Orlando Sentinel Editorial
May 19, 2017
Now that the Florida Legislature has concluded its regular session for the year, the political spotlight shifts to a powerful panel that can propose changes to the state constitution. That makes the rules governing the 37-member Constitution Revision Commission more important than ever.
This past week in Tampa, before the commission held its ninth public hearing, a committee of eight members examined the rules for how the panel would consider and approve constitutional amendments. Yes, the commission has been meeting since March without knowing how it will decide which amendments to put before voters on the November 2018 ballot.
The eight-member committee, despite meeting for five hours, got only a third of the way through its draft rule book. It will need to meet again to finish its work.
The commission’s early actions have raised reasonable suspicions that insider politics are at work, despite Chairman Carlos Beruff’s insistence that the public hearings are “the most important part of our process.”
Last week a coalition of 15 groups sent a letter to the rules committee suggesting changes to the proposed rules. The changes would create a fairer, more transparent process for considering and endorsing proposed constitutional amendments. If the committee includes the changes and the full commission agrees, it will gain credibility with voters.
The draft proposal would let two commissioners discuss proposed amendments behind closed doors. They’d only have to inform the public if a third member joined them.This is a terrible idea — one that violates the spirit of Florida’s government in the sunshine law, which forbids two members of a public body from secretly discussing matters on which they will vote. It could create daisy chain decision-making, where members privately twist arms one at a time.
One of the rules committee members, Roberto Martinez, wisely argued Wednesday for the commission to stick with the sunshine law’s higher standard. “For us to make an exception for this very important commission … I think it would be anathema to the traditions of our state,” said Martinez, a lawyer appointed by Supreme Court Chief Justice Jorge Labarga. But other committee members challenged Martinez’s idea, and the group put off a final decision.
On a related point, the draft rules state, “All records of the commission shall be accessible to the public unless otherwise exempted by law.” The coalition’s letter correctly asks for the definition of “accessible.” Records need to be open to the public. Period.
Like the Florida Legislature, the commission will get many proposals from the public and individual members. Also like the Legislature, the commission will divide itself into committees, each dealing with amendments that apply to different parts of the Florida Constitution. Unlike the Legislature, however, those committees shouldn’t have the power to kill a proposal, as the draft rules would allow.
The coalition’s letter points out that the last time this commission — convened every 20 years — met, committee recommendations were advisory, not binding. A small number of commissioners might object to a proposal, but the full commission — not just a few powerful players — should decide whether it reaches the ballot.
Similarly, the draft rules would allow committee chairmen to stifle public debate. As in 1997-98, a chairman would have “all authority necessary to ensure the orderly operation of the committee …” But this time, a chairman could do so by “recognizing or not recognizing non-member presenters,” otherwise known as members of the public. The coalition correctly argues, “The only reason to exclude members of the public should be for public disturbance or disorderly conduct,” as was the case 20 years ago.
It will be tempting for some commissioners to ignore the coalition’s recommendations. This is the first commission to be dominated by Republican appointees, and the coalition includes groups most often aligned with Democrats — including the Florida Education Association and Planned Parenthood.
The coalition’s ideas, however, are nonpartisan. An open and credible process would benefit the commission, giving the amendments its members propose a better chance of passing.
Beruff has said average Floridians are “the ones we’re going to affect for the rest of their lives for the next 20 years, or their children’s lives.” He’s right.
The commission’s rules should favor the public, not the political insiders. [READ MORE]