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Florida lawmakers back abolishing Constitution panel

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Largely appointed by former Gov. Rick Scott and Republican legislative leaders, a state commission placed seven constitutional amendments on the November ballot that were approved by voters.

But the commission could become a thing of the past after stirring a controversy with many of its proposals.

The House State Affairs Committee on Thursday approved a measure (HJR 249) that would ask voters to abolish the Constitution Revision Commission, which has unique powers to put proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot.

The 37-member commission --- which meets every 20 years --- created controversy because five of the seven constitutional amendments it placed on the ballot included multiple subjects. For example, one proposal included a ban on offshore oil drilling and a ban on vaping in workplaces; another linked death benefits for first responders with the creation of a governance system for the 28 state and community colleges.

Bundling such seemingly unrelated issues in single ballot proposals drew widespread criticism.

“Those were not revisions, those were policy changes,” said Rep. Brad Drake, a Eucheeanna Republican who is sponsoring the measure aimed at abolishing the commission. “I don’t think that’s the intention of the commission.”

Drake added that with almost all members of the commission appointed by the governor, House speaker, Senate president --- all Republicans like Drake --- and the chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court, the panel has become too politically “crony” and “too dangerous.” The attorney general also serves on the commission.

Rep. Wengay Newton, D-St. Petersburg, agreed the selection process was “highly political” while acknowledging “the party in power controls policy.”

Separate proposals also are moving through the Legislature that would require the commission’s proposed constitutional amendments to include only single subjects. The Legislature and citizens’ initiatives are already required to follow such a single-subject rule when putting proposed constitutional amendments before voters.

“What we challenge the citizens to do, to go out and get the signatures and have a single subject to amend the Constitution is what we should abide by when we do a revision,” Newton said.

Drake’s proposal to abolish the commission, if approved by the Legislature, would have to go before voters in 2020 because it would require a constitutional change.

While the House committee Thursday backed Drake’s idea, the board of directors at the LeRoy Collins Institute, a nonpartisan think tank located at Florida State University, opposes abolishing the commission.

The institute supports the separate efforts (SJR 74, HJR 53) that would place a single-subject requirement on the commission.

“Clearly bundling of disparate issues can be a problem with an electorate that is not well informed on issues and with voters who might support one part of the amendment but not another,” institute Director Carol Weissert said in a prepared statement. “This, however, does not justify abandoning a fundamentally good idea --- the commission itself.”

The commission was created in the 1960s as the state modernized its 1885 constitution.

Both proposals in the House --- to abolish the commission and to limit amendments to single subjects --- must go before the House Judiciary Committee before they could reach the full House.  

A Senate proposal to abolish the commission (SJR 362) must appear next before the Senate Rules Committee. The Senate measure seeking to impose a single-subject requirement is ready to go to the Senate floor.