In 1968, Florida lawmakers agreed that the state’s constitution needed freshening — the document hadn’t been modernized significantly since 1885. The updated constitution adopted in 1968 included a provision creating a state Constitutional Revision Commission, a 37-member body that would meet every 20 years and propose constitutional amendments that would go on a statewide ballot.
The inaugural commission convened in 1977. For more than a year, it held public meetings and debated potential updates meant to keep the constitution relevant to the state’s needs. In 1978, the commission put eight amendments on the ballot — including one affecting legislative apportionment and another creating merit selection and retention of trial judges instead of elections — but each proposal was rejected by Florida voters.
Politicos speculated that all eight lost because they appeared on the same ballot as an unpopular proposed amendment — placed there through the more typical citizen initiative process — that would have allowed privately owned casino gambling. The governor at the time, Reubin Askew, campaigned against the gambling initiative, and it lost by more than 1 million votes.
Twenty years later, the 1997- 98 Constitutional Revision Commission placed nine initiatives on the 1998 ballot, with eight winning approval from voters, including an amendment that created the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and another that gave communities the option to require criminal background checks and waiting periods for firearms sales.
Jon Mills, a former Speaker of the Florida House and current University of Florida law professor, served on that commission and remembers the group’s 37 members were split nearly evenly between Republicans and Democrats.
“It was an interesting commission, very bipartisan,” Mills says. “That was the key. Everyone was evaluating issues based on public and historic context as opposed to ideology. ”
In a few months, work will begin on forming the 2017-18 commission, with the governor’s office naming a steering committee to start planning the 2017-18 commission’s activities. The committee will also hear initial recommendations for candidates to serve on the commission. The state’s attorney general automatically serves on the commission. Additional members include 15 appointed by Gov. Rick Scott; nine each by the House Speaker and the Senate president; and three named by the chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court.
Carol Weissert, director of the Leroy Collins Institute, a non-partisan public policy group that’s trying to drum up interest in the constitutional-revision process, says it’s not too early for the public to begin paying attention to the process.
“The appointments are really an important part of the process, so people need to be aware of that,” says Weissert. “People who are politically attuned are already lobbying the people who will be making the appointments, but citizens need to think about this, too, and think about the kind of people they want on the commission. Those who will make the appointments need to know that citizens are paying attention.”
“Next year is a presidential election year, so all of the air is going to be sucked out of the room in Florida, so we need to start talking about this now.”