Senator wants to clean up Florida Constitution

first_img Senator wants to clean up Florida Constitution Gary Blankenship Senior Editor The chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee is launching a two-year program aimed at streamlining the Florida Constitution, although the panel has been warned that will be a difficult task and could have unintended consequences.Sen. Daniel Webster, R-Winter Garden, discussed his plans with other committee members at a January 12 meeting. He said he wanted to get statutory-type provisions out of the state’s basic charter, but otherwise not make any significant changes to the document.The panel also heard from former Florida State University Law Dean and President Sandy D’Alemberte, who cautioned there are likely several obstacles to such an effort.Committee members questioned Webster about his plans after they finished other business before D’Alemberte was scheduled to appear at Webster’s invitation. Webster did say the job would be too big to accomplish in one year and it likely would be the 2006 session before any recommendations make it to the full House and Senate.In response to a question from Sen. Steven Geller, D-Hallandale Beach, Webster said he wants to have an article-by-article review of the constitution with a look at when, how, and why each provision was added.“If it did not meet the criteria of belonging in a basic document, we would get rid of it,” he said. “What we’re talking about are things that belong in statutes. There are things that clearly belong in statute and things you and I could agree on [that should not be in the constitution].”Webster added while he thinks there are some legitimate basic constitutional issues that need to be changed, that will not be included in the streamlining review.“I think I have a pure heart in what I’m asking to do, which is give the people the opportunity to vote on a constitution that would be like a constitution — instead of a collection of statutes,” he said.Geller said he would work with Webster on the issue but questioned whether the legislature could adequately grapple with such a large issue.“I’m concerned there’s a certain degree of hubris in having us do it,” he said. “I hope we would not be enacting changes that would bitterly divide this legislature and the people of the state of Florida but might pass by a narrow margin.”Sen. Skip Campbell, D-Tamarac, asked if Webster’s rewrite would include changes in the initiative process for proposing constitutional amendments, something lawmakers have discussed both this and last year.Webster replied while he expects the committee to look at that issue, it would be in a separate bill from the constitutional rewrite. He noted that any change would have to pass committee scrutiny in both the House and Senate, pass both chambers by a three-fifths vote, and then be approved by voters.D’Alemberte, a state and federal constitutional expert, said it could be difficult to make any changes for several reasons, and that alterations could have unintended consequences. Noting his service in the House, D’Alemberte said he backed constitutional changes that made the amendment initiative process easier, an action he now regrets.(Lawmakers have been concerned that special interests are using the initiative process to bypass the legislature and enact provisions not suitable for the constitution. Recent votes have included protections for pregnant pigs, a vote ordering — and then rescinding — a high-speed rail system, and a battle between doctors and lawyers over medical malpractice issues.)And while people have a reverence for and are reluctant to change the U.S. Constitution, those same feelings don’t apply to state charters, D’Alemberte said.“I’m really skeptical about your ability to do it,” he said. “The length of the constitution comes out of one emotion that we are not going to be able to get over any time soon, and that emotion is distrust.”That distrust is evident in provisions dividing executive powers between the governor and a Cabinet, D’Alemberte said, and in setting up independent agencies outside of executive oversight.Nor is the urge to amend anything new. He noted that in the 85 years after the 1885 constitution was adopted, 211 amendments were proposed and around 145 were approved — an average of more than three per election.“The nature of the distrust seems to be shifting a bit,” D’Alemberte said. “The initiative process seems to be used to give explicit instructions to the legislature — the limitations of class size, the details of pre-K [class instruction]. That’s something that’s fairly new.”He offered three suggestions to the committee:• They should look at the proposal from the League of Women Voters — which D’Alemberte has reservations about — to allow citizens to propose statutory changes by initiative instead of just constitutional changes. “It invites people to put statutory language in the statutes, not the constitution,” he said.• The legislature could build on the requirement that each amendment be accompanied by a fiscal disclosure and provide forums for education and debate on proposed amendments.• The legislature could provide more information to existing institutions concerned with constitutional issues. Those include the Constitution Revision Commission, (which D’Alemberte chaired in 1978) a citizens’ panel that reviews the constitution every 20 years, and the Tax and Budget Reform Commission, which looks at fiscal issues and meets 10 years after the CRC. D’Alemberte said the citizens who serve on those panels could be given more thorough background about the constitution and related issues before they begin their work.Sen. Carey Baker, R-Eustis, asked what principles the committee should follow in carrying out Webster’s quest.D’Alemberte replied they should bear in mind that “unless something is denied in the constitution, it’s permitted.”He also said lawmakers should avoid meaningless affirmative statements.“We can put language in the constitution that says we’ll have a healthy environment, but it really doesn’t do anything,” he said.Sen. Alex Villalobos, R-Miami, said he would oppose a statutory initiative procedure, saying bills in the legislature get an extensive fiscal and staff analysis as well as debate, which might not happen in a referendum. “I think we’d be acquiescing our constitutional mandate as a bargaining chip [for reform],” he said.D’Alemberte said he was also dubious about that and said the legislature should look at other states with statutory initiative referendums, including California. Some observers feel the California system works poorly and burdens the state with unnecessary, unrealistic, and, sometimes, conflicting mandates.D’Alemberte closed with a warning that any attempt to streamline the constitution would be a challenge.“It’s fraught with a lot of danger and could become its own evil,” he said.After the meeting, Webster, a former House speaker and longtime member of both the House and Senate judiciary committees, noted that some might think it odd that a nonlawyer Judiciary Committee chair (he is an engineer and air-conditioning contractor) would undertake the project, but he’s seen a need for several years.“This is a document that does not need to be filled with a lot of detail about how things work,” he said. “My idea is to give the people a chance to vote on a pure document.”Webster acknowledged it might be a difficult project. “I don’t know if we could even get it out of this committee.”Webster said he welcomes input from The Florida Bar’s newly formed Special Board Committee to Study the Florida Constitutional Amendment Process, which was created at the request of President-elect Alan Bookman. That came after board members expressed concerns the state’s charter was becoming cluttered with unnecessary provisions. February 1, 2005 Senior Editor Regular News Senator wants to clean up Florida Constitutionlast_img

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