by W. Dexter Douglass
The journey to proposing revisions to Florida’s Constitution has been as rewarding as it has been lengthy. The conclusion of the process will come in November, when the citizens of Florida vote either to adopt or reject the nine proposed amendments of the Constitution Revision Commission.
Over the past nine months I have traveled across the state with the 37 members of the Constitution Revision Commission in an effort to ensure that citizens of Florida do, indeed, have a voice in making changes to our state’s basic document. Our travels took us more than 2,000 miles for 15 public hearings. We heard more than 100 hours of testimony, from nearly 1,000 speakers.
At the public hearings last summer we considered about 600 proposals. Then the commission diligently studied the issues, wrote them into official proposals, examined them further in committees, voted numerous times on their merits, and finally approved the nine revisions to go on the ballot.
Throughout the process it was important for commission members to realize that this body was formed to serve Florida’s citizens. We heard the desires of Florida’s people from the outset, and we have jointly come forward with changes to create less, but more accountable and responsive, government.
An accompanying article in this issue provides an overview of the commission’s product, and the Bar Journal’s October issue has been reserved for a detailed analysis of each of the commission’s proposals.
I encourage members of The Florida Bar to familiarize themselves with the revision proposals and to participate in the November election.
The Governor, Speaker of the House of Representatives, President of the Senate, and Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court appointed 36 members of the Constitution Revision Commission. Governor Lawton Chiles appointed 15 members and designated the chair. Speaker Daniel Webster and President Toni Jennings each appointed nine members, and Chief Justice Gerald Kogan appointed three. Attorney General Robert A. Butterworth served by virtue of his office.
Prior to the appointments, several citizens’ groups and individuals cautioned the appointing authorities to be sensitive to the needs of all Floridians and to create a commission that was inclusive and representative of the state’s diverse population. It became quite clear that the appointments to the commission, which included attorneys, judges, legislators, an architect, members of the business and real estate communities, educators, and locally elected officials, set the tone for establishing such a diverse and well-balanced group.
The time and energy invested by the commissioners was immense. Many had perfect attendance records, which is quite remarkable considering the amount of time necessitated simply for travel to Tallahassee and around the state for meetings. None received compensation other than for travel. They truly provided a great service to the state of Florida and its citizens.
Every region of the state was represented on the commission, and commissioners declined to adopt a parochial perspective on issues. Instead, they focused on the needs of the entire state. As an example, Commissioner Stanley Marshall of Tallahassee pushed for an amendment that would have allowed for divided school districts in the highest populated counties, a proposal that would have had no effect on his hometown. Despite his efforts, the proposal failed, but the idea will live.
The commission conducted extensive public hearings that served as the backbone to its consideration and ultimate product. Twelve public hearings were held around the state at the beginning of the commission process to receive citizen proposals. Similarly, public hearings were held near the end of the revision process to allow the public to comment on those proposals that had survived up until that point. All totaled, about 1,000 citizens spoke at the hearings.
Every public issue raised was considered by the commission. Proposals ranged from the expected — judicial issues, reapportionment, abortion, death penalty, and Cabinet reform—to the unanticipated—legalization of marijuana, denture reform, and various taxes.
Any citizen proposal receiving the support of at least 10 commissioners was moved forward, formally drafted, and referred to a committee for more precise input.
Ten committees, which essentially paralleled the articles of the constitution, studied the filed proposals. The committees, unlike those in the Legislature, had no authority to defeat a proposal. They could, and did, offer improved language in the form of committee substitutes that were sent forward. All proposals were considered by the full commission.
Select committees also were appointed for issues relating to the initiative process, sovereign immunity, and Article V costs. It is interesting to note proposals filed by a commissioner that were not approved by the commission: sovereign immunity reform, an independent reapportionment commission, a unicameral legislature, abortion (parental consent and partial birth abortion), and the death penalty (modifying the process).
Sessions and Votes
The commission met in full session from October through March in the Senate chamber, where it debated, refined, and ultimately voted on proposals. For a proposal to be placed on the ballot, it needed a super-majority vote of the commission (22 or more votes). The super-majority vote requirement represented a marked departure from the 1978 commission, which required a simple-majority vote.
Florida’s only other experience with constitution revision was 20 years ago, when it became apparent that citizens’ appetite for revision was nonexistent. As a result, all eight proposed revisions were rejected. Eventually, many of those proposals were adopted by the Legislature or through citizen initiatives, and placed in the constitution or in statutes.
Whether any or all of the nine proposed amendments pass or fail, the work of the 1997-98 Constitution Revision Commission should not be judged primarily on the results of the November 3 election. Rather, the commission should be seen as a group that provided a relatively unbiased review of the constitution for the citizens of Florida. The commission provided the state with an intense study of hundreds of issues, then determined which ones were important enough to have its citizens either approve or reject as constitutional amendments.
The entire commission experienced a unique opportunity to examine the blueprint for Florida government. The commission performed its duties honorably and well. On November 3, the citizens of Florida will get their final say on the commission’s exhaustive review of the state constitution.
Principal Features of Revisions
The following are offered by the 1997-98 Constitution Revision Commission:
1) Environment. Extends P-2000 bonding authority, unifies Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission and Marine Fisheries Commission, and expands upon the state policy to protect and conserve the natural resources of the state.
2) Education. Directs the state to provide an efficient, safe, and high quality system of public education and provides that education is a paramount duty of the state.
3) Judicial. Provides for local option to adopt a system of merit selection and retention of trial judges, increases county court judges’ terms to six years, and provides that the State of Florida would assume much of the expense associated with the judiciary.
4) Cabinet Restructuring. Streamlines the Cabinet from six to three members: the Attorney General, the Commissioner of Agriculture, and the Chief Financial Officer, which would perform the duties of both Treasurer and Comptroller.
5) Basic Rights. Provides that women and men are equal before the law, provides that no person shall be deprived of any right because of national origin and revises the term physical handicap to physical disability.
6) Local Government. Broadens tax exemptions for governmental uses of municipal property, permits local option exemption for tangible personal property tax exemption, and addresses ex parte communication limitation as it relates to local governments.
7) Election Reform. Improves ballot access for minor parties and independent candidates, provides public financing of campaigns for statewide candidates, permits candidate for governor to run in primary without announcing running mate, and provides for nonpartisan school board elections.
8) Firearms. Provides for local option for waiting period and criminal checks associated with the sale of any firearm.
9) Miscellaneous. Provides for miscellaneous technical or noncontroversial revisions.