What the hell is the Constitution Revision Commission?

An explainer for the Florida CRC

Congratulations, fellow Floridians. Each and every one of you is special. But possibly not for the reasons you think.

Every Floridian is special because the Sunshine State has something called the Constitution Revision Commission, and Florida is the only state with a process like this.

Every 20 years, a 37-member committee convenes to review and propose changes to the Florida Constitution. From there, the potential amendments the CRC approves go directly to the ballot so voters can decide for themselves in the following election – in this case, November 2018.

Think of it like Halley's Comet, but for state politics, because your opportunity to take an active role in democracy to this extent only comes around so often.

So it's unique. And, for the most part, it's widely misunderstood. In fact, according to a survey conducted by Breakthrough Research last year, eight in 10 Floridians have never even heard of the CRC – and of those actually aware of the commission and its purpose, one in three wrongly identified its role.

That's not good. But that's also where we come in, with an explainer on how to better understand some of the political machinery that's currently moving all around you.

A brief history of the CRC

The 2017-2018 CRC is the third of its kind in state history, with the previous commissions having convened in 1997-1998 and 1977-1978. The CRC process was first created when Florida overhauled its constitution in 1968; it was developed as a means of keeping up with changing attitudes and norms. During the past two CRCs, proposed amendments have addressed everything from firearm purchases to educational reform, basic personal liberties to election procedures, and so on.

Just because the CRC puts something on the ballot doesn't mean voters will go for it. The '77-'78 CRC put eight amendments on the ballot, but none passed. On the other hand, in '97-'98, eight of the nine proposals received voter support. Among other things, these amendments created the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and restructured the state cabinet.

There have been a few changes in Florida's politics and demographics since the last time the commission convened two decades ago. Most notably, in 2006, a constitutional amendment was passed declaring that future constitutional amendments would require 60 percent of the vote to pass (ironically, this amendment did not get to 60). In addition, Florida has seen a significant population increase since the last CRC process, growing from a statewide population of more than 15 million people in '97 and '98 to more than 20 million today.

How it works

All 37 members of the CRC are appointed. In each convening of the CRC, the governor appoints 15 members, the Florida Senate President appoints nine, the Florida House Speaker appoints nine, the Florida Chief Justice appoints three and Florida's attorney general appoints him- or herself.

Beginning at the tail end of the most recent legislative session, the commissioners go on an approximately yearlong tour across Florida to hold public hearings, where, in theory, they gain an understanding of the issues that matter most to residents. This is where the concept of public input comes into play: At these public hearings, Floridians are encouraged to speak directly to the commissioners and propose constitutional amendments.

However, public proposals more often than not fall by the wayside. In order for the CRC to consider a proposal from the public, it must be nominated by a commissioner and receive at least 10 votes from the 37-member commission. The most recent deadline to submit a public proposal was Oct. 6, 2017. For the appointed commissioners' proposals, their last chance to do so was Oct. 31, 2017.

From then until the spring of the following year – that's May 10, 2018, this time around – the CRC members mull over each proposed amendment and hold more public hearings before eventually deciding which proposals will make the ballot on Nov. 6, 2018. In order to become law, each proposal must secure at least 60 percent voter approval.

Why it matters

There are five ways to amend or change the Florida Constitution, including the process that surrounds the CRC. That's more than any other state in the union. Here's a quick rundown of the ways in which it's possible:

Amendments can be proposed and approved by the state legislature, followed by a 60 percent voter approval on the next general election ballot.

There's what's called a "citizens' initiative," in which proponents of a proposed amendment must collect 8 percent of the total number of statewide votes cast in the previous presidential election from at least 13 of Florida's 25 congressional districts. In addition, at least 10 percent of the total number of signatures required to qualify for the ballot must be gathered from a minimum of seven congressional districts. Again, once on the ballot, it needs 60 percent of the vote.

There's the right to put a question on the ballot as to whether a constitutional convention should be called. This process is hellishly complicated, and if you want to read more about it, uh, email us.

There's the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission, a 25-member commission similar to the CRC – all of whom are appointed by either the governor, Speaker of the House or President of the Senate. The TBRC can place proposed amendments on the ballot if 18 of its 25 members approve. It last convened in 2007 and will reconvene in 2027.

And, finally, there's the CRC.

What makes the commission so powerful is that while the other four methods have to go through some sort of secondary approval – for instance, a citizens' initiative requires a review from the Florida Supreme Court before it goes to voters – the CRC's final cut goes straight to the ballot.

Let's use the 1997-1998 CRC as a case in point. As mentioned, voters approved eight of the nine proposed amendments, one of which declared the education of children to be a fundamental value of the people of Florida. Dancing around all of the constitutional jargon, it was essentially a mandate that upped the ante on the state's public schools, helping ensure a more efficient, safe and high-quality system. It passed by an overwhelming 71 percent approval that November.

In all, the process mentioned above took about a year and a half, from proposal to constitutional law.

But had the exact same proposal started as a citizens' initiative, thus needing signatures from at least 8 percent of the total number of statewide votes cast in the previous presidential election from at least 13 of Florida's 25 congressional districts, about 450,000 signatures would have been needed before the proposal could even qualify to be on the ballot in the next general election.

So the CRC is an expedited exercise in democracy. But of course there's a catch – or three – because politics is never simple.

