Constitution panel ‘vindicated' by Tuesday votes
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Lost in the continuing drama about Tuesday's elections, the Florida Constitution Revision Commission set a new milestone.
The commission, which meets every 20 years and has the unique ability to place proposed constitutional changes directly before voters, saw the passage of seven amendments it put on the ballot.
It was the first time a ballot slate from the constitutional panel won full approval from voters, despite controversy over the combining of multiple issues in single ballot measures.
The 1998 commission had nine ballot measures, with eight passing. The 1978 commission saw all eight of its ballot measures rejected by the voters.
This year’s panel also achieved ballot success while being the first commission to face a requirement that constitutional amendments receive approval from 60 percent of voters. That requirement was put in place in 2006.
Amendment 12, which will strengthen lobbying restrictions and create new ethics standards for public officials, achieved the highest vote total and approval percentage of any statewide issue or candidate Tuesday, with nearly eight out of every 10 voters endorsing the measure.
Former Senate President Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican who served on the 37-member commission, said Tuesday’s outcome validated the work of the panel.
“I think that does give a convincing answer to the many editorial boards around the state who trashed the CRC and criticized the way that it did business,” Gaetz said. “Our form of government is based on trusting the people and their ability to make choices at the ballot box. And apparently, that trust was affirmed by the constitutional amendment decisions that the voters made.”
Gaetz said he was “particularly pleased” by the passage of the ethics amendment, which he crafted and which won support from more than 6.1 million voters, with a 78.92 percent approval rate.
Once fully implemented, it will ban state and local elected officials from lobbying their former agencies for six years after they leave office. It also directs the state Commission on Ethics to develop a new “disproportionate benefit” standard that would prohibit public officials from using their offices to benefit themselves, their families or business interests.
“I look forward to the ethics commission beginning its work to create a very robust implementation of this amendment,” Gaetz said.
One area of criticism of the commission’s work was the combining, or “bundling,” of multiple topics into single ballot items.
An often-cited example by critics was Amendment 9, which combined a ban on offshore oil drilling with a prohibition of the use of electronic cigarettes and vaping in workplaces. But the amendment passed with nearly a 69 percent approval rate.
Brecht Heuchan, a lobbyist and political consultant who was chairman of the Constitution Revision Commission’s Style and Drafting Committee, defended the bundling practice, noting it had been used by the two prior commissions. He said he thinks the amendment votes “vindicated” the commission’s efforts.
“All we did was work within the precedent that we had and the rules that we had, and we were well within those,” he said.
Heuchan also said he was disappointed that opponents, who launched a series of lawsuits against most of the measures, attacked the commission itself, rather than raising objections to the proposals.
“They were more about attacking the bundling and attacking what they said were devious plans and all these other names that we were called. The voters rebuked all of that and resoundingly. To me that’s at least one of the big takeaways,” he said.
He also said the outcome represented an example of a “direct democracy” where the voters “had their say.”
“They had their day. And their voice was loudly heard,” Heuchan said.
The one asterisk to the commission’s success was a 4-3 decision by the Florida Supreme Court to block Amendment 8 from going on the ballot. The measure would have imposed term limits on school board members and would have helped expand the use of charter schools. The court found the ballot language misleading.
Most of the commission ballot measures won support without gaining much publicity or having organized campaigns.
One exception was Amendment 6, known as “Marsy’s Law,” whose supporters raised more than $33 million for the initiative. It will place a series of rights for crime victims into the state Constitution. It also raises the mandatory retirement age for judges to 75, up from 70.
As is typical with “down ballot” measures, there was a modest drop-off in voter participation in the amendment decisions. While more than 8.2 million voters participated in the governor’s race, the amendment votes ranged between 7.5 million and 7.85 million.
Overall, it was a good year for proposed constitutional changes. In addition to the seven Constitution Revision Commission measures, voters also backed four other ballot initiatives advanced by the Legislature or through citizen initiatives.
Only Amendment 1, which would have expanded the homestead property-tax exemption, failed, falling just short of approval with support from 58 percent of the voters.
The next Constitution Revision Commission is scheduled to meet in 2037-2038.
News Service of Florida