The damage that Florida’s once-in-a-generation Constitution Revision Commission could unleash on the state’s economy may be worse than anything a major hurricane could accomplish. The unelected, 37-member body is unique in the United States: Florida’s CRC is the only such body with the power to refer proposed changes directly to the ballot for voters to consider.
On the surface, having a group of people lend a critical eye to the state’s foundational legal document once very 20 years sounds like a good idea, especially if it’s backed by voters who can approve or disapprove of their work. But ballot amendments have proven to be tricky things in Florida, where cleverly chosen, poll-tested, and focus-group approved phrases might easily sway even the most skeptical voters.
And that’s especially true when lobbyists and deep-pocketed special interest groups get involved. Florida’s savviest political operatives and government affairs experts have all learned that the Constitution Review Commission represents an easier pathway to sneak certain proposals past the watchful eyes of public policy makers and budget hawks alike.
Start with the fact that the CRC is comprised of Floridians who are neither elected, nor accountable, to Florida taxpayers. If voters don’t like their decisions, too bad, because they can’t be voted out of office any more than they were voted in. That doesn’t mean the commissioners are bad folks. Most are well-meaning, upstanding individuals, some are public servants, and many are filled with great ideas and a passion to make Florida better. And most of them were appointed by conservative elected officials who are extremely reluctant to tinker with the state constitution, unless it means making it simpler and cleaner.
But there are plenty of opportunists throughout the state who’ve tried and failed for years to get laws and policies favorable to their clients through the legislature for years, only to be thwarted by lawmakers, often for good reason. After all, we elected our state representatives every two years, and state senators, a governor and a cabinet every four years. Their primary job is to carefully consider various proposals with an eye toward what they believe will be best for the people they represent.
Why our state even needs a constitution review commission every twenty years is a mystery to some. Others view the body as an opportunity to circumvent the very lawmakers that we voted for in the first place. That’s exactly what’s happening right now within the 2017 CRC. Earlier this week, more than 103 proposed amendments to the constitution were actively under consideration. A few of them are decent proposals, and would make fine laws if allowed to undergo a more rigorous examination by the state legislature, while other proposals would actually trim back the constitution so that it more closely resembles the legal framework it’s supposed to be.
But there are other, more crafty proposals, submitted by political operatives and lobbyists, designed solely to provide advantage for clients or political groups. Such proposals have no place in the Florida constitution itself, and some might argue they don’t even have a place in Florida’s legal statutes, the body of laws passed by the legislature that must comport with the supreme constitution.
Even now, environmental activists are pushing for a nice, pleasant, and on the surface, seemingly harmless amendment that would grant the “right to breathe clean air” to every Florida citizen. Few Floridians are against breathing clean air. But as with most political proposals, the devil is in the details. Who defines what “clean air” means? What contaminating particles, and in what concentration, would violate this new civil right? Many voters would undoubtedly support such an amendment, especially if they thought it might force state leaders to finally do something about all the pollen that makes allergy season such a misery.
But who do we sue if we discover our civil rights have been violated by concentrations of polluted, filthy air? Imagine the lawsuits that will instantly populate our court system if such an amendment gets passed.
Apparently the CRC hasn’t imagined such things yet, because the proposal is still under consideration, when it should have been labeled as special-interest chaff and summarily flushed down the toilet the instant it was brought forward.
Proposal 88 is another classic example of an idea that sounds great on the surface, but is little more than a special interest-driven effort that would be far better suited for consideration by the state legislature. The proposal language sounds innocent and well meaning:
A proposal to create 2 a new section in Article I of the State Constitution 3 to establish certain rights for residents of assisted 4 living facilities and nursing home facilities in this 5 state.
Aw, how kind that the CRC wants to give nursing home residents special rights. What mean and nasty Florida voter would possibly want to oppose such a benign proposal?
Of course, truly conservative constitutional watchdogs would bristle at the very suggestion of creating “special rights” for any new class of citizens. After all, the U.S. Constitution and the Florida Constitution already enshrine certain unalienable rights to all people, regardless of age, skin color, religion, and so on.
But look deeper at Proposal 88 and it becomes obvious that this isn’t just a benign attempt to protect the elderly in nursing homes. There’s mention of audits, of financial and insurance requirements, and much, much more. And like the clean air amendment, it’s vaguely worded, without any clear case made for why an establishment of new human rights is necessary in the first place.
The CRC, and voters alike, need to proceed with extreme caution, not just on this amendment proposal, but with everything put forward by the 2017 CRC. The next twenty years of our state depends on it.