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Tuesday, Nov 20, 2018
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Gov. Scott will have power over next rewriting of the state constitution

By James L. Rosica

Among Gov. Rick Scott’s legacies after two terms in office will be the role he plays in the next remake of the state constitution.

The Florida Constitution allows for a “revision commission” to meet every two decades to “examine the constitution, hold public hearings and … file its proposal, if any, of a revision of this constitution or any part of it.”

Though the next commission doesn’t meet till 2017, it was invoked as lawmakers began meeting in special session last week.

Some groused over having to redraw the state’s congressional districts because the state Supreme Court found they failed constitutional muster under the “Fair Districts” amendments, passed in 2010 after a citizen initiative.

Because there were complaints of judicial overreach, reporters asked whether those amendments – meant to prevent gerrymandering, or the favoring of one political party – could be revisited by the revision commission.

“I think so,” said state Sen. Bill Galvano, the Republican who chairs the Senate’s redistricting panel. “We’re going to have to take a look at it at some point in the future.”

Including Scott, a majority of Republicans will be in place to select members of the next commission.

The body has met only twice before, in 1977-78, when the state was controlled by Democrats, and 1997-98, when the GOP was still ascending to statewide power.

As governor, Scott will choose 15 of the 37 commissioners and will select a chairperson.

The House speaker and Senate president each get nine picks.

By 2017, GOP state Rep. Richard Corcoran of Land O’ Lakes is slated to be speaker and either Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater or Sen. Joe Negron of Stuart, both Republicans, likely will be president.

The attorney general is automatically a member, meaning Republican Pam Bondi will be on the panel.

Finally, the chief justice of the state Supreme Court has three selections.

The changes that body makes, assuming they’re approved by voters, could have far-reaching effects on the state.

For instance, the last commission wound up presenting nine suggested amendments that made it to the 1998 ballot, of which voters approved eight.

Among those mostly progressive-leaning changes were:

Bolstering education and the environment.

One revision requires there be “adequate provision for conservation of natural resources” and creates the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Another ensures proper education funding “as a paramount duty of the state.”

Extending the “basic rights” section to women.

The constitution now defines a “natural person” as “female and male alike.”

Strengthening voter access.

Another change allows “all voters, regardless of party, to vote in any party’s primary election if the winner will have no general election opposition.”

Giving counties more power over gun sales.

A revision authorizes individual counties to decide whether to require criminal background checks and a waiting period of three to five days before a firearm can be sold.

Collapsing the membership of the state Cabinet.

The Cabinet contracted from six members to the current three — the attorney general, chief financial officer and agriculture commissioner.

Some former Cabinet members, such as the Secretary of State and Commissioner of Education, now are appointed by the governor.

In comparison, voters approved none of the revisions advanced by the 1977-78 commission. They included making all trial judges appointed instead of elected.

By law, the next commission is scheduled to meet 30 days before the beginning of the Legislature’s 2017 regular session.

One big difference from then to now is a raising of the requirement to pass constitutional changes to 60 percent from a simple majority of 50 percent plus one, though most of the last commission’s changes passed by more than three-fifths.

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Putting people on the commission is “probably the most important appointment a governor can make,” said Steve Uhlfelder, who served as executive director of the 1977-78 commission.

Uhlfelder, now a private consultant, went on to serve several positions in state government, most notably as chairman of the old Board of Regents, charged with oversight of the state university system. He also sat on its successor body, the Board of Governors.

Once you have one party making almost all the appointments to the commission,”you could have a more aggressive agenda,” said Uhlfelder, a Democrat who supported George W. Bush for president.

Of course, what that agenda might be is difficult to divine years in advance.

“It’s hard to tell what’s going to happen, but I’m not sure there’s a lot that really needs to be done,” Uhlfelder said.

Too many policy matters already are in the constitution that are best served being in state law instead, he added.

For example, a citizen initiative that passed in 2002 now gives constitutional protection to pregnant pigs against pens that are too small.

At the same time, the more conservative members of the commission are, “the more cautious they may be,” Uhlfelder said.

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In fact, the language creating the commission says members don’t have to put forward any changes.

University of South Florida political scientist Susan MacManus said she expects fewer revisions under the next commission.

“Conservatives are more likely not to want to clutter up the constitution,” MacManus said. “Generally, they don’t want to fiddle with it.”

If they do, voters would more likely see proposals having to do with fiscal affairs.

“To the degree they perceive anything standing in the way of economic growth, you might expect them to remove barriers to that,” MacManus said.

Jon Mills, professor of law at the University of Florida, was appointed by Gov. Lawton Chiles to serve on the 1997-98 commission.

“It’s a unique circumstance” to serve, he said, calling it a “once- to twice-in-a-lifetime opportunity” because of the 20-year interval in meetings.

Mills, speaker of the Florida House in 1987-88, said it’s near impossible to predict what the next commission’s agenda will be until its membership is known.

“It’s an interesting political story,” said Mills, a Democrat. As to suggested revisions, commissioners “have the power to put up anything they want.”

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Twitter: @jlrosicaTBO

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