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Constitution panel kicks off with cautious approach

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(Florida Department of State)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The Florida Constitution Revision Commission got off to a cautious start Monday, advancing only two of more than 1,400 constitutional changes that had been filed by the public.

The commission, which meets every 20 years and has the power to put constitutional amendments on the 2018 general-election ballot, voted to give further consideration to a measure to close the so-called “write-in candidate loophole” in state election law and to an amendment that would remove obsolete language related to a failed high-speed rail plan.

Commissioner Sherry Plymale of Palm City asked the commission to give preliminary support to an amendment (700396) from Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg that seeks to end the practice of closing party primaries when a write-in candidate is on the general election ballot.

Under state law, all voters can participate in a primary when only one party fields candidates. But if a write-in candidate, who doesn't have a party, files for the general election, it closes the primary to only one party's voters.

The net effect, for example, is that if Republicans have a primary and Democrats do not, Democratic voters still cannot cast ballots in the primary if there is a write-in in the general election. Democrats can vote in the general election, but only the Republican primary winner's name will be on the ballot, virtually assuring the outcome of the election.

Under the amendment, which advanced by a 27-3 margin, all voters would be able to participate in a primary if there is no other general election opposition or if the only opposition comes from write-in candidates.

The measure, which needed 10 votes to advance, will now be referred to Constitution Revision Commission committees for further consideration.

In a unanimous vote, the commission also backed a proposal by Martin County Clerk of Court Carolyn Timmann, who asked for support for a public amendment (700202) that would remove constitutional language for a high-speed rail system that was adopted by voters in 2000 but voided by a subsequent vote in 2004.

The proposal also will move to the Constitution Revision Commission committees for further consideration.

The commission will meet again on Oct. 17 to consider advancing other amendments suggested by the public, which still has until Friday to submit more proposals.

Commission members have until Oct. 31 to file their own proposals, with 10 measures filed as of Monday.

Chairman Carlos Beruff said there is a lot of duplication in the numerous proposals advanced by the public. Commission staff estimates there are roughly 500 unique proposals among the more than 1,400 submitted.

Beruff said other public proposals may advance in the next few weeks, while others may be embodied in measures filed by the commission members.

But Beruff said he does not see the commission as a forum where large-scale constitutional changes will be advanced.

“It's just a question of what makes sense, what belongs in the Constitution and not in a statute somewhere,” Beruff said. “The Constitution is a pretty fine document and we don't need to muddle it.”

Commissioner Chris Smith, a former state senator from Fort Lauderdale, said he and Commissioner Arthenia Joyner, a former state senator from Tampa, have filed an amendment (0007) seeking to restore voting rights to non-violent felons. The amendment reflects more than a dozen similar proposals filed by the public.

He said public testimony on the measure has helped build momentum for the proposal.

“It's on everybody's radar now because people came out and spoke about it so much,” Smith said.

Commissioner Patricia Levesque, an education advocate, said she is open to considering a proposal to revise the class-size restriction in the state Constitution but only if the proposal can balance “the original intent of having smaller classes,” while giving the 67 school districts more flexibility.

But Levesque also said the commission should be cautious in changing the Constitution.

“I think we should be wise and listen to the public and if there are things that need to be done, because that's the path you have to take as a constitutional amendment, then I think we should consider them,” she said. “I don't think we should do a lot of things.”

Commissioner Tom Lee, a state senator from Hillsborough County, said the commission “needs to be thoughtful about the length of the ballot.”

“We have had issues in prior elections where the ballot got so long it was essentially unmanageable by the supervisors of elections,” Lee said. “We probably need to take a very conservative, limited approach to what comes out of here and gets on the ballot. The Constitution is not supposed to be a trendy document.”

The Legislature has already placed two constitutional amendments on the 2018 ballot, including a proposed expansion of the property tax break for homeowners known as the homestead exemption.

After being debated in committees, any amendments returning to the full commission will need 22 votes from the 37-member commission before they can be placed on the ballot. The commission has a May 10 deadline for its final report.

Amendments on the ballot will need support from at least 60 percent of voters to take effect.