By Christopher Emmanuel
Among its many oddities, the Florida Constitution of 1968 has a provision that is as unique as the state it governs: the creation of a Constitutional Revision Commission (“CRC” or “the Commission”), to be held every 20 years, with the authority to propose revisions to the state’s Constitution. The only check on this extraordinary committee’s work is the ballot box – there is no judicial review, executive veto or legislative remedy. In fact, there is not even a single subject requirement where the proposed measure must focus on only one topic to make it easier for voters to understand and further clarify intent. This extraordinary committee, comprised of appointments from each of the three branches of government, has unexpected yet almost total power over the way our state is structured.
The history of the Constitutional Revision Commission is helpful to both its purpose and effectiveness. Perhaps as a sign of humility (or uncertainty in their work product), the authors of the 1968 Constitution had the CRC begin 10 years after the ratification of the Constitution, which gives us, the modern citizenry, only two data points to analyze the effectiveness of this unusual entity: the first Commission in 1977-78 and the second in 1997-98.
The first Commission was appointed by a single party (the Democrats) and operated under an abbreviated schedule. Not a single measure received the required simple majority of the voters. The second CRC, with the benefits of more time to plan and bipartisan nominators, saw the citizenry ultimately approve eight of the nine final proposals. The 1998 Commission benefited from the lessons and discussions of its predecessor in many ways. Notably, many of the proposals in the first Commission were adjusted, moderated, and ultimately successful proposals in the second. Therefore, one should expect to see many of the discussions of the 1998 Commission repeated when the upcoming Commission begins in 2017.
Many organizations, including the Florida Chamber of Commerce and The James Madison Institute, have already begun the discussions on what this Committee means to Florida. As before, broad coalitions of Floridians will attempt to inform and bring policy research into the process. However, in the modern political arena, it is easier than ever before to message difficult policy decisions in 140-character tweets, television ads and Internet memes. One should be concerned about how the modern media landscape will affect the final product. And in the post-Citizens United era, the risks for unusual campaigns are greater than before.
Regrettably, bad ideas still exist and the policy ramifications for a poorly constructed constitution are immense. As much as the revision can be seen as an opportunity, it is important to realize that the ordinary checks and balances on power do not apply to this committee. What follows is a brief exploration of the history, structural basis, and efficacy of the Constitutional Revision Commission, along with potential strategies, opportunities, and risks for the upcoming Commission.
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Christopher Emmanuel is the director of infrastructure and governance policy at the Florida Chamber of Commerce.