TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The first substantive meeting of the Florida Constitution Revision Commission showed clear rifts among members of the panel responsible for putting proposed constitutional changes on the 2018 ballot.
Meeting in Orlando, the commission Tuesday split on a vote about rules that will govern the panel's work in the coming months.
Commissioners voted 20-11 to adopt the rules, moments after approving an amendment to the guidelines by a 19-12 margin. Chairman Carlos Beruff ruled that the initial vote essentially killed scores of other amendments that had been proposed by some of the panel's 37 members.
Frustration with the process boiled over after that ruling when some members argued that additional amendments to the rules could still be taken up. That followed several back-and-forths about whether the commission was operating under any parliamentary procedures at all.
"It seems like we have rules when some people like them, but we don't have rules when some people don't like them," snapped Bob Solari, an Indian River County commissioner. "If I was watching this from the public, I would be incredibly depressed and dismayed."
The Constitution Revision Commission meets every 20 years to propose changes to the state's basic law. The commission, which has held a series of public hearings across the state, will put potentially far-reaching proposals on the November 2018 ballot.
The commission is made up of members appointed by Gov. Rick Scott, Senate President Joe Negron, House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Supreme Court Chief Justice Jorge Labarga. It also includes Attorney General Pam Bondi. Scott appointed 15 members, while the legislative leaders each appointed nine, and Labarga appointed three.
The panel's decision Tuesday essentially incorporates rules used in 1997 and 1998, the last time the commission met. That was aimed at addressing some issues that had been raised by commissioners and advocacy groups, who said the first draft of this year's rules gave too much power to Beruff.
"At the time that I filed this amendment, I felt like it addressed literally all of the concerns that I heard," said Brecht Heuchan, a member of the commission.
Heuchan noted that changes he made actually watered down some of the chairman's powers from the 1997-1998 version, by curbing the chairman's authority to create new committees and getting rid of the ability to call meetings with little notice.
But some members of a working group that initially had the job of coming up with rules chafed at changes that weren't included.
For example, some members wanted stronger public-meetings language that would essentially bar two or more members of the commission from discussing official business except at noticed meetings.
The version of the rules approved Tuesday says simply: "All proceedings and records of the Commission shall be open to the public."
The new version also scrapped a recommendation by the working group that would have required the Rules and Administration Committee --- which will set the agenda for the full commission --- to have equal representation from commission members appointed by Scott, Corcoran, Negron and Labarga.
Instead, the committee will be broken up along roughly the same proportions as the full commission, with four members appointed by Scott, two each from Corcoran and Negron's appointees and one named by Labarga.
And Beruff, who was appointed by Scott, will select the members of the committee, something that the working group had also considered changing.
Former state Senate President Don Gaetz, named to the panel by Negron, suggested that the working group's decision to more evenly divide the rules committee, which could have enormous power over which proposals are approved, had sparked Tuesday's meeting.
"Very shortly thereafter, we learned that the rules working group had therefore been disbanded," said Gaetz, who opposed the rules approved Tuesday. "And now we find ourselves here today."
But Heuchan tried to soothe those concerns by pointing to a rule he called the "clawback provision," which would allow a majority of the commission to pull a proposal out of any committee at any time.
"That clawback provision applying to the rules committee dilutes substantially the authority of that rules committee," said Heuchan, also a Scott appointee.
Supporters also said the rules could be changed as needed, though doing so would require a two-thirds majority.
"It is not as if going forward, things can't change," said former state Sen. Lisa Carlton, a Scott appointee.