Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Opinion

D'Alemberte: Preparing for an effective Constitution Revision Commission

The members of the 2017-18 Constitution Revision Commission are being named this month. The commission's proposals, if any, must be submitted at least 180 days before the 2018 general election.

Florida has more methods for amending its Constitution than any other state. Two of these have been in the Florida Constitution from the beginning (legislative proposal and constitutional convention), and two were added by a revision in 1968 (citizen initiative and the Constitution Revision Commission). A fifth method, the Tax and Budget Reform Commission, was added in 1988.

The revision commission process is unique. No other state has such a body. The commission meets every 20 years. Its members are the attorney general and 36 members appointed by the governor (15), the speaker of the House (9), the president of the Senate (9), and the Florida Supreme Court chief justice (3). The chair of the commission is appointed by the governor.

The commission is authorized to set its own rules, and its proposals go directly to the voters without review by the Legislature or the governor.

I have some thoughts on the revision process for the 2017 Legislature and the people of Florida who will ultimately judge the wisdom of any proposals and, if they approve, adopt through a three-fifths vote.

If the legislative leadership is interested in having a productive commission process, they can do three things:

• Appoint a diverse commission, free from instructions and able to listen to suggestions from the public.

• Provide adequate resources for the commission to operate and communicate.

• Use the Legislature's joint resolution power to clean up useless and outdated language in the Constitution even before the commission makes its proposals.

Of course, the first step is to make appointments of the 36 members who will serve with the attorney general.

The commissioners named by Chief Justice Jorge Labarga set a high standard for competence, integrity and diversity. They include former federal prosecutor Roberto Martinez of Miami, former state Sen. Arthenia Joyner of Tampa, and former Florida Bar president Hank Coxe of Jacksonville.

Last week, Senate President Joe Negron made his nine appointments. Although I do not know all those appointed, the list includes two respected former state senators, Don Gaetz of Niceville and Chris Smith of Fort Lauderdale, and others with experience in state and local government.

Gov. Rick Scott and House Speaker Richard Corcoran should make similarly capable and diverse appointments and resist the temptation to burden them with partisan instructions.

I have served on two commissions, the 1977-78 Revision Commission by appointment of a Democratic governor, and the 2007-08 Tax and Budget Commission by appointment of a Republican Senate president. On neither occasion was I given any instructions other than to work hard and use good judgment.

There is also the important matter of funding. This legislative session must provide the resources for the commission to hire staff, conduct public hearings (where the most important proposals are likely to originate) and communicate with the public during its proceedings and when its proposals are presented to the voters.

Finally, the Legislature can begin cleaning up the Constitution before the commission meets. Over the years, the document has accumulated numerous outdated sections and much useless language. In three articles, the Constitution allows the two chambers to eliminate useless language by adopting a joint resolution, requiring no action by the governor or the electorate. This can begin with the 2017 legislative session, which opens in March.

An example of a provision the Legislature may safely eliminate is the language of Article XII, Section 4, providing a transition for an office that no longer exists, the elected education commissioner. This office was eliminated in the 1998 Constitution revision. A great deal of language is similarly outdated and can be removed without policy debate. The Legislature can advance the revision process by taking on this unglamorous but important work.

Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte is president emeritus of Florida State University and past president of the American Bar Association. He is a former state legislator and chaired the Constitution Revision Commission in 1977-78.

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