The state panel assigned to review the state Constitution got off to a rocky start Monday as the 37-member commission met for an organizational session in the Florida Senate chambers but delayed adopting rules after several members privately raised questions about whether the proposals diluted the public’s input in the process.
The Constitution Revision Committee, which is convened every 20 years and given the power to put proposals directly on the 2018 November ballot, met for just over an hour and reviewed the state ethics laws that apply. But a proposal to have the commission adopt rules drafted by the commission staff in advance of the meeting was indefinitely postponed until after public hearings begin next week in Orange County.
Chairman Carlos Beruff would be given the power to send a proposal back to a committee after it has been amended in another committee — a tool used to effectively kill proposals — and it will take a two-thirds vote of the full commission to reverse these rulings.
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“I am personally looking forward to advancing policies that will help make the future of our state even stronger than it already is,” said Beruff, the Manatee County businessman appointed to chair the commission by Gov. Rick Scott.
Beruff said the draft rules “create an unprecedented level of transparency and increase public input from Florida citizens” but to give members more time for input they would not be voting Monday on the rules.
As happened 20 years ago, when the commission was last convened, the group will be divided into committees, and those committees will have the power to adopt and amend proposals. But under the draft rules distributed to members last Thursday, Beruff would be given sole discretion over what proposals will be referred to which committee and proposed amendments to the Constitution could not be changed by the full commission.
“Everyone is not going to agree, not just on our rules but on everything before this commission,” Beruff told the commission. “But we will debate and we will reach a conclusion that is best for Florida citizens.”
He said they will conduct a separate meeting to vote on the rules some time in the future, likely in Tallahassee, but offered no details. Until then, he said he considers “everything is open meetings and open records as far as I’m concerned, rules or no rules,” he said, noting that they are launching a web site and will post “everything on the web site immediately.”
Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, asked the commission to amend its proposed rules to bring them into line with existing law regarding open meetings and public records, including a requirement that “public records shall be open to personal inspection and copying at reasonable times,” instead of allowing records to use a new standard not in law and to require meetings be open when two or more members meet to discuss business.
“We should note that the higher standard under Article I applies to every collegial body in Florida except the Florida Legislature, and we strongly urge the CRC to adopt the Article I standard rather than the weaker legislative standard,” Petersen wrote in a letter to Beruff on Monday.
Arthenia Joyner, former Senate Democratic leader who was appointed to the commission by Florida Supreme Court Justice Jorge Labarga. said she objects to the proposed rules because they give Beruff “ultimate power.”
“There's too many strong, intelligent people in here to have somebody try to exercise absolute control,” she said.
She said she will recommend that Beruff appoint a committee “to work on the rules because it’s obvious that the vast majority of the people here did not like what was proposed.”
Former Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, appointed to the commission by Senate President Joe Negron, said he would have voted against the rules and strongly objected to a provision that would have allowed members to cast a vote by being present only by teleconference, and not in person.
Roberto Martinez, a Miami lawyer who was appointed to the commission by Labarga, said he served on the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission and several state boards which prohibited members from discussing business outside of the sunshine and “it did not” interfere in their ability to conduct business.
“I’m so used to it, it’s in my DNA,” he said.
Tim Cerio, former general counsel to Scott, defended the proposed rules as more transparent than the process used in 1997-98, which imposed no limits on commissioners meeting to discuss proposals and required only that meetings be noticed.
“What we’re doing is going beyond that,” he said.
There are other significant departures from the rules adopted by the last Constitution Revision Commission, which succeeded in passing eight of the nine proposals it put before voters. Many on that commission, which included a bipartisan blend of members, attribute the carefully crafted rules of the commission for helping bring consensus and strengthen the proposals that won voter support.
“It puts the responsibility on the committees, and the committees have more power to pass stuff and kill stuff,” Cerio said.
One important rule that has been proposed to be carried over from 1997-98 is the requirement that in order for a measure to be put on the November ballot, it must receive a super majority of 22 votes from commission members.
Each of the presiding officers who appointed members of the commission made brief remarks at the Monday meeting. Scottcalled it a “distinct opportunity” and “everyone will have fun.” Labarga said the commission “has awesome power” and his three appointments were made to “bring a balanced perspective” and an understanding of “the importance of separation of powers.”
Negron, R-Stuart, who appointed nine members, said his request to them is “just to recognize that our entire system of government is founded on the supremacy of the individual” and that all power derives from the people.
House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, called the group a “statewide all-star team” and he encouraged the members to “encourage dissent” and have “robust debate.”
If they succeed at that, they will “get to fix what still exists in Florida: some serious injustices,” he said. When asked to elaborate, Corcoran said he was referring to “great injustices robbing children — sticking them in failure factories” by putting them in schools that “take a child’s dignity and hope away.”
He said if the commission only accomplishes reversing the Florida Supreme Court’s 2006 ruling on Bush v. Holmes, “it will be a wonderful success.” That ruling said the state’s Opportunity Scholarship program, which allowed students in failing schools to obtain taxpayer-financed vouchers to attend private schools, violated a provision in the state constitution that requires a “uniform” system of public schools for all students.
Beruff said he hopes to have at least two rounds of public hearings around the state and possibly a third after they put together the proposed amendments.
The commission has scheduled a public hearing in Orange County for March 29, in Miami-Dade County on April 6 and in Palm Beach County on April 7 — all days the Legislature is in session, posing a conflict for several of the legislators on the panel.
Tampa Bay Times reporter Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.