The best way to revise Florida’s Constitution

The members of the 2017-18 Constitution Revision Commission are being named this month. The Commission’s proposals, if any, must be submitted at least 180 days before the 2018 general election.

Florida has more methods for amending its constitution than any other state. Two of these have been in the Florida Constitution from the beginning (legislative proposal and constitutional convention), two were added by a revision in 1968 (citizen initiative and the Constitution Revision Commission). A fifth method, the Tax and Budget Reform Commission, was added in 1988.

The revision-commission process is unique. No other state has such a body. The commission meets every 20 years. Its members are the attorney general and 36 members appointed by the governor (15), the House speaker (nine), the Senate president (nine), and the chief justice of the state Supreme Court (three). The governor also appoints the chair.

The Commission is authorized to set its own rules and its proposals go directly to the voters, without review by the Legislature or the governor.

If legislative leadership is interested in having a productive commission process, they will do three things:

▪ Appoint a diverse commission, free from instructions and able to listen to suggestions from the public.

▪ Provide adequate resources for the commission to operate and communicate.

▪ Use the Legislature’s joint resolution power to clean up the useless and outdated language even before the commission makes its proposals.

Of course, the first step is to make appointments of the 36 members who will serve with the attorney general.

The commissioners already named by Chief Justice Labarga set a high standard for competence, integrity, and diversity: Roberto Martinez, of Miami; Arthena Joyner, of Tampa; and Hank Coxe, of Jacksonville. Senate President Joe Negron has made his nine appointments. The list includes two respected former senators, Don Gaetz and Chris Smith, and others with experience in state and local government,

Gov. Rick Scott, House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Negron should make similarly capable and diverse appointments and resist the temptation to burden them with partisan instructions.

I have served on two commissions, the 1977-78 Revision Commission by appointment of a Democratic governor, and the Tax and Budget Commission (2007-08) by appointment of a Republican Senate president. On neither occasion was I given any instructions other than to work hard and use good judgment.

There is also the important matter of funding. This legislative session must provide the resources for the Commission to hire staff, conduct public hearings (where the most important proposals are likely to originate) and communicate with the public during its proceedings and when its proposals are presented to voters.

Finally, the Legislature can begin cleaning up the state Constitution even before the Commission meets. Over the years, the document has accumulated numerous outdated sections and much useless language. In three articles, the Constitution allows the two chambers to eliminate useless language by adopting a joint resolution, requiring no action by the governor or the electorate.

An example of a provision the Legislature may safely eliminate is the language of Article XII, Section 4, providing a transition for an office that no longer exists, the state commissioner of education. The article says: “The state superintendent of public instruction in office on the effective date of this revision shall become and, for the remainder of the term being served, shall be the commissioner of education.”

Of course, this office was eliminated in the 1998 revision. A great deal of verbiage is similarly outdated and can be removed without policy debate. The Legislature can advance the revision process by taking on this unglamorous but important work.

Attorney Talbot ‘Sandy’ D’Alemberte, former president of the American Bar Association, was president of the Florida State University from 1994 to 2003.