Unique Law Lets Florida Voters Make Changes to Constitution

State provision mandates a constitutional review every 20 years. Key issues in 1998: gun control, equal rights.

A unique exercise in streamlined government is under way in Florida, where a special commission has just recommended 33 changes to the state's constitution - with many of the suggestions expected to ignite a firestorm of debate.

Some of the issues are common-sense housecleaning measures, like a proposal to ensure that only gender-neutral language is used in the state constitution. Others - like gun control and government reorganization - are so controversial that state legislators have avoided addressing them for years.

But now in 1998, Florida voters will have the opportunity to decide these issues for themselves.

A provision of Florida's constitution mandates the appointment of a constitution revision commission every 20 years to take a fresh look at the state's No. 1 document and consider any changes.

The 37-member commission examined hundreds of proposals during a series of hearings over the past year. Those proposals were narrowed down and packaged as nine different questions that will appear on the statewide ballot this November.

While 15 other states also have mechanisms written into their constitutions to periodically ask voters whether a constitutional update should be considered, most have balked, turning down the prospect of electing constitutional conventions and voting on revisions.

The Florida system is different. This is the only state in the country with an automatic review provision. Every 20 years a commission must be appointed, and it is up to the newly appointed commissioners to determine the scope of their work.

"This idea of a regular look at the state constitution originates with Thomas Jefferson, who wanted to apply it to the Virginia state constitution, which he didn't think much of," says Robert Williams, a state constitutional law expert and law professor at Rutgers University in Camden, N.J.

Jefferson believed "each generation ought to have a regular chance to look at the state constitution that governs it."

No state has taken that philosophy to greater lengths than Florida, which ratified a new constitution in 1968, replacing one written in 1885.

Need for change

A quick glance at Florida's previous constitutions illustrates the importance of weeding out offensive constitutional concepts.

Florida's first constitution, adopted 160 years ago, supported slavery and urged the Legislature to pass laws to prevent freed slaves "and other persons of color" from ever entering Florida.

Bankers and "ministers of the gospel" were barred from running for the Legislature. And the constitution stated that only "free white men of this State shall have the right to keep and bear arms, for their common defense."

Although few residents would disagree that the old constitutions needed to be revised, not everyone is happy with the prospect of an unelected commission proposing an unlimited number of constitutional amendments every 20 years.

Critics of the revision process say it is too easy in Florida to change the constitution. Some say the job should be the exclusive work of the state Legislature because, as elected officials