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  1. Florida Politics

Want to change Florida's Constitution? Today is application deadline for revision board

Florida Gov. Rick Scott will appoint 15 members, including its chair, to the state's Constitutional Revision Commission, a 37-member board that meets every 20 years. [AP Photo | Matt Rourke]
Published Jan. 20, 2017

TALLAHASSEE — Friday is the last day to apply to be a member of what may be one of the most influential groups assembled in Florida in two decades — the Florida Constitutional Revision Commission.

The unique panel has the power to put proposals directly on the 2018 mid-term ballot to reform and update the state's constitution, and shape Florida's future. The list of applicants is long, and many have been carefully recruited by Gov. Rick Scott, the chief justice of the Supreme Court and Florida's top two legislative leaders. Those four men will make the appointments.

The state has done this twice: in 1978 — after the 1968 rewrite of the state Constitution — and 1998. If past experience is any indicator, the commission will be mostly political insiders.

Scott will appoint 15 members, including its chair. House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, and Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, each have nine appointees. Chief Justice Jorge Labarga will appoint three members. Attorney General Pam Bondi, a Republican, is automatically a member.

As of Thursday, there were 258 applicants for the 37-member commission, and the list of applicants is chock full of current and former elected officials, and dozens of high-profile attorneys. Ten current lawmakers want to be on the panel, including House Democratic Leader Janet Cruz of Tampa. Dozens of former legislators have applied, including former Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and his son, U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, who was just elected to Congress. Former Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum, the governor's primary opponent in 2010, has asked the governor to appoint him to the commission.

Those wishing to apply can go here.

There are several local officials willing to make the commitment. Miami-Dade County Commissioner Sally Heyman, a former Democratic state representative, has applied, and so has Broward County Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie. Former Supreme Court Justice Charles Wells has indicated his interest in being on the panel.

As mandated in the Florida Constitution, the commission will meet for approximately one year to identify issues, perform research, debate and recommend changes to the Constitution. The job is time consuming, requiring ample time to travel the state and listen to the public. Members of the commission serve without pay, although in the past expenses have been covered.

The application deadline for the Senate, and Supreme Court closed in December. Corcoran is accepting applications through today. Applications to the governor remain open. Corcoran had received 44 by Thursday, compared to 99 received by the governor, 79 by the Senate and 36 by the court.

Corcoran and Negron have made it clear they have priorities in mind for the commission.

Negron said he will select his appointees based on three factors: do they have sound judgment, come from a "diverse background of life experiences" and share his core values — "the sovereignty of the individual, pro-consumer, and support parental choice in education."

Corcoran told the Times/Herald he prefers that his appointees have elective experience so they know how to pitch proposals that are likely to win popular approval and get past the 60 percent voter approval needed for a constitutional amendment to become law.

He said he will reject anyone who is a traditional "special interest" lobbyist, but he is open to considering people who are single-issue advocates, especially on his top priorities of education reform and term limits for judges.

"Absolutely there is a litmus test," Corcoran said. "I will not choose one selection that is not a conservative."

Among the applicants is Frank Atkisson, a conservative Republican who served in the Florida House from 2000-2008 and was a part of former Speaker Marco Rubio's education policy team when Corcoran was Rubio's chief of staff. Atkisson has since run a chain of charter schools and currently runs a company that specializes in American board certification for teachers of excellence.

Atkisson said he hasn't discussed the job with Corcoran and was not recruited for the post, but he could bring with him the school-choice sensibilities Corcoran said he wants to change the state's education laws that favor county-run public schools.

"In my mind, there has been a dwindling away of what the Constitution should be for," Atkisson said. He said he believes the teachers union drove the debate on class size, the gambling industry drove the debate on the authorization of slot machines and, in 2016, the utilities industry attempted to use the constitution to halt the expansion of solar power.

"I just don't think the constitution should be industry driven," he said.

Twenty years ago, the state was in the midst of its last era of divided government. Lawton Chiles, a Democrat, was governor, and the Legislature was newly controlled by Republicans.

In 1978, the governor's office and the Legislature were controlled by Democrats, and the commission lacked diversity. Voters rejected all eight of its proposals. In 1998, with an evenly divided commission, voters approved eight of its nine proposals.

Former Gov. Bob Martinez, a Republican who preceded Chiles, said he believes the "most critical" point in the CRC process is who gets appointed.

"It is much different than it was 20 years ago in terms of the diversity of the state," Martinez said, during a forum on the CRC at Florida State University. "It's very important that these people represent the demographics of the state."

Bob Butterworth, four-term attorney general and a member of the 1998 commission, said that the composition of the commission is critical.

The 1998 commission was half Republicans and half Democrats, he said, and the result was that the partisans and ideologues in the group had to compromise.

While many came in with ideas of their own, they were also forced to listen to each other and that resulted in compromises, he told the FSU forum.

"When making our decisions we dealt with it much like a jury," he said. "We deliberated what's best for the state of Florida."

The 1998 commission also decided that for any proposal to make it to the ballot, it would need a super-majority vote of the 37-member commission — which he said increased the odds it would pass Florida's divided electorate.

"Florida then was a 50/50 state as it is now," Butterworth said. "If you put something on the ballot, why spend all of that time and have it not passing? ... If [the commission] is not diverse, it's all going to fail."

For Scott, whom he appoints as chairman and the diversity of the individuals he selects could be one of the most important legacies he leaves as governor. Chiles picked Dexter Douglass, whose personality, knowledge of law and strength of character was seen as pivotal to the success of the commission.

Gerald Kogan, who as chief judge of the Florida Supreme Court in 1998 appointed himself to the CRC, said that "it doesn't make any difference" that everyone who appoints members to the commission this year is a Republican.

"If you pick the right people and if you look for diversity — that would include political affiliation — then I don't think you can go wrong," he said. "You need people of good will."

Contact Mary Ellen Klas at meklas@miamiherald.com. Follow @MaryEllenKlas

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