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Debate Begins on CRC's Fate in 2020 Legislative Session

Dave Dunwoody, WUWF Public Media

Florida lawmakers are expected to marshal their forces in 2020, in hopes of scrapping a panel that placed seven constitutional amendment on the ballot last year – all of which were approved.

In all, voters approved 11 constitutional amendments in November – seven from the Constitutional Revision Commission; two from citizens’ initiatives, and two placed on the ballot by the Legislature.

Leading the charge against the CRC is Gov. Ron DeSantis.

“Last year we had so many amendments, that I think we need reform,” said the Governor. “Whether this is enough I don’t know. I personally think we should get rid of the Constitutional Revision Commission.”

The CRC meets every 20 years to propose changes to the Florida constitution. It drew criticism last year for “bundling” unrelated issues in single constitutional amendments.

“I mean, when you have these amendments going on the ballot that have multiple policies in one amendment?” asked DeSantis. “So you literally had to vote on offshore drilling and vaping in the same amendment. I don’t see how that makes sense.”

The Senate voted 35-4 during the just-completed session for a proposal to eliminate the commission. It also voted unanimously for a separate measure to restrict the commission to single-subject ballot proposals. House leaders did not bring either proposal up for a floor vote. Any changes to the CRC would require a constitutional amendment.

DeSantis also contends that too much policy has been put into the Constitution.

Credit wuwf.org
Former state Sen. President Don Gaetz (R-Niceville), a member of the Constitutional Revision Commission

“If you want to do policy through an initiative, it should be a statutory initiative; because if the policy doesn’t work out your hamstrung,” DeSantis said. “You’ve got to back and do another amendment process. And that’s cumbersome. I think there’s [sic] a lot of things, but I think what happened last election with some of those bundled amendments was not good.”

Last year’s 37-member commission was mostly appointed by then- Gov. Rick Scott, then-Senate President Joe Negron and then-House Speaker Richard Corcoran. One member was former state Senate President Don Gaetz of Niceville – a co-sponsor of Amendment-9 – who says that was the only way to get a drilling ban onto the ballot.

“I personally didn’t believe that we ought to be bundling topics together; I still felt that the amendments ought to have been separated,” said Gaetz. “But I felt it was very important to our military mission, our tourism and our economy and our ecology to keep drilling off the shores of Florida’s coast.”

Credit Governor's Press Office
Gov. Ron DeSantis

Amendment-9 passed with 69 percent approval. While Gaetz shares the Governor’s frustration, he adds that the Commission provides the only way ordinary citizens can have a say in what can be placed on the ballot and perhaps be added to the constitution.

“There were a lot of those days where I wish I were in the dentist’s chair without Novocain instead of sitting through the meetings that I sat through,” Gaetz said. “The only other ways to change our constitution are to raise millions of dollars through a petition drive; or to spend millions of dollars to lobby the Legislature.”

Instead of abolishing the CRC altogether, Gaetz says there are a number of ways that the panel can be improved when it meets again in 2038.

“By eliminating bundling; providing a different way for commissioners to be selected, and for the scope of what the commission can do,” said Gaetz. “But I do think that it’s a safety valve to allow ordinary people to have a chance to change the way – and how – their government is structured and operated in the state of Florida.”

Gaetz was the lead sponsor of Amendment-12, which overhauls Florida’s ethics laws as they apply to public officials. It passed with 73 percent of the vote.

“The only way that could have been added to the Constitution was by the people themselves,” Gaetz contends. “The Legislature wouldn’t do it; that’s Jesse James becoming a bank guard. There’s no way you could have raised the money to add it to the Constitution by petition method; there’s no fundraisers going on to improve the standard of ethics in public officials.”

Any changes to the Constitutional Revision Commission would require a constitutional amendment.

While Gov. Ron DeSantis and others are frowning at the Constitution Revision Commission, the Legislature did approve a bill late in the session which places more restrictions on petition-gathering. For example, petition gatherers now must register with the state, and they cannot be paid per signature.