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Florida voters to decide fate of the Constitutional Revision Commission

Jennie McKeon
WUWF Public Media

Five years after the last Constitutional Revision Commission — and 15 years before the next scheduled one — a Florida lawmaker wants to do away with the practice on the November 8 ballot.

“Today's our fourth stop across the state of Florida on what we call the road to the ballot," said CRC chairman Carlos Beruff, starting a six-hour session in Pensacola in early 2018. "We are pretty excited because we've listened to 600 people at this point."

The commission, 37-members strong, meets every 20 years to propose changes to the Florida constitution, which are referred to the statewide ballot.

A similar abolishment bill failed in the 2021 legislative session, but passed in the House and Senate earlier this year. A "yes" vote for Amendment 2 would support abolishment of the CRC, and a "no" vote opposes getting rid of it.

The revision commission is one of two ways voters can get proposed amendments on the ballot.

“I believe there ought to be an opportunity for the citizens to amend the Constitution in Florida if they want to,” said former state senator Don Gaetz. The Niceville Republican was the lone representative from Northwest Florida on the commission, that’s one of two ways to get amendments up for a vote.

“If you want to go the petition route, it costs four, five, $6 million to gather petitions and do an organized effort,” said Gaetz. “But the ordinary citizen usually doesn't have that kind of money. So the Constitutional Revision Commission is a way every 20 years for a citizen or a group of citizens to bring forward an idea.”

During the last CRC, Gaetz proposed an amendment that went on to prohibit elected officials from personally benefitting from their elected position.

“That never would have been passed by the legislature; it never would have been the subject of gathering petitions,” he said. “But it was the idea that came from individual citizens. I turned it into a proposal, and the voters of Florida adopted it by nearly an 80% majority.”

That, in turn, made Florida’s ethics law one of the strongest in the nation, says Gaetz. Another of his amendments — banning offshore drilling in Florida waters — was also approved.

“It never would have happened if the citizens of Florida didn't have an outlet to amend their own constitution,” said Gaetz. “I'm sure that politicians in Tallahassee and the special interests would love to control for themselves the exclusive ways to amend the constitution institution. But I'm a believer in letting the people decide once every 20 years. There's nothing wrong with letting people make a decision at that time.”

Brandes disagrees.

“Florida is the only state in the country where unelected individuals can gather together with essentially no rules and put things on the ballot, bundle things together and put things correctly before the voters,” said state rep. Jeff Brandes, the amendment’s sponsor.

“I don't think that's the level of accountability that we want or need,” he said. “It effectively is like a game of Jumanji, where you don't know who the players are going to be, there is no rules, and you don't know what's going to come out of it. And that, to me, is an unacceptable way to address the founding document of the state of Florida.”

The CRC is not an elected body. They are appointed by government officials and therein lies the rub for Brandes, who adds that just before a CRC session the legislature will change the laws governing the CRC’s actions based, as he says, on the current political winds.

“I don't think that's an appropriate way to govern," he added. "And if we look at what happened in the 2018 CRC, you saw them bundling amendments that had nothing to do with each other. Offshore drilling and vaping in the same amendment, to me, many of the things that they tried to address were things that legislature should have dealt with as an elected body.”

If the voters decide to keep the CRC in place, Brandes hopes that the legislature will put some rules in place to the panel acts “more appropriately.”

“And stops bundling amendments and frankly, just deals with things that can only be dealt with in the constitution,” he said. “So basically, taking on work that really isn't their business and really is the business of the house and senate, the governor to work through in a process debatable with public testimony and produces an outcome that I think generally only people can hold somebody accountable for.”

However, Don Gaetz does not believe that the issue will make any inroads in this year’s political campaigns, as the mid-terms are just over the horizon — for one simple reason. It is not a partisan issue, with both Democrats and Republicans appointed to the CRC, placing eight proposed amendments on the 2018 ballot.

“And I would have to say that every single one of the amendments that we proposed were supported in a bipartisan way by Democrats and Republicans," said Gaetz. "And by the way, every one of the amendments that the CRC proposed were all approved and added to the constitution by the voters of Florida."

The next scheduled CRC is in 2027. While Gaetz says he likely won’t be involved, he predicts that many of the issues that the state faces today — such as looser COVID19 restrictions — could find their way before such a panel.

“You may see constitutional amendments designed to ensure that Florida continues to be a free and sovereign state under the constitution of the United States,” he said. “As opposed to becoming more of a dependency of the federal government.”

Supporters of the measure to delete the Constitutional Revision Commission include Gov. Ron DeSantis, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, and Associated Industries of Florida. Those wanting to keep the CRC as-is includes the South Florida Sun-Sentinel Editorial Board, Carol Weissert, a professor of political science at Florida State University, and numerous Democratic state lawmakers.