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Tallahassee Democrat: Constitutional panel should be improved, not abolished | Opinion

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

By Carol S. Weissert

While I often agree with our capital curmudgeon, Bill Cotterell, I absolutely do not support the suggestion in his May 20 column that the CRC should be abolished because its proposals are disappointing and probably won’t pass anyway.

Really, Bill. Does this mean we dump Congress when we don’t like what it does or revamp our judiciary when it makes a decision we feel is wrong?

Institutions are important, and Florida’s Constitution Revision Commission is an especially important institution. We are the only state in the country that constitutes a group of citizens every 20 years to review Florida’s Constitution and make recommendations for change. The group is powerful, since it puts items directly on the ballot and doesn’t have to abide by the single subject rule.

Cotterell believes we don’t need the CRC since the initiative process is an outlet for citizens to put issues on the ballot with petition signatures when the Legislature can’t or won’t be responsive to their concerns. This is true, but unbelievably difficult and expensive.

And the initiative is not free from distortion either. The process involves major campaigns with hired signature collectors, lawyers and on-ground staff. Then, unless there is a significant education effort, the measures often fail Florida’s 60 percent requirement. This is a pretty slender reed upon which to hang significant citizen input.

The CRC held extensive public hearings across the state and encouraged citizens to submit their own proposals. Around 800 such proposals were submitted. Did they make it to the ballot? Of course most did not. But hundreds of people turned out for the hearings, thousands watched on television and others read about them. Maybe we all learned something in the process.

Can the CRC be improved? Of course. Its biggest problem is how it’s appointed. The 2017-2018 CRC was heavily weighted with Republicans and has been criticized for superficial issues grouped in strategic ways.

Similarly, the first CRC in 1977-1978 was dominated by Democrats and none of its proposals passed muster with the public. Yet the 1997-1998 CRC was very successful.  Why? Perhaps because it was bipartisan. When the governor was a Democrat and the Legislature was Republican, their appointees produced a highly successful bipartisan CRC.

What can be done? First, why not have the CRC reflect the third branch of government — the judiciary — more fully? Rather than 15 appointments by the governor, 18 by the legislature and 3 from the chief justice, how about more balance — say 12 gubernatorial appointments, 12 judicial, and six each from the House and Senate. This would require a constitutional amendment.

Second, for bipartisanship the Legislature could add a statutory requirement that appointments by each appointer reflect a mixture of parties. They could also allow the minority party in the Legislature to make several appointments.

There may be other ways to improve the process. But let’s not throw away one of Florida’s important public engagement institutions simply because we may not like what it did this time.

Improvements, yes. Bipartisanship, absolutely. Abolishment? No way.

Carol S. Weissert, Ph.D., is LeRoy Collins Eminent Scholar and professor of political science and director of the LeRoy Collins Institute.


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