Voters will soon decide whether to keep or abolish the state’s Constitution Revision Commission (CRC), an unelected body with the power to put constitutional amendments on ballots.
Ahead of the Nov. 8 election, the University of South Florida Institute for Public Policy & Leadership (IPPL) and the USF St. Petersburg Florida Studies Program and Center for Civic Engagement hosted two local political leaders with a vested interest in the matter. Dr. Judithanne Scourfield McLauchlan, Duckwall Professor of Florida Studies, and Casey Welch, director of the IPPL, moderated the discussion.
Tuesday’s Constitution Day event at USFSP featured St. Petersburg Sen. Jeff Brandes, who sponsored Amendment #2. The amendment would abolish the CRC if approved by 60% of voters. Former Sarasota Sen. Lisa Carlton served on the CRC from 2017-2018 and participated in the spirited debate virtually from the Sarasota-Manatee campus.
Both are Republicans, though their views on the topic vary wildly. However, as Welch noted, “there are no two bigger champions for the St. Pete and Sarasota-Manatee campuses than Senator Brandes and Senator Carlton.”
The CRC consists of 37 appointed members that meet every 20 years to review and propose changes to the state constitution. It refers constitutional amendments directly to the ballot for a public vote, an aspect unique to Florida.
The commission last met in 2017 and will convene again in 2037. According to Ballotpedia, the latest calls to abolish the CRC began in 2018, when people filed lawsuits against seven of eight proposed amendments. The litigation alleged the commission improperly bundled multiple subjects into one ballot question, and the language was either inaccurate or misled voters.
While Carlton said the CRC was a way to “bring the constitution into the neighborhoods,” Brandes likened it to the movie Jumanji.
As he explained, the movie’s focus is a game people uncover every couple of decades. There are no set rules, and dice roll typically results in negative outcomes. Like the game, Brandes said the CRC operates outside conventional boundaries, and most players lose.
“There are no rules – they can make them up as they go along,” said Brandes. “You can put things like vaping and oil drilling together and put it on the ballot. The legislature can’t do that.”
Brandes said the constitution is Florida’s foundational document by which all other laws emanate. Although he agrees with a statute to ban indoor vaping, he is unsure it necessitates a constitutional amendment “that ranks up there with freedom of speech.”
In 1980, Brandes relayed, Democrats proposed an amendment to abolish the CRC, which subsequently failed. He said Republicans are now broaching the issue because both parties realize what could happen when one is in complete control of the legislature.
He explained that one party appoints CRC members, who are unaccountable to voters. He said they are not even accountable to the people who selected them because removing someone you hand-picked to serve on a commission “is just embarrassing.”
Carlton said the lawmakers who created the CRC in 1968 realized the state would grow and diversify geographically and culturally. She added that, unlike the U.S. Constitution, Florida’s governing document is malleable.
“So, with that in mind, the founders wanted to give the people of Florida – the voters of Florida – the opportunity to have a say in what that document looks like,” said Carlton. “Amendments have to pass by 60%. So, you get yet another filter. They not only have to go through a process from the CRC, but they have to be adopted by the people.”
The commission, explained Carlton, holds public hearings throughout the state so average voters can provide guidance. While there are other ways for residents to propose ballot initiatives, she said that typically takes millions of dollars and must pass a Supreme Court review.
Carlton called the CRC a “true voice” of the people, while Brandes countered that corporate lobbyists plant many of the people at those meetings.
Carlton admitted that some speakers are registered lobbyists, like with other government hearings. She then relayed that she authored the indoor vaping amendment due to personal experiences and a lack of legislative action on that and other topics.
“You’ve had a lot of opportunity to do something, and now it’s the citizens’ turn,” added Carlton. “And so, that’s what happened.”
Ultimately, Carlton said it is not about what she or Brandes thinks. She said it is up to voters to make the final decision whether an idea deserves placement in the constitution.
Brandes said ballot initiatives essentially trick voters with complicated wording and misleading headlines. He recalled expecting a solar bill he supported to fail because they polled the language and not the title.
It garnered over 60% of the votes needed to pass, said Brandes, because people only read the heading.
Amendment #2 and several other state and local initiatives impacting daily lives will be on the Nov. 8 ballot. For voter information, visit the Supervisor of Elections website here.