By BRANDON LARRABEE
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
The once-every-20-years process of updating Florida’s basic law began Monday, as the Constitution Revision Commission held its opening meeting in Tallahassee.
The 37-member panel, appointed almost entirely by Republicans for the first time in history, is expected to submit proposals for amending the state Constitution to voters for the November 2018 election.
The meeting Monday was largely ceremonial. Gov. Rick Scott, Senate President Joe Negron, House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Supreme Court Chief Justice Jorge Labarga — who combined to appoint all but one of the members — each briefly addressed the commission.
Attorney General Pam Bondi is automatically a member of the panel.
Leaders steered clear of sweeping policy pronouncements. Carlos Beruff, a Manatee County home builder appointed by Scott to chair the commission, promised an open process.
“Every member of the CRC will have the opportunity to be heard and have the chance to fight for the issues they believe are important to this state,” he said. “Most importantly, though, we need to listen to the citizens.”
Beruff also announced the first three public hearings the commission will hold to get input from citizens: March 29 in Orange County, April 6 in Miami-Dade County and a day later in Palm Beach County.
Beruff said he wanted to hold at least two rounds of public hearings — to try to ensure that part-time residents would also have input — and the commission would begin sifting through proposals “after the fall.”
He also said the panel was unlikely to put recommendations on the ballot unless it had a sense that they would be approved by the required 60 percent of voters.
“I think it’s a fool’s errand to propose ideas that we don’t think the public is going to support,” he said. “And we know the threshold for (amending) the Constitution is 60 percent.”
While the first day was tranquil, the commission itself could soon be engulfed in some of the state’s fiercest political fights. Abortion, school choice and how the state’s judiciary operates could all be impacted by the work of the commission.
Already, there were tensions about how the panel would do its work. The First Amendment Foundation voiced a concern about a draft commission rule saying the panel’s record would be “accessible to the public,” rather than “open to the public,” the phrase used in 1998.
Timothy Cerio, a commission member who explained the draft to the commission, said the new version of the rule was meant to be stronger.
“That is certainly something that can be revisited,” said Cerio, a former general counsel to Scott.
Beruff said the rules would be approved at a later meeting of the commission.
There were also questions about the role of Beruff, a close political ally of Scott who has no apparent experience in constitutional law. Scott defended the choice to reporters after speaking to the commission.
“He’s a well-respected businessperson in the Sarasota area, and I know from my experience with him he’s going to work very hard and run a very good commission,” he said.
Former state Senate Minority Leader Arthenia Joyner, a Tampa Democrat who is expected to be a liberal voice on the panel, played down any worries that Beruff would have undue influence.
“I’m sure that this commission is not going to allow any one person, be it the chair or otherwise, dictate what is best for the people of the state of Florida,” she said. “Yeah, he has the bully pulpit of being the chairman, but the check and the balance is the 36 others of us.”