State Politics

Parkland parents, students take advocacy on road. Constitution panel hears their plea.

Kim Bankoff, of Weston, left, Tamara Levine, center, of Parkland, and Amanda Savastano., right, of Parkland, hold up green cards in support of better gun safety legislation during the Road to the Ballot Public Hearing Tour at University of South Florida St. Petersburg’s Student Center on Tuesday, March 13, 2018 in St. Petersburg.
Kim Bankoff, of Weston, left, Tamara Levine, center, of Parkland, and Amanda Savastano., right, of Parkland, hold up green cards in support of better gun safety legislation during the Road to the Ballot Public Hearing Tour at University of South Florida St. Petersburg’s Student Center on Tuesday, March 13, 2018 in St. Petersburg. Tampa Bay Times

Article 1 of Florida’s Constitution is straightforward: “All political power is inherent in the people.”

The people showed up en mass, hundreds of them, to pack into a public hearing Tuesday at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg urging changes to the state Constitution.

Jacksonville resident Michael Liles spoke about his wife beaten to death on the floor of their kitchen last year. He urged members of the Constitution Revision Commission to put a so-called “Marsy’s Law” proposal on the ballot to increase the rights of crime victims.

“I have heard people say that Marsy’s Law is nothing but a solution in search of a problem. I’m the problem. I’m missing my bride. I need some support, and Marsy’s Law would provide it,” he said of the proposal that defense lawyers warned could strip away their ability to question accusers and key witnesses.

Nine-year-old Violet Carr of Tallahassee nervously asked commissioners to stop inhumane treatment of greyhounds by putting on the ballot a ban on betting on greyhound races. Assorted Derby Lane employees said such depictions are hogwash.

USF pre-med student David Chan urged commissioners to quash a proposal to shift money from the anti-smoking “Tobacco Free Florida” program into cancer research.

“As someone who spends countless hours in the lab working on cancer research, I still recognize the best treatment is prevention,” he said.

And Tony Montalto, whose 14-year-old daughter Gina was killed with an AR-15 rifle at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School 27 days earlier, asked commissioners to do what elected lawmakers won’t: ban military-style semiautomatic rifles and large-capacity magazines.

“I cannot help but think how different our lives would be today had the changes in this proposal been enacted before now,” he said haltingly, as much of the overflowing auditorium rose to their feet in support.

Florida’s Constitution may rest on the premise that the people are in charge, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the majority gets its way in our republic. That’s especially true when it comes to the Florida Legislature.

State lawmakers over the years have bucked majority opinion on everything from term limits for lawmakers to handgun waiting periods to forbidding inhumane treatment of pigs — and in each of those cases, voters eventually bypassed legislators to enact changes to the state Constitution.

That exercise in direct democracy is again in full swing as voters try to sway the CRC, which amounts to a constitutional convention every 20 years in Florida.

The Commission has been holding hearings throughout the state and soon will decide which proposals, if any, should be put on the ballot in November. At least 60 percent of voters must approve a proposal for it to be enacted.

“I want you to stand with Parkland. Let the majority decide rather than the minority that currently controls [the process],” said Kevin Quinn, a neighbor to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High.

Much of the passion and attention Tuesday came from speakers pleading for more gun safety regulations in the aftermath of the Parkland massacre that left 17 dead.

“The idea that we can’t get our legislators to consider an assault weapons ban is both suspect and disgraceful,” fumed Freedom High student Brianna Auker at a news conference before the hearing started. “Why should we have to go to a commission that meets only every 20 years when our Legislature meets every year? ... We will not stand by and watch our friends slaughtered when there is an obvious, common-sense solution.”

Slightly more than half of the 37 CRC members attended the public hearing, and they mostly kept quiet as speaker after speaker stepped up to the microphones. At one point, however, Commissioner Frank Kruppenbacher rose to address the residents of Parkland who drove to Tampa Bay to plead for more restrictions on semiautomatic rifles.

“In my heart I know the majority of this commission stands with you, and we will do what’s right,” said Kruppenbacher, an Orlando attorney appointed to the commission by Gov. Rick Scott.

Do the public comments make a difference to the decision makers?

“Yesterday, I said to myself, ‘Am I going to wake up and drive to St. Petersburg from Orlando to stand and talk for two minutes to people who might be tired of listening to people by the time I get there?’ ” said John Sowinski of Orlando, Florida’s ballot initiative guru responsible for the successful campaigns to enact term limits and ban fishing with controversial gill nets.

He texted a friend on the commission, who told him the public comments “absolutely” make a difference.

Contact Adam C. Smith at asmith@tampabay.com. Follow @adamsmithtimes.

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