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Things we bet you never knew about state charters

Ah, you can count on those hardy, no-nonsense New Englanders; taciturn and straightforward Yankees. They can get things done with few words and little fuss. Like Vermonters, who eke by with a state constitution of a mere 8,356 words, the shortest of any state.

That’s only about 900 more than the U.S. Constitution and about a third of the typical state charter. (About 26,000 words.) And of course, there’s Massachusetts, which has gotten along with the same constitution since 1780, the oldest among the 50 states.

On the other side, there’s Alabama, whose constitution runs on for more than 220,000 words, probably in no small part because it has been amended more than 772 times. And Louisiana, which has had 11 different state constitutions since joining the union in 1812.

Those and many other constitutional tidbits were presented to the House Judiciary Committee at its November 9 meeting by Tom Thomas, on the staff of the House Justice Council, and House General Counsel Deborah Kearney. Much of the information came from Understanding State Constitutions by G. Alan Tarr and published in 1998 by the Princeton University Press, and most of the rest from Florida records. It was all by way of background for the panel, which is looking at streamlining the Florida Constitution by removing some provisions and making them statutes.

The Florida Constitution, by the way, checks in at about 39,000 words. It has been amended 102 times since 1968, when the new constitution (except for Article V which was approved in 1972) was adopted. The typical life of a state constitution is 70 years, and during that time it is amended about 115 times.

But apparently the trend to rewrite state constitutions is waning. While the states have done so 145 times since 1776, there have only been 12 instances since 1901 with the latest example being Georgia in 1983.

Florida has had six constitutions, three of them clustered around the Civil War and Reconstruction, which in turn led to the 1885 constitution which was a reaction to the last reconstruction constitution, which had a strong executive. Consequently, the 1885 document diffused executive authority in several Cabinet agencies, among other changes.

That lasted until the 1968 rewrite.

Since the 1968 constitution, (and not counting the Article V rewrite which was left undone until 1972), there have been 136 amendments proposed to the Florida Constitution. Of those, 102 have passed, voters rejected 31, and three were removed by the Florida Supreme Court for infirmities in the ballot language or other problems.

There are five ways to amend the state charter. One is a constitutional convention, which hasn’t been used in recent times. The second is the legislature can send an amendment to voters by a three-fifths vote of both chambers. Then there’s citizen initiative, the Constitution Revision Commission which is appointed by state leaders and meets every 20 years, and the Tax and Budget Reform Commission, which meets between the CRC meetings and is limited to fiscal matters.

The Florida Legislature leads the way in the state’s amendment sweepstakes, having proposed 89 amendments since 1968, of which 71 have been adopted, 16 rejected, and two tossed by the court. Twenty-six amendments have reached the ballot by initiative, of which 21 have been approved.

The Constitution Revision Commission has had an all or nothing record. The 1977-78 CRC proposed eight amendments, all rejected by voters, although some of its proposals were incorporated in later amendments which were approved. The 1997-98 CRC proposed nine amendments, all of which were adopted.

The Tax and Budget Reform Commission has proposed four amendments, of which two passed, one was rejected, and one was removed by the court.

There are around 50 citizen initiative constitutional amendment petitions currently circulating in Florida, although historically, most won’t gather enough signatures to make the ballot.

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