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Florida House looks again at abolishing ‘dangerous’ panel

Proposals would seek voter approval in 2020 to abolish Constitution Revision Commission

(News Service of Florida)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The Florida House is taking a second look at eliminating a powerful state commission that drew controversy last year when it proposed constitutional amendments that tied together seemingly unrelated topics.

The House Civil Justice Subcommittee on Thursday overwhelmingly backed a pair of proposals (HJR 301 and HB 303) that would seek voter approval in 2020 to abolish the Constitution Revision Commission, which drew across-the-aisle scorn for the manner in which it successfully put seven amendments on the November 2018 ballot.

The House proposals are filed for consideration during the 2020 legislative session, which starts Jan. 14. A similar proposal to abolish the Constitution Revision Commission during the 2019 session passed the Senate but died in the House.

House sponsor Brad Drake, R-Eucheeanna, said he remains encouraged about the prospects of eliminating what he believes has become a “dangerous” commission.

“I think we’ve got a good shot,” Drake said after Thursday’s meeting. “What happened last year, it got caught in the bundle” of bills as the legislative session ended.

Rep. Ben Diamond, a St. Petersburg Democrat who voted against both bills Thursday, argued the commission retains value.

“I’m not comfortable with the idea of just abolishing the commission,” Diamond said. “I think the commission should serve a purpose in addressing long-term issues with our state Constitution that need to be addressed.”

Diamond supports different proposals -- so far moving only in the Senate -- that would impose a single-subject requirement on any amendment placed on the ballot by the Constitution Revision Commission or the state Taxation and Budget Reform Commission (SJR 176 and SJR 396).

Both commissions meet every 20 years and have unusual power to propose constitutional amendments for voter approval.

Drake, however, doesn’t view the proposals to end “bundling” of multiple topics in single amendments as changing the tone of the Constitution Revision Commission, which he said was seen as a “proxy vote” for the people who put the panel together.

“Tell me how to fix it,” Drake told the House panel. “At this point, I’m not sure that we can because of the very existence of what this committee has become.”

Members of the last year’s 37-member commission were mostly appointed by then-Gov. Rick Scott, then-Senate President Joe Negron and then-House Speaker Richard Corcoran.

The controversy about bundling multiple topics stems from commission decisions such as combining in one amendment a ban on vaping in workplaces and a ban on offshore oil drilling. Critics said voters could support one issue in an amendment and oppose another issue in the same amendment.

Questions also have been raised about the commission seeking to make policy changes through amendments, rather than addressing constitutional issues.

However, most of the controversy has centered on the bundled proposals, which also included tying together issues such as crime victims’ rights and the mandatory retirement age for judges and the governance of the state-college system and death benefits for survivors of first responders and military members.

“I think that the intent of this committee, way back in its origin, had some valid purpose,” Drake said. “I think they had a responsibility to do. And I wish they would have gone back and looked at some of the things that are in the Constitution that could have been revised.”

Established by voters as part of the 1968 Florida Constitution, the commission was created as a way to provide a “generational” review of the state’s top legal document.