Orlando Sentinel Editorial
It’s been eight months since Florida’s Constitution Revision Commission first convened. It has conducted numerous packed public meetings around the state and attracted statewide news coverage. Yet a survey by The Florida Bar, the organization that represents the state’s lawyers, found that 88 percent of state voters couldn’t correctly identify just what the commission does. That result is a flashing warning sign for Florida’s democracy.
The commission meets once every 20 years to consider changes to the Florida Constitution. Its 37 members — the state attorney general and appointees of the governor, Senate president, House speaker and chief justice of the state Supreme Court — are granted extraordinary power to present voters with proposed amendments to the document that dictates the authority and structure of government in Florida and guarantees basic rights to its citizens. Once changes are cemented into the constitution, they can only be sandblasted out with another amendment.
Any public body with so much power cries out for active, sustained scrutiny from a well-informed public.
More opportunities for public input
The Florida Legislature, which meets every year, can put proposed amendments on the ballot, but only if at least 60 percent of members in the state House and Senate endorse them. Citizens can propose amendments, but only if they collect hundreds of thousands of signatures statewide — a process that normally takes months and costs millions of dollars — and clear a Supreme Court review. Neither lawmakers nor citizens enjoy the same short cut to the ballot that the commission does.
When it launched in March, the commission appealed to the public to submit proposed constitutional amendments. It received more than 2,000 in writing by its October deadline, and fielded additional proposals at public hearings around the state and in emails and comments, according to its chairman, Carlos Beruff. But in a meeting last month that lasted barely 20 minutes, members advanced only six proposals from the public for consideration. When the commission was criticized by us and others for advancing so few public proposals — the commission that served 20 years ago accepted 128 for further consideration — Beruff argued that hundreds of proposals dealt with the same issues, and panel members were sponsoring their own proposals that “reflect” ideas from the public. As of Friday, the commission had posted 103 proposals from members on its website.
Fortunately for Floridians, the deadline for submitting proposals was not the end of the line for public input. Although the commission hasn’t set its hearing schedule for 2018 yet, a spokeswoman said the panel intends to hold additional public meetings next year as it narrows down its list of possible proposals for the ballot. It’s important for Floridians to make sure their voices are heard by attending those meetings.
The Bar is sponsoring a well-named campaign called “Protect Florida Democracy” to educate the public about the state constitution and the commission’s work, and to encourage citizens to get engaged. These are critical objectives. The website for its campaign is protectfldemocracy.org.
Time to bone up on civics
The same Bar survey that found most Floridians didn’t know about the commission also found that fewer than half recognized the state constitution as “the people’s contract with their government,” and most misunderstood the proper roles of the executive and judicial branches. Floridians who lack this understanding of civics will be in a poor position to evaluate any proposals under consideration by the commission — whether they belong in the constitution, and whether they upset the balance of power among the branches of state government. Here’s hoping more Floridians will take the time to bone up on the basics.
Ultimately, the public will get the last word on any proposed amendments on the ballot next year. Those that fail to receive support from at least 60 percent of voters won’t be added to the constitution. An informed, engaged public is the best hope for stopping any unworthy proposals from the commission — ideally, before they make it to the ballot.