The Florida Constitution Revision Commission has wasted months as a politically motivated scam masquerading as a high-minded effort to ask voters to improve the state’s fundamental document. The commission on Monday added amendments to the November ballot that will force voters to accept unconnected or unpopular changes with ones they support — or reject the entire amendment. It’s a cynical attempt to sneak through a conservative agenda that otherwise never would be approved, and voters should send a clear message they refuse to be manipulated.
If voters want to add protections for crime victims into the state Constitution, they also will have to approve tampering with the way judges consider the government’s position in interpreting state law. If they want to improve benefits for survivors of first responders, they will have to make it harder to raise university fees. If they want to require civic literacy in public schools, they will have to embrace term limits for school board members and state control over charter schools. These are unpalatable trade-offs, and the commission has made it more likely voters will reject every one of its amendments.
This has been such a squandered opportunity that won’t come around again until 2038. The commission is appointed every 20 years to consider changes to the Constitution and has to power to place amendments directly on the ballot. There’s no review of the language by the Florida Supreme Court, which is required for citizen initiatives. There’s no requirement that individual amendments be limited to a single subject, and that’s where this commission went off the rails.
While the commission’s rules say the subjects within an amendment should be related, the majority stretched that guideline beyond any reasonable interpretation. Raising the retirement age for judges has nothing to do with the rights of crime victims. Changing the date of the annual legislative session has nothing to do with forcing Miami-Dade County to elect its sheriff. And exactly how is banning oil drilling in state waters tied to banning the use of electronic vaping devices just as tobacco smoking is banned indoors?
Roberto Martinez, a Coral Gables lawyer and former U.S. attorney appointed to the commission by the chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court, fought the good fight Monday along with other commissioners such as Sen. Darryl Rouson of St. Petersburg. Martinez urged commissioners to separate the coupled issues into individual amendments, calling the groupings "logrolling.’’ He also warned that combining unrelated changes into single amendments undermined efforts at making the language clear. As commission member Arthenia Joyner, a former state senator from Tampa, pointed out, "If you put the good with the bad, they’re going to vote them all down.’’
Predictably, the commission rejected those pleas and some of the most strident voices were Gov. Rick Scott’s appointees. This has been a rigged process from the very beginning, when the governor appointed that noted constitutional scholar Carlos Beruff, a Bradenton developer and a Scott favorite, as chair of the commission. The rules were in constant flux, the commitment to openness was flexible and even commission members were confused by the process and had difficulty getting information.
With the commission’s final approval of amendments for the ballot, the political damage wrought by such a cynical power play is clear. This has been a colossal waste of time and a wasted opportunity that won’t come around again for 20 years. Voters are too smart to accept such one-sided trades as civic literacy in exchange for neutering local school districts.