TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A powerful panel of Floridians that meets every 20 years is about to decide whether a ban on oil drilling, term limits for school board members and nearly two dozen other ideas should be included in the state’s constitution.
After meeting for the past year, the Florida Constitution Revision Commission has trimmed down a long list of proposals to 25 separate items that the panel will consider between now and early May. If the commission ultimately says yes to any of them, they will go to voters this coming November. Sixty percent of voters must vote yes before any of the amendments become law.
The route to this point has been anything but smooth for the unique commission.
The 37-member panel – whose members were appointed by Gov. Rick Scott, legislative leaders, and the chief justice of the Supreme Court – has waded into contentious arguments over guns, abortion, education and whether to end the practice of greyhound racing at tracks around the state.
Along the way, commissioners have considered proposals that were aimed at undoing court rulings that have upset Republicans or revisited past battles on gambling or health care regulation that got bogged down in the Florida Legislature. This has frustrated some members who said they should not rewrite the constitution just because legislators have been unable to pass a law.
“This is wrong for the Legislature to sit back and dump it on us to solve the problem,” said Hank Coxe, a Jacksonville attorney and commissioner, during a debate on whether to outlaw greyhound racing.
Tim Cerio, an attorney who once worked as Scott’s general counsel, defended the approach that the commission has taken so far.
“Commissioners have the freedom to bring it up,” Cerio said. “We have to be guided by our own principles on what belongs in the constitution and what doesn’t.”
One item that apparently doesn’t belong in the constitution is additional gun control restrictions. Commissioners had not been considering any before the February shooting deaths of 17 people at a Florida high school. When some commissioners tried to consider restrictions – including a ban on some types of semi-automatic rifles – they were rejected on procedural grounds. A majority on the panel argued that it would be wrong to waive the commission’s internal rules in order to consider them now.
Among those items that are still under consideration:
—A prohibition on oil and gas drilling in state coastal waters.
—Including electronic cigarettes and vaping in Florida’s current indoor smoking ban.
—Requiring that employers use a verification system that checks the immigration status of people seeking jobs.
There’s no guarantee that a proposal will make the ballot since the commission rules require 22 out of 37 members to vote yes for an item to be placed directly on the ballot.
One overriding concern for commissioners is how many items they should place on what will likely be a lengthy ballot.
Voters will be deciding on a new governor, a U.S. Senate contest likely to feature Gov. Rick Scott against incumbent Bill Nelson, as well as down-ballot races for attorney general. Five amendments that have already made the ballot including one that would make it harder for the Legislature to raise taxes and another one that would automatically restore voting rights to most former prisoners.