One of the initiatives on the ballot in Florida this November is Amendment 2 titled Abolish the Constitution Revision Commission Measure. Not surprisingly, all that Amendment 2 does is abolish the Florida Constitution Revision Commission.
The Constitution Revision Commission is a unique Florida institution, a commission that meets every 20 years to consider changes to the state constitution and agree upon ones to put before the voters as ballot measures. It is made up of 37 members: The governor appoints 15, the Senate president appoints nine, the speaker of the House appoints nine, the chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court appoints three, and the attorney general serves on it.
We have been through three rounds of the CRC since the state constitution was created. In 1978 the commission was appointed all by Democrats and not even one of the measures they put on the ballot was approved by a majority of voters. In 1998 CRC was bipartisan and much more successful with voter approval. In 2018 Republicans appointed all the CRC members and all seven of their proposals that went to the ballot were approved by over 60% of voters.
As Carlos Beruff, a Manatee County developer who chaired the 2018 CRC put it, “The first one wasn’t terribly successful. the second one I think eight of the nine items they put on the ballot passed so it was pretty successful. So, we are going to be very careful with the taxpayer’s time and money and only bring forward things that we think will pass that sixty percent litmus test.”
Indeed, in the 2018 election, voters not only amended the state constitution by approving CRC proposed changes, but also got to vote on constitutional changes proposed by the legislature and ones put on the ballot by citizen initiative.
The Pros and cons of the CRC
The CRC has come under criticism in recent years, notably by State Senator Jeff Brandes (R). He has argued that both parties detest the CRC, and the fact that members are appointed, not elected, means they are not accountable to the voters. He tweeted “It’s rediscovered every 20yrs, has no rules, players have no experience, once it starts it can’t stop, crazy things pop out, and you never know how damaging they will be. Election night, you yell ‘Jumanji.’”
He and other CRC critics say that citizens can amend the constitution with proposals from the legislature, citizen initiatives, a constitutional convention, and via the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission. They do not also need the CRC as a fifth mechanism.
But the single biggest criticism of the CRC is that many of the measures it proposes are things that should be legislative changes in law, not enshrined in the state constitution. Over the years the fact that Florida citizens can only vote on ballot initiatives that change the constitution, and do not have the option to change the law by initiative, as in other states, means the Constitution is full of “issues of the day” rather than timeless rights and rules for the state.
On the other hand, the Florida Sun-Sentinel Editorial Board has pointed out that decades of corruption led the U.S. Supreme Court to force a new state constitution for Florida and the CRC was included in it “to protect Florida from ever being paralyzed again by the self-interests of an entrenched political empire."
New College professor of political science Frank Alcock argues that “the CRC is a mechanism that was intentionally built into our current state constitution during its formation in the 1960s. It's unique among state constitutions, and it reflects two important values of its designers: (1) the ability to adapt the constitution to changing times; (2) robust input and final approval of amendments on the part of the citizens of Florida. Like any institutional innovation, however, it can be exploited or used by those that control it. The CRC is what we make of it.”
State Sen. Darryl Rouson (D) served on the 2018 CRC and says that "The CRC may not be perfect, but as lawmakers, we should work to improve it rather than scrap it. Abolishing the CRC along with other efforts to make it more difficult and more expensive to circulate citizens' petitions to amend the Florida Constitution will make it harder for citizen voices to be heard in shaping the future of their state.”
A 2020 poll by the LeRoy Collins Institute at Florida State University found 87% of Floridians like having a commission do what the CRC does and provide an alternative to the legislature. About two-thirds of them also supported some changes to the CRC to address the concerns of critics.
Professor Alcock told me “Amendment 2 would abolish the CRC entirely. While this would eliminate the political tactics that annoyed many Floridians this past cycle it would also remove an important feature of our state constitution that was deliberately put there by its designers. And let's not forget that we have another 15 years before the next cycle that could be used to talk about less drastic reforms.”
Reforming the CRC
There seem to me to be more advocates for reforming the CRC than for eliminating it. Along with those already mentioned, for example, Florida State University Professor Carol Weissert has advocated for reforming the CRC, not abolishing it, and University of Florida Professor Mary Adkins has written extensively about ways to improve the CRC.
Some common reforms suggested include:
- CRC members be more diverse and bipartisan rather than all appointed by the party in control at the time the commission happens.
- Create a simple set of rules and procedures for all CRCs in the future so they do not make up their own each time.
- Do not allow the CRC to “bundle” different issues into one initiative, imposing a single-subject requirement.
- Apply Florida’s open meetings laws to the CRC.
But the biggest change would be creating a citizen legislative initiative process in addition to the constitutional amendment initiative process. Most of the issues people bring to the CRC each time it convenes are legislative issues they are frustrated the legislature has not addressed. Lacking a direct democracy mechanism to change the law, they take the only route they have, addressing the issue via the state constitution. A constitutional amendment to create a citizen legislative initiative process and require the CRC to focus on issues appropriate to address in the constitution would both improve the CRC process and answer many of its critics and give citizens a more appropriate outlet for change.
It would make much more sense to reform the CRC and the citizen initiative process than to eliminate it as Amendment 2 does.
Adrian Moore is the vice president of Reason Foundation and lives in Sarasota.