Sun Sentinel Opinion // Randy Schultz
Thirty-seven Floridians, almost all of them unknown to the public, will be among the state’s most potentially powerful people over the next 18 months.
They serve on the Constitution Revision Commission. Their impact could last far longer than that of many people who hold elective office.
If leaders of the Florida House or Senate propose a constitutional amendment, they must get support from 60 percent of their members. An amendment may be a priority for one chamber and not the other. For the Legislature, getting anything major to the ballot is hard.
Groups or individuals backing an amendment by petition must gather 766,200 signatures over 14 of the 27 congressional districts. Those signatures must be verified by Feb. 1 – nine months before the election – and the Florida Supreme Court must review the proposal. If you don’t have money and/or passionate supporters, the chances of getting a proposal on the ballot are slim.
For the Constitution Revision Commission, however, it takes just one vote. Of how many members? To be determined. The commission can propose amendments that cover more than one subject. The commission’s amendments undergo court review only if the commission allows it. There is no limit on how many amendments the commission can propose.
So you can understand why last Friday’s commission hearing drew a standing-room-only crowd to the Delray Acura Club at Florida Atlantic University Stadium. Those with a cause see the commission as their express train to the ballot.
Example: Restoration of civil rights for ex-felons. Floridians for a Fair Democracy seeks to achieve this through a petition for everyone except convicted murderers and sex offenders, but the group has obtained less than 10 percent of the required signatures.
At FAU, many speakers pitched the idea to the commission. Fat chance. Attorney General Pam Bondi is a commission member. In 2011, she and Gov. Rick Scott collaborated to end the more enlightened policy under Charlie Crist and again make Florida the new Jim Crow state for rights restoration.
This time, however, Gov. Rick Scott and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, have signaled that they want the commission to make policy through the constitution – policy that they might not be able to set through the Legislature. This is the first commission that Republican appointees dominate, and they have strongly conservative ideas.
Many appointees support increased state money for private schools. They could recommend eliminating the constitutional ban on such spending that killed Jeb Bush’s first school voucher program. Some of those appointees visited on Florida the unpopular obsession with tests that supposedly bring accountability to traditional public schools but from which schools that accept corporate tax vouchers are exempt.
Then there’s Carlos Beruff, the commission chairman. A homebuilder and Scott appointee, Beruff lasted long enough in last year’s Republican Senate primary to call President Barack Obama an “animal,” a comment Beruff blamed on his Spanish heritage. In 2015, Beruff resigned from the board of the Southwest Florida Water Management District one day after allowing a friend to build on environmentally sensitive land.
In addition to public schools, another commission target could be the courts. Corcoran favors term limits for Florida Supreme Court justices and appellate court judges. The House has passed such an amendment for 2018. If the Senate doesn’t go along, the commission could get the proposal on the ballot.
Republican appointees also could try to undermine the Fair Districts Amendments, which voters approved in 2010. A lawsuit citing those amendments forced the Legislature to redraw congressional and state Senate districts because the maps – drawn in secret — favored incumbents and the GOP. If legislation to subvert the will of the public fails, there’s always the commission.
Sixty percent of the voters still would have to approve any of the commission’s amendments. Even a $26 million campaign last year by the state’s utilities failed to give them control over solar power. But opponents could focus on one issue. A rogue commission could put so many bad amendments on the ballot that a few could slip through. If that happened, it would take 20 years to repair the damage.