Note to commission: Empower people, not politicians

The Florida Constitution Revision Commission

Sun-Sentinel Editorial

September 2, 2017

The legislators who drafted Florida’s modern Constitution in 1968 were wise enough to know that they weren’t so astute as to foresee every test of time. They made the document easier to amend than the old one, which their forerunners had refused to adapt to the 20th century.

One of the reforms was the initiative process, enabling citizens to put amendments on the ballot. The Legislature also created something unique to Florida: a Constitution Revision Commission to be appointed a decade later and every 20 years subsequently. It’s intended to be a comprehensive review of how the Constitution is working and what improvements need to be made.

CRC recommendations go directly to the voters. The Legislature has no role other than in the appointment of nine members each by the Senate president and House speaker. The governor appoints 15, including the chair. The chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court names three. The attorney general is automatically a member.

The cardinal rule for anyone working on the Constitution, whether the Legislature or the CRC, should be medicine’s famous fundamental principle: “First, do no harm.” That means rejecting such stunts as Scott’s tax proposal. What’s the need, apart from his campaign? Tax increases are already as rare in Florida as snowstorms. And imagine the Florida Legislature trying to deal with a Hurricane Harvey on one hand and a supermajority obstacle on the other.

A second rule should be to remember that solutions cause problems. Case in point: the existing provision requiring the state budget to be in final form on legislators’ desks 72 hours before adjournment. It was intended to discourage last-minute surprises but has fostered them instead. Leaders can spring the budget on deadline, leaving members no time to amend it. That’s what forced the Senate to swallow Corcoran’s destructive school legislation this year. The CRC should consider expanding the rule to 144 hours — six days — with amendments expressly in order during the first 72.

A third essential principle: Empower the people. The 1998 commission meant to do this when it provided for open primaries in the event that a party’s nominee will have no general election opponent. Both parties have foiled this by fronting write-in candidates who have no chance to win and don’t intend to campaign. Millions of voters thus have no say in who will represent them. The current commission should tweak the provision to require an open primary when there will be no opponent on the general election ballot. Better yet, it should consider open primaries in every case. Unquestionably, it should dispose of the lifetime ban on ex-felons that leaves some 1.6 million Floridians without the precious right to vote.

There will be more to say as the commission’s agenda takes shape. Whether it turns out to be worthwhile or wasted will depend on the principles its members apply to the task. The first of them can’t be stressed enough: Do no harm. [READ MORE]

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