Slim crowd pitches constitution ideas

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A sparse crowd weighed in Wednesday evening on how Florida's Constitution should be changed, or preserved, depending on your point of view, during a meeting of the Constitution Revision Commission practically in the shadows of the Capitol.

The meeting, in the ballroom of Florida A&M University's student union, drew about 100 people, who offered suggestions about issues ranging from abortion to water policy as the panel tackles the once-every-20-years task of proposing constitutional amendments directly to voters for consideration in the November 2018 election.

Wednesday's meeting was one of several planned or already held throughout the state, including sessions later this month in Alachua and Duval counties. It largely reflected the sentiments expressed by crowds at previous gatherings.

Speakers were split Wednesday on keeping intact or modifying part of the Florida Constitution that guarantees a broad right to privacy. That part of the Constitution has been the basis of major court decisions striking down anti-abortion laws.

Advocates of changing that part of the Constitution blame courts for wrongly applying the privacy clause --- which they maintained is supposed to protect personal information --- to abortion.

"I hope that you will take and put this privacy clause back to its original intent," advised Pam Olsen, president of the Florida Prayer Network.

But other women argued that the panel should leave the Constitution --- and abortion rights --- alone.

"Privacy is privacy. Remember the old chicken ad, parts is parts? Well, privacy is privacy and it's very dear to the hearts of women," said Barbara DeVane, a lobbyist who represents the Florida chapter of the National Organization for Women.

Dozens of those in attendance carried green and red cards, which they waved in support --- or opposition --- to the comments of people at the microphone.

The 37-member panel --- comprised of Attorney General Pam Bondi and members appointed by Gov. Rick Scott, House Speaker Richard Corcoran, Senate President Joe Negron and Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Jorge Labarga --- also heard about the environment, restoration of voting rights for felons, "home rule" for local governments and the state's election system.

As in previous meetings, several speakers Wednesday urged the commissioners to open Florida's primary elections, now typically limited to voters registered to political parties.

"Myself and every other registered Democrat that lives in Navarre were recently disenfranchised in the ability to vote in the election for sheriff," Panhandle voter Christina Forrest told the commission, explaining that a write-in candidate closed the primary election and kept Democrats from voting. "That's wrong. … Fix it. Open the primaries. Fix it. I implore you."

A number of speakers questioned the commission's authority to propose constitutional changes, prompting a response from Chairman Carlos Beruff.

"We can't do anything. We do nothing. All we do is put things on the ballot in 2018. You still need 60 percent of the people to vote to make the changes," Beruff, a close ally of Scott, said.

Speaking to reporters during a break, Beruff said that that some attendees appeared mistaken about the panel's function.

"I hope I'm a legal entity, otherwise I'm wasting a lot of time," he joked. "I think there's a confusion and I tried to clarify that."

Beruff said he expects the commission will release proposals for next year's general-election ballot sometime in January.

He also said he was surprised at the low turnout for the Tallahassee event.

"I thought it would be wall-to-wall people here," he said, noting that the Legislature was still meeting Wednesday evening. "We came here to try to make it easy."