Florida Politics

Bill would repeal constitutional amendment process that ‘ran amok’

Members of the Constitutional Revision Commission listened to residents during a town hall meeting with Floridians in Miami at Florida International University in Miami, April 6, 2017.
Members of the Constitutional Revision Commission listened to residents during a town hall meeting with Floridians in Miami at Florida International University in Miami, April 6, 2017. pportal@miamiherald.com

In a sweeping indictment of the work of the constitutional review panel controlled by former Gov. Rick Scott’s appointees, a key Florida Senate committee advanced a proposal Tuesday that will ask voters in November 2020 to remove the Constitution Revision Commission from the state’s top legal document.

The commission, a 37-member panel appointed by the state’s top officials, is convened every 20 years with the power to propose amendments to the state Constitution and put them directly on the ballot. But, after last year’s commission — which bundled together unrelated ideas into single amendments in order to get voter approval for favored proposals — there is now bipartisan support in the Senate to kill the commission.

“This is a perversion that we don’t see anywhere else in the country where unelected individuals bundle things together, put things on the ballot, and essentially have no rules,’’ said Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, sponsor of the amendment.

He called it “essentially a Jumanji-type process,” a reference to the board game, and said the commission sanctioned the bundling of things that “made no contextual sense,” such as a ban on indoor vaping with a ban on offshore oil drilling.

“It was a process put together with no rules that ran amok very quickly,’’ he said.

The CRC was created by the 1968 Constitution and was given unique power to place amendments before voters with the intention of modernizing the state Constitution. When the CRC convened for the first time in 1978, all but four of the 37 commissioners were Democrats and nearly all the amendments were rejected. In 1998, the commission was evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, so it had to work to get consensus on each proposal, and all nine proposals passed.

In 2018, the CRC convened for the third time in 40 years and all but three of the members were Republicans. Led by Carlos Beruff, a Bradenton developer who was appointed by Scott, the panel advanced nine amendments, seven of which contained more than one issue. Beruff has never held elected office but was a candidate for U.S. Senate in the Republican primary in 2016.

The Florida Supreme Court removed one amendment — a proposal to allow charter schools to bypass local school boards — for misleading ballot summary language. Three others faced a legal challenge because they contained more than one subject, but the court voted 4-3 to let those remain on the ballot. Voters approved all eight of the CRC amendments.

The rules were a constant source of tension, starting with the CRC’s first meeting in May 2017. Unlike the previous commissions, Beruff centralized much of the decision making and changed a pivotal rule — allowing committees to kill a proposal, instead of the whole commission.

As a result, a common theme emerged, commissioners told the Herald/Times at the time: Amendments designed to bring out supporters of Scott, then candidate for U.S. Senate, and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a Republican candidate for governor, were given favor over proposals that might bring out supporters of their opponents.

For example, Beruff referred proposals to repeal the death penalty, to give residents a choice in selecting an energy provider, and to establish a right to a clean and healthful environment to committees that killed them. Each of the proposals was sponsored by Republican members of the CRC.

The commission included 15 commissioners appointed by Scott, nine by Corcoran, nine by Senate President Joe Negron and three by Supreme Court Justice Jorge Labarga. Attorney General Pam Bondi was an automatic member of the commission.

CRC members also noted that after conducting dozens of meetings around the state to engage the public on the proposals, there was only one two-hour meeting for the public to respond to the final bundled concepts.

Among them was the proposal to require Miami-Dade County to elect its sheriff. It was rolled together with three unrelated ideas: creating an Office of Domestic Security and Counter-terrorism within the Florida Department of Law Enforcement; making the existing Department of Veterans’ Affairs a constitutionally required office, and changing the start of the legislative session in even-numbered years from March to January.

Brecht Heuchan, a Tallahassee lobbyist and close political adviser to Scott, chaired the Style and Drafting Committee that proposed the bundling plans and defended the process in 2018, including that many of the rules were patterned after those used by the Legislature.

“You can’t do something that’s worth anything if there isn’t some criticism,’’ he said at the time. He would not comment publicly on the repeal effort.

The Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved Brandes’ bill, SJR 142, and the measure received support from both conservative Republicans and lobbyists for the League of Women Voters and AFL-CIO.

Sen. Dennis Baxley, a Republican from Ocala, complained that the Constitution has become cluttered with “way too much policy and budget ... and it really subverts the legislative process.”

Brandes said his proposal preserves two other options to amend the Constitution — “access to the ballot for citizens and still access to the ballot for the Legislature, and those two processes are enough.”

“For us, I think it’s important we provide multiple pathways because I don’t think the Legislature is always going to get it right and I think the people have to have a right to stand up to the process and propose things directly,’’ he said. “All my bill does is simply place it on the ballot for the people of the State of Florida to make a decision.”

Brandes said his proposal is “an indictment” of the 2018 process, not the commissions that preceded it. He said that as the CRC was making its decisions in 2017 and 2018, “many of us were very concerned about the lack of rules in that process and how the process was working out.”

However, only some of members of the CRC were willing to go on the record with their complaints, and there was no criticism from Republican leaders in the House and Senate as voters were evaluating the proposals.

“Many of us did say we had a problem...,’’ Brandes said. “I mean, nobody could tell you what the rules were.”

This is the second time Brandes has proposed the amendment Last year, it passed with overwhelming support in the Senate but was stalled in the House, where Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, a former member of the CRC, is a leader. Sprowls was designated Tuesday as the next House speaker if Republicans retain the majority in 2020.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@miamiherald.com and @MaryEllenKlas

Mary Ellen Klas is the capital bureau chief for the Miami Herald, where she covers government and politics and focuses on investigative and accountability reporting. In 2018-19, Mary Ellen was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University and was named the 2019 Murrey Marder Nieman Fellow in Watchdog Journalism. In 2018, she won the Sunshine Award from the Society of Professional Journalists. The Herald’s statehouse bureau is a joint operation with the Tampa Bay Times’ statehouse staff. Please support her work with a digital subscription. You can reach her at meklas@miamiherald.com and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas.