In Jacksonville, residents talked about protecting gun rights and increasing abortion restrictions. In Fort Myers, residents also brought up health care and education. Today, Florida's Constitution Revision Commission comes to Tampa to hear the public's ideas about how to change the state Constitution — and it is important for residents throughout Tampa Bay to make their voices heard on possible changes in fundamental rights and protections for all Floridians.
The commission, established in the Florida Constitution, meets every 20 years to debate and propose amendments to the Constitution. The 37 members appointed by the governor, legislative leaders and the chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court hold enormous power. Their proposed amendments will go directly onto the November 2018 ballot, and any amendment requires approval by at least 60 percent of the voters to be added to the Constitution.
With Republicans in firm control of Tallahassee, this commission is particularly tilted toward the right. Carlos Beruff, the commission chairman appointed by Gov. Rick Scott, is a Bradenton developer who ran for U.S. Senate last year as a Donald Trump clone and lost in the Republican primary to incumbent Sen. Marco Rubio. Other than being close to the governor, who previously appointed him to head his board that examined the finances of Florida hospitals, Beruff has no credentials for leading the commission.
Other commission members include John Stemberger, an Orlando lawyer and high-profile opponent of gay rights and abortion rights; Patricia Levesque of Tallahassee, executive director of the Foundation for Florida's Future and CEO of the Foundation for Excellence in Education that promote former Gov. Jeb Bush's education policies and tuition vouchers for private schools; and past and current conservative Republican legislators such as former Senate President Don Gaetz of Niceville, Sen. Tom Lee of Thonotosassa and Rep. Chris Sprowls of Palm Harbor. More progressive commission members, such as former Democratic Sens. Arthenia Joyner of Tampa and Chris Smith of Fort Lauderdale, have their work cut out for them.
The commission is off to a rocky start. A coalition of groups including the League of Women Voters of Florida, the American Civil Liberties Union and Common Cause sent the commission a three-page list of concerns this week about the commission's proposed rules. One key issue involves a lack of respect for free speech and the Sunshine law, including giving Beruff the authority to stop citizens from distributing literature outside the commission's meetings and imprecise wording regarding public records. Other proposed rule changes from those used 20 years ago would make it too easy for Beruff or his allies to manipulate the commission to advance their conservative agenda without building a consensus, including procedures for taking up individual issues they favor and for killing issues they oppose without allowing those to be heard by the full commission. A rules committee that includes Gaetz, Joyner and Lee will meet in public Wednesday before the regular meeting, and these serious concerns should be addressed to ensure the commission is transparent and fair.
Floridians should keep a close watch on this commission and voice their opinions. House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, and others who appointed members of the commission have made it clear they want to advance their conservative agenda. Corcoran wants term limits for appellate judges and Florida Supreme Court justices, which would undermine the independence and quality of the court system. He and others also want expanded school choice that would erode the state's commitment to public schools. There also will be an attempt to gut the Constitution's privacy clause, which has been cited by the courts to block restrictions on abortion.
This is the Florida Constitution Revision Commission's first stop in Tampa Bay. It should return to hear from the public when it has proposed constitutional amendments to discuss before it makes its final decisions on which ones to put on the 2018 ballot.