Saturday, February 24, 2018

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]

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