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Full slate of constitutional proposals in pipeline

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By Sean Arnold

The Florida Constitution Revision Commission (CRC), a group of 37 delegates charged with examining the Florida Constitution and filing amendment recommendations to go before voters this November, is only on its third edition in state history.

The first CRC came in 1977-1978, and there has only been once since, in 1997-1998, as the Commission operates once every 20 years.

But this cycle is figuring to be the most significant yet, as the Commission is currently weighing 103 amendment proposals.

Stephanie Marchman, senior assistant attorney for the City of Gainesville, and representative for the Eighth Judicial Circuit to the Florida Bar’s Board of Governors, paid a visit to the meeting of the Suwannee Valley Rotary Club Jan. 11 to discuss the Florida Constitution and the CRC.

Before addressing the CRC’s current business, she outlined the function of the Florida Constitution, noting its role in defining the structure of the state government and citizens’ state rights.

The Florida Constitution is more frequently amended than the U.S. Constitution, and the CRC is one of five ways by which that process can happen. While the U.S. Constitution has been amended just 27 times, the Florida Constitution has more than 120 amendments since 1968.

The CRC was established partly as an effort to modernize the Florida Constitution, but none of its eight proposals were passed by voters in its first iteration in 1978. In 1998, such amendments as the creation of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the restructuring of the state cabinet and an amendment on ballot access and campaign finance reform were among the eight proposals that ultimately passed.

The proposals filed by Commissioners must garners 60 percent of the Commission’s approval to make the general election ballot, and those amendments require 60 percent approval by Florida voters to pass, the same requirement as citizen initiatives – such as the recent medical marijuana amendment – that make the ballot.

Most of the Commissioners were selected by Gov. Rick Scott (15 appointments), Senate President Joe Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran (nine appointments apiece), all Republicans. Chief Justice Jorge Labarga had three appointments, and Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi also serves on the CRC, as required by the Constitution. The members include attorneys and government officials as well as those from such areas as education, criminal justice, the medical profession and real estate and other businesses. Carlos Beruff, a real estate developer from Bradenton, and appointee of Gov. Scott, serves as the chairman.

Marchman noted the lack of balance between the executive and legislative appointments versus those from the judicial.

The CRC accepts proposals from the public for consideration. There were 782 such proposals – made through the CRC website, public hearings, email and mail – offered by the public. Six of those made the cut for the current 103. Public proposals require either 10 Commission votes or a Commissioner sponsorship to proceed. The deadline for proposals was in October. CRC proposals must be filed by May 10 to make the November ballot.

“There was some concern, I think, from the public about the Commission not being responsive to the public,” Marchman said. “Although, some of the Commissioners indicated they felt like a number of their proposals were duplicative of public proposals.”

The CRC holds public hearings throughout the process, and met in Gainesville last year. The nearest upcoming public hearings outside of Tallahassee include one on Feb. 20 at the University of North Florida, and another on March 13 at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg. The upcoming public hearings are set to allow input on the 103 proposals.

“It was about four hours long, and there were hundreds of people there,” Marchman said of the Gainesville public hearing. “Anybody who wanted to get up and speak could speak to the Commission, and I was really impressed with how many different people came out and how many different topics were covered.”

Among the current proposals for consideration are: reducing voting restrictions for felons who serve their sentences; new victims’ privacy rights; a prohibition on the death penalty; a requirement for teaching civic literacy in schools and several education proposals, including the requirement to appoint – rather than elect – school superintendents, and the allowance for diverting public funds to private schools. The School Board of Levy County and Superintendent of Schools Jeff Edison have raised concerns about the education proposals, arguing they threaten the principles of local control and home rule, as they would put in place a universal standard for all districts, regardless of size and needs.

There’s also a proposal to raise the age limit for judges from 70 to 75, which could significantly determine which governor appoints successors for a large group of aging judges currently in the system.

Information about the CRC proposals, Commission members and their contact information, and a calendar of hearings can be found at https://flcrc.gov/.