “In 1998, the CRC put nine amendments to voters who passed all but one.”

In 2017, the people filling the seats of the CRC were mostly Republicans, reflecting the party of the government officials who’d appointed them. The whole panel numbered 37, and yes that IS a lot of cats to herd.

Carlos Beruff chaired the 2017-2018 Constitutional Revision Commission
(screenshot from the Florida Channel).

The chairman, chosen by then-Gov. Rick Scott, was a Bradenton homebuilder named Carlos Beruff, who has never had a reputation for being a friend to the environment.

The commission held hearings in various parts of the state, collecting ideas for new amendments. Some folks wanted to open primaries to all voters, others to repeal the death penalty. Some called for establishing a right to a clean and healthful environment. We’re still working on that last one.

At the CRC hearing in Tallahassee, which drew 100 people, Beruff scoffed at claims the commission was too powerful.

“We can’t do anything,” he said. “All we do is put things on the ballot in 2018. You still need 60 percent of the people to vote to make the changes.”

This, then, was the group to which Thiel pitched his ideas for reforming the greyhound industry. One of the members Thiel met with, state Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, said he would support just one amendment — one calling for a total ban on greyhound racing.

Lee, a former Senate president, had become disillusioned by his own legislative leaders. He openly complained about how they’d turned the Legislature into a “transactional” place where leaders pressure the members into voting for package-style bills under the threat of seeing their budget items fail to find funding.

By killing the greyhound industry, Lee was slamming the door on one of their sources of “transactions.”

Thiel was skeptical of Lee’s move to shut down racing instead of reforming it. He doubted it would fly with the whole panel. But that’s the proposal that wound up on the ballot in 2018 as Amendment 13.

Thirteen! What are the odds it would get that designation? It was as if the Gods of Gambling had assigned it the unluckiest number of all.

But when the voters got a look at Amendment 13, it proved that Tom Petty was right when he sang that even the losers get lucky sometimes.

Lucky No. 13

Amendment 13, calling for a total shutdown of greyhound racing in Florida by the end of 2020, was just one of seven proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot in 2018.

It was also one of the few that stood on its own. Another standalone measure said that any expansion of gambling in the state must be approved by the voters, not the Legislature.

Other proposals were bundled together so that voters had to approve more than one idea at a time. For instance, the CRC somehow tied together a ban on offshore drilling in state waters and a ban on vaping in places where smoking is banned.

Florida Supreme Court Justice Gerald Kogan, Photo, 1987. Credit: State Library and Archives of Florida

The bundling proved the most controversial part. Before the 2018 vote, the Tampa Bay Times talked to former Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerald Kogan, who’d served on the 1998 CRC. He called the bundling of amendments “stupid,” “ludicrous” and defying “common sense.”

“I’d be amazed if anything passes,” he told the paper.

When the voters went to the polls in 2018, EVERYTHING that the CRC had proposed passed. Presumably Justice Kogan spent the rest of 2018 gaping in astonishment.

The voters okayed the bundled measures, such as the ban on oil drilling and vaping. They were fine with the anti-gambling measure. And they overwhelmingly supported the move to shut down greyhound racing. That won nearly 70 percent of the vote.

By the end of 2020, all 11 greyhound tracks in Florida had shut down their racing. Some maintained their poker rooms and simulcasting, but some didn’t. The track in Sarasota, for instance, is slated to become apartments.

The only state that still has greyhound racing is West Virginia. Just two tracks there still send Owen Smith’s “Inanimate Hare Conveyor” rattling around the oval.

Bear in mind that the Legislature had multiple opportunities to reform the greyhound industry. Only when the CRC offered the voters a choice did something change.

A question of power

The idea to ask the voters to abolish the CRC came from Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-Sourpuss. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that his district happens to include Derby Lane, which until 2020 was the oldest continuously operated dog track in America. The Legislature went along with it.

Why does Brandes want the commission put down like an old Pensacola greyhound?

“I believe that it’s too much power to give to one unelected body,” Brandes said, (apparently unaware of Beruff’s claim that the CRC has no power at all).

Brandes’ complaint about the CRC also applies to a chunk of the Legislature: About a quarter of all Florida legislators were elected automatically back in June when no one filed to run against them for their House and Senate seats.

The League of Women Voters of Florida suggests a common-sense approach that we should fix the CRC — get rid of bundling and require the appointments be more evenly split between parties.

The League believes the Legislature should amend the process so that future Constitution Revision Commissions should have bipartisan appointees and ballot amendments should each address only one issue.

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books, including the New York Times bestseller Oh, Florida! How America's Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country, which won a gold medal from the Florida Book Awards. His latest, published in 2021, is The State You're In: Florida Men, Florida Women, and Other Wildlife. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.

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