In a swift, 20-minute meeting, the panel charged with updating the Florida Constitution on Tuesday rejected all but a few of the 2,012 public proposals submitted to the Constitution Revision Commission, advancing only six of them, after months of encouraging the public to submit ideas.
“As we review this public input, it is clear that Floridians share many similar ideas and interests,” said CRC chair Carlos Beruff before the panel vote. “In addition to commissioners who chose to directly sponsor a public proposal, several commissioners have created their own proposals inspired by public input.”
The hundreds of rejected proposals include limiting money in politics and political committees, updating medical references to abortion, establishing religious protections for businesses, creating a state commission on sea level rise, electing the Public Service Commission, legalizing marijuana and dozens of others ideas submitted by concerned citizens, special interest activists, political gadflies and constitutional scholars. For months, the commission conducted hours of public hearings across the state, encouraging people to submit proposals to the CRC website.
After the commission rejected nearly all of them, a coalition of left-leaning groups sent an angry letter to Beruff and commissioners.
“The citizens of Florida were told their voices would be heard and would shape this process,” the groups wrote. “Actions speak louder than words, and this commission’s actions are brazenly dismissive of the concerns and suggestions of Floridians.”
After the meeting, several commissioners vowed to rescue some of the ideas by promising to incorporate them into their proposals. Commissioners have until Oct. 31 to draft their proposals, which will then be viewed and vetted by committees.
The panel meets every 20 years and has the authority to put constitutional amendments directly on the November 2018 ballot. In order for the commission to consider a public proposal, it must be nominated by a commissioner and receive 10 votes from the 37-member commission. Commissioners have already submitted 12 proposals to the commission for review. They must decide by May which proposals to put on the ballot.
The commission is dominated by Republicans and controlled by Gov. Rick Scott. The governor appointed 14 of the members and named Beruff, a Manatee County developer, as its chair. House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron, both Republicans, each appointed nine members, and Florida Supreme Court Justice Jorge Labarga appointed three members.
The widespread rejection of the public ideas came as little surprise to commissioners. The CRC’s executive director Jeff Woodburn sent out an email Oct. 13 urging commissioners to avoid submitting public proposals as their own “unless the proposal is exactly what you want.” Instead, he said, commissioners should use the public ideas as a starting point and then draft their own version.
In its letter, the coalition noted that the last time the CRC met, in 1997-98, commissioners read in full and considered 696 publicly filed proposals and 128, or 18 percent, achieved the 10 votes needed to move forward for further consideration.
“That was a stark contrast to this commission’s response to the public,” said the coalition, which includes the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, Common Cause Florida, Florida First Amendment Foundation, the League of Women Voters Florida, and several labor unions.
“The 6 proposals moving forward amount to less than .3 percent of those filed, and no other proposals even received a motion for consideration.”
Beruff announced at the start of the brief meeting that there would be no discussion about the proposals and a “yes” vote was not a vote on the merits of the idea. “Today is about directly sponsoring a public proposal in the exact language it was submitted,” he said.
The commission voted 27-1 to advance for debate a proposal entitled “Giving Floridians a right to a clean and helpful environment,” which gives people the authority to enforce the right to conserve and restore the environment. Commissioner Belinda Keiser, the vice chancellor of Keiser University from Parkland, was the only no vote.
The group also voted 32-0 to advance a proposal to end a loophole in the constitutional provisions on the homestead exemption that allows criminals to shield property assets, and voted 30-2 to advance a proposal entitled “Right of Privacy” that was filed by former Florida Supreme Court Justice Ken Bell. Bell’s proposal would expand privacy rights to public information.
They also unanimously advanced a proposal entitled the “right to earn an honest living,” which would prohibit government from infringing on the right of people to earn a living “unless it can demonstrate that there is actual evidence that such infringement is necessary to advance an important governmental interest.”
Last week, the commission advanced a proposal to open all primary elections if two candidates for office are from the same party, ending the write-in exception that has closed primaries since the CRC first addressed the issue. The commission also advanced a proposal to clean-up the constitution by ending the defunct high speed rail provision.
Some commissioners said it is too early to judge them on whether they are listening to the public.
“I understand people’s concern,’’ said Keiser. “But judge us on our actions. It’s still a little bit early.”
Brecht Heuchan, chair of the CRC’s style and drafting committee and a Tallahassee political consultant working with the governor, said that many of the public proposals were duplicates of each other and many of the concepts will influence the final proposals coming out of the commission.
“I read every single one of them,” he said. “To the extent that I file amendments on my own, some of them will be inspired by those — some of them, not all of them.”
Heuchan said he rejected proposals that he didn’t think belonged in the constitution, he didn’t support or didn’t think could pass.
“The process of the public submissions worked,” he said.
The commission has given itself three more weeks of meetings in 2017 to vet the proposals for the ballot and will meet for three days next year before it conducts another round of public hearings to get feedback.