The '17-'18 CRC has already seen its fair share of hang-ups.

First was the controversy surrounding the most recent CRC's early start, which began in March 2017 – the '97-'98 convening began in late June of 1997. Since several of the commissioners serve in the legislature, there were outcries about scheduling conflicts.

Then came the rule-making for the CRC, since each convening CRC determines its own rules that guide the process. At the outset, chairman Carlos Beruff announced that a committee within the commission would determine the rules. Flak came immediately from groups like the League of Women Voters in Florida, which argued that the commission hadn't made the process clear to the public, and Beruff backed off and went back to letting all 37 members decide upon the rules.

Transparency also became an issue for the CRC in its early months. The lack of a precise schedule for public hearings generated pushback, with groups calling for more public hearings both before and after the deadline for public proposals. Constituents also worried about special interest groups sneaking into the mix. The League of Women Voters of Florida pointed out that one commissioner-proposed amendment could further proliferate the charter school system in Florida – a hot-button issue for both teachers and those involved with education policy.

And remember how the public's proposals are meant to be heard? Following the deadline for public proposals in October, after months of encouraging the public to submit ideas, just more than 2,000 public proposals were suggested. Only six of them were advanced by the CRC. The rejected public proposals included everything from updating medical references to abortion to creating a state commission on sea-level rise, legalizing marijuana to establishing religious protections for businesses.

Granted, that was about 10 times the number of public proposals received during the '97-'98 CRC, but the fact that so many public proposals could be rejected while a hefty number of commissioners' proposals clogged the docket gives lie to the idea that this is an exercise in pure democracy.

So why even hold public hearings across the state if that many ideas are just going to be shot down by the CRC? And why would Beruff eventually ignore some of the open meetings rules the commission established?

The CRC continues to trim its list of potential amendments; there are now 103 proposals. As commissioners go, questions about the intentions behind the amendments could make themselves clear with time – and public input.

Most of the commissioners are admittedly right-leaning. Given its makeup, the commission will likely be used to lock in conservative policies to the Constitution for a generation to come.

Troubling, as well, is the fact that commissioners have left available a number of open proposals. Technically, they could file these proposals and shove them through just before the deadline in May.

Proposals to watch:

Proposal 22: Pushed by governor appointee John Stemberger, president of the far-right Florida Family Policy Council, this proposal would limit Floridians' right to "informational privacy," which could very well impede on the state's privacy provision, relied upon by the courts to stop governmental intrusions into a woman's decision to get an abortion. Stemberger has claimed it has nothing to do with the Florida Supreme Court's decision to deny a proposed 24-hour waiting period for abortions, which cited that same constitutional right to privacy. Sure.

Proposal 59: Filed by governor appointee Marva Johnson, chair of the Florida State Board of Education, this seeks to create an exception to the prohibition on using public funds for religious schools and programs.

Proposal 56: Proposed by governor appointee Frank Kruppenbacher, an Orlando attorney and board member of the libertarian-leaning James Madison Institute, this would strip public funds out of statewide campaigns in Florida, which would benefit the state's high-spending donors the most. At the moment, candidates running for office in Florida can receive matching public dollars – up to $250 – if they limit their expenditures, and the system is entirely voluntary.

What to look out for in the CRC process

The idea behind the CRC is that Florida's citizens can serve as a watchdog for what goes into our constitution. As the Florida Bar's educational program Protect Florida Democracy puts it, "the Florida Constitution is our contract with the government. It outlines our rights as Floridians and the responsibilities of our government."

A couple of questions worth asking yourself when considering the implications of any proposed amendments:

Does this proposed amendment weaken the separation of powers – the system of checks and balances designed to keep each branch of government in check – in the grand scheme of things?

Does this proposed amendment undermine the power of the judicial branch, which protects the rights of you and your fellow citizens?

What else you can do to participate

What else you can do to participate

Your voice matters. Even though the deadline to submit your own proposal has passed, you still have the opportunity to contribute. Here's how:

•Attend and participate in the public hearings.

•Write a column or letter to the editor to your local newspaper.

•Share, share, share everything you can on social media.

•Send your thoughts to the commissioners via email or comment on their progress – or lack thereof – at flcrc.gov.

CRC Timeline

Fall 2017–spring 2018: Appointed commissioners consider proposals from the public, interest groups and fellow commissioners.

May 10, 2018: All amendments proposed by the CRC must be filed with the secretary of state.

Nov. 6, 2018: You vote.

Where and when you can attend the remainder of public hearings

1-7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 6
Rick Case Arena at the Don Taft University Center, Nova Southeastern University
3301 College Ave., Fort Lauderdale

1-7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 19
Maxwell C. King Center, Eastern Florida State College
3865 N. Wickham Road, Melbourne

1-7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 20
Herbert University Center, University of North Florida
12000 Alumni Drive, Jacksonville

1-7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 27
Conference Center and Ballroom, University of West Florida
11000 University Parkway, Building 22, Pensacola

1-7 p.m. Tuesday, March 13
University Student Center, University of South Florida – St. Petersburg
200 S. Sixth Ave., St. Petersburg

All meetings will be live-streamed on the Florida Channel.

How to contact the Constitution Revision Commission

Email: [email protected]

Phone number: 850-717-9550

Mailing address: Constitution Revision Commission, The Capitol, 400 S. Monroe St., Tallahassee, FL 32399