Monday, May 21, 2018
Opinion

Dockery: Diversity and balance needed on constitutional panel

The Constitutional Revision Commission is required to meet every 20 years to review Florida's Constitution and to recommend changes. Before it can meet, the 37 members must be appointed.

The governor appoints 15 members. The Senate president and the speaker of the House each appoint nine members. The chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court has three appointments and the attorney general is an automatic member. The governor chooses the chairman.

Gov. Rick Scott has put out a call for applicants. Senate President Andy Gardiner has done the same and Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Jorge LaBarga is accepting resumes.

The job doesn't come with a salary and requires a full year of research, review and deliberation. It's one of the most influential and consequential volunteer positions in state government.

This is a great opportunity for citizens to have a voice — or is it?

The Supreme Court will likely select three legal experts with government or constitutional expertise. That makes sense and serves us well.

The governor and legislative leaders have 33 appointments among them. There will be no shortage of applicants who are elected officials, former legislators, lobbyists and other government insiders. The politically well connected will be jockeying for seats on the influential and powerful panel.

Will the appointments be used to reward former staff, colleagues or financial contributors? Will leaders try to stack the CRC with those who share a certain ideology or support their pet issues?

Or is the process truly wide-open, with the possibility for diversity and balance in the commission's composition? Even if this opportunity does exist, will there be a robust applicant pool?

Serving on the CRC requires a serious commitment of time, with frequent travel throughout the state for meetings and public hearings for an entire year. Many Floridians with full-time jobs might not have the time or flexibility to participate, but we do have a wealth of very capable retirees.

Others who are interested might feel they lack the background or knowledge to serve alongside lawyers and government operatives. Some who have the time and expertise might fear applying because they lack the political connections to be appointed. Try anyway.

If past experience is any indicator, commission members from the 1978 and 1998 CRCs were mostly political insiders.

The CRC — a group of unelected appointees — will have the power to put constitutional changes directly on the ballot. Why is this so important?

The hardest part of changing the Constitution is getting the amendment on the ballot. Once there, the majority of them pass. Since 1978 there have been 137 proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot — and 102 passed, nearly 75 percent.

The CRC can put amendments on the ballot to clean up outdated or conflicting provisions in the Constitution. This is more of a maintenance function and the least controversial.

The CRC can also introduce new issues, amend existing constitutional language or undo what citizens accomplished through the initiative process. Citizens worry that the CRC could be influenced or pressured to put a proposal before the voters that would drastically alter or repeal the fruits of their hard-fought labor.

Citizens have a cumbersome path to getting issues on the ballot — a multistep process that is difficult, costly and time-consuming. They often face opposition from both the Legislature and well-financed special interests. Some voters fear the damage the CRC can do if citizens don't have meaningful representation on the commission.

The CRC can also reintroduce issues that failed to make the ballot through other methods, such as the legislative constitutional amendment process that requires a supermajority vote. If the governor and legislative leaders stack the commission with friendly appointees, they could circumvent the risk of pushing controversial constitutional changes through the Legislature.

Appointments will be made before the start of the legislative session in March.

Citizens need to be involved at every stage. They should try to influence the makeup of the commission by volunteering themselves, recommending others, lobbying those who make the appointments and speaking out against those being considered who pose a risk to a fair and balanced process.

The governor and legislative leaders should strive for diversity and balance with bipartisan representation and should refrain from appointing sitting legislators and lobbyists to the CRC to avoid potential conflicts of interest. The Legislature already has the ability to put constitutional amendments on the ballot and is responsible for the lion's share — 79 of 137.

Ideally there would be representatives from voter rights groups, environmental organizations, local governments, First Amendment scholars, government watchdogs, criminal justice reformers and experts in education, courts, health care, water policy and taxation.

We're watching.

Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland. She can be reached at [email protected]

Comments
Editorial: Tampa Bay House members fail to stand up to Big Sugar

Editorial: Tampa Bay House members fail to stand up to Big Sugar

Big Sugar remains king in Florida. Just three of the state’s 27 House members voted for an amendment to the farm bill late Thursday that would have started unwinding the needless government supports for sugar that gouge taxpayers. Predictably, the am...
Published: 05/18/18
Editorial: Bondi holds drug industry accountable for Florida opioid crisis

Editorial: Bondi holds drug industry accountable for Florida opioid crisis

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi’s lawsuit against the nation’s largest drug makers and distributors marks a moment of awakening in the state’s battle to recover from the opioid crisis. In blunt, forceful language, Bondi accuses these companies of ...
Published: 05/18/18
Editorial: A sweet note for the Florida Orchestra’s violin program for at-risk kids

Editorial: A sweet note for the Florida Orchestra’s violin program for at-risk kids

This is music to the ears. Members of the Florida Orchestra will introduce at-risk students to the violin this summer at some Hillsborough recreation centers. For free.An $80,000 grant to the University Area Community Development Corp. will pay for s...
Published: 05/17/18
Updated: 05/18/18
Trump backs off China tariff threat as China pumps money into a Trump family project

Trump backs off China tariff threat as China pumps money into a Trump family project

In barely six weeks, President Donald Trump has gone from threatening to impose $150 billion in tariffs on Chinese goods to extending a lifeline to ZTE, a Chinese cell phone company that violated U.S. sanctions by doing business with Iran and North K...
Published: 05/17/18
Editorial: Activism as seniors helps put Hillsborough graduates on the right path

Editorial: Activism as seniors helps put Hillsborough graduates on the right path

Lots of teenagers are walking together this week in Hillsborough County, a practice they’ve grown accustomed to during this remarkable school year.We can only hope they keep walking for the rest of their lives.Tens of thousands of them this week are ...
Published: 05/17/18
Editorial: Bondi holds drug industry accountable for Florida opioid crisis

Editorial: Bondi holds drug industry accountable for Florida opioid crisis

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi’s lawsuit against the nation’s largest drug makers and distributors marks a moment of awakening in the state’s battle to recover from the opioid crisis. In blunt, forceful language, Bondi accuses these companies of ...
Published: 05/16/18
Updated: 05/18/18
Editorial: Johns Hopkins All Children’s should be more open about mistakes

Editorial: Johns Hopkins All Children’s should be more open about mistakes

A state investigation raises even more concern about medical errors at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital and the venerable St. Petersburg institution’s lack of candor to the community. Regulators have determined the hospital broke Florida law by ...
Published: 05/16/18
Updated: 05/17/18
Editorial: St. Petersburg recycling worth the effort despite cost issues

Editorial: St. Petersburg recycling worth the effort despite cost issues

St. Petersburg’s 3-year-old recycling program has reached an undesirable tipping point, with operating costs exceeding the income from selling the recyclable materials. The shift is driven by falling commodity prices and new policies in China that cu...
Published: 05/15/18
Updated: 05/18/18
Editorial: HUD’s flawed plan to raise rents on poor people

Editorial: HUD’s flawed plan to raise rents on poor people

Housing Secretary Ben Carson has a surefire way to reduce the waiting lists for public housing: Charge more to people who already live there. Hitting a family living in poverty with rent increases of $100 or more a month would force more people onto ...
Published: 05/15/18
Updated: 05/18/18
Editorial: Voters should decide whether legal sports betting comes to Florida

Editorial: Voters should decide whether legal sports betting comes to Florida

It’s a safe bet Florida will get caught up in the frenzy to legalize wagering on sports following the U.S. Supreme Court opinion this week that lifted a federal ban. Struggling horse and dog tracks would love a new line of business, and state l...
Published: 05/15/18
Updated: 05/16/18