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Florida's Constitution Revision Panel Targeted Again

Republican Senator Jeff Brandes is the principal backer of the Senate's criminal justice reform bill dubbed the Florida First Step Act.
Republican state Senator Jeff Brandes.

TALLAHASSEE --- An influential appointed panel that recommends changes to the Florida Constitution every 20 years is again in the crosshairs of state lawmakers.

With bipartisan support, the Senate Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee on Wednesday backed a proposal (SJR 204) by Sen. Jeff Brandes that would ask Floridians to eliminate the 37-member Constitution Revision Commission.

Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said the problem with the commission, whose members are mostly appointed by the governor, House speaker and Senate president, is that it isn’t directly accountable to voters.

“In many ways, the Constitution Revision Commission is like a Pandora's box that we open every 20 years, and none of us know what's going to come out of it,” Brandes said.

Set up by voters as part of the 1968 Florida Constitution, the commission meets every two decades and has unique power to place proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot.

The commission in 2018 successfully put forward seven amendments, including high-profile measures designed to ban offshore oil drilling, prohibit vaping in enclosed indoor workspaces, bar elected officials from lobbying the first six years out of office and outlaw greyhound racing.

But the commission drew widespread criticism, at least in part because it bundled unrelated issues into single ballot proposals. For example, it tied together the bans on oil drilling and workplace vaping. Critics argued such bunding was unfair to voters, who might support one issue in a ballot proposal and oppose another.

Brandes’ proposal to repeal the commission would require voter approval because it would involve changing the Constitution. Along with receiving bipartisan support from lawmakers Wednesday, it drew backing from the conservative Americans for Prosperity-Florida and more-liberal groups such as the Florida National Organization for Women and the Florida Policy Action Network.

Rich Templin, a lobbyist for the Florida AFL-CIO, said the commission in 2018 waded into issues that should be addressed by the Legislature. The 2018 version of the commission was mostly appointed by then-Gov. Rick Scott, then-Senate President Joe Negron and then-House Speaker Richard Corcoran.

“Getting analyses from the CRC (the commission) on the various provisions was very difficult. When we did get those analyses, they were very thin. They were not well-researched,” Templin told the Senate committee. “And yet that body was able to deliberate and put on the ballot many legislative proposals that we felt were much more suited to your purview.”

Brandes said that if the commission is abolished, changes to the Constitution could still be made through amendments placed on the ballot by the Legislature or through a public petition process.

Brandes’ proposal is filed for the 2021 legislative session, which will start March 2. Lawmakers also considered legislation to eliminate the commission in the 2019 and 2020 sessions, but the measures did not pass.