Lots of power, but too much secrecy

The Florida Constitution Revision Commission holds a public hearing in Miami on April 6. Photo via Miami Herald

Sun Sentinel Editorial

April 14, 2017

Florida’s most powerful unelected body is off to a terrible start.

The Constitution Revision Commission has held four public hearings seeking comment about what state constitutional amendments its 37 members should approve for the 2018 ballot. Yet the commission, among many other things, hasn’t agreed on rules for how it will approve or reject proposed amendments.

During the commission’s April 7 hearing at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, chairman Carlos Beruff told the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board that a committee would propose rules for the group’s consideration. On Wednesday, he announced the committee would include eight members, two from each group of appointees — by the governor, Senate president, House speaker and chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court.

According to Beruff’s letter, however, the group apparently will work from rules he proposed in March. One would allow committees — rather than the full commission — to reject proposed amendments. In 1997-98, the last time the commission convened, every proposal went to the full group. In a letter to the commission last week, the Florida League of Women Voters questioned Beruff’s decision. It also asked why there appears to be no deadline for submitting proposals. And though each committee will supposedly deal with a section of the constitution and all related amendments, it questioned whether the chairman would be able to shift a proposal from one committee to another.

Then there’s transparency. The first hearing, on March 29 in Orlando, came with just two days notice. The commission has no long-term schedule for hearings. Though it’s announced the venue and hours for the April 26 hearing in Gainesville, the next four stops list only a date and a county.

The commission’s early start also has drawn controversy. Several members serve in the Legislature, which has been in session since early March and won’t finish until early next month. Because of scheduling conflicts, it’s hard for these lawmakers to attend every hearing.

The 1997-98 hearings didn’t start until late June and began with a public ceremony laying out the many topics commissioners expected to consider. This year’s members are rumored to want amendments related to charter schools and judicial term limits, but unlike their predecessors, they are staying mum.

Because of the commission’s power, openness and clarity are vital. Its proposed amendments don’t have to go before the Florida Supreme Court, as do amendments from the Legislature and citizen petition drives. Its members also can propose an unlimited number of amendments for the ballot, though passage still requires approval from 60 percent of voters.

In 1997-98, an amendment needed support from 22 of the 37 members. That’s roughly 60 percent of the commission, the threshold for getting a proposed amendment through the Florida House and Senate. If today’s rules allow a simple majority — a decision still possible — too many special-interest proposals could get onto the ballot.

Still another issue is contact between commission members and lobbyists representing special interests. The draft rules prohibit gifts from lobbyists to members, but there’s an exception for campaign contributions. As noted, some commission members are state legislators.

The lobbying and horse-trading can be intense. In 1997-98, the commission seemed prepared to approve an amendment to prohibit gerrymandering — the drawing of congressional and legislative districts to help incumbents or a party. The next redistricting was set for 2002.

At the last minute, however, Republican legislative leaders got the proposal killed. Before the vote, John Thrasher, the incoming House speaker, spoke with two commission members who planned to vote for the amendment. One switched sides, the other abstained, and the proposal failed.

A citizen’s petition drive later put similar amendments — called Fair Districts — on the 2010 ballot, at considerable cost. And voters approved them. Now we hear Republicans want this commission to make Fair Districts legal challenges more difficult to pursue. Last year, a lawsuit forced the Legislature to redraw the 2012 congressional and state Senate maps.

Rick Scott, the most secretive governor in recent memory, appointed Beruff. Tim Cerio, who will lead the rules committee, was Scott’s chief counsel and now works for the well-connected law firm GrayRobinson. Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R- Land O’ Lakes, are said to want their appointees to go beyond constitutional updating and into policy creation on education and political districts.

The commission already has lost credibility by making things up as it goes. The way back starts with rules designed for the public, not the insiders. [READ MORE]

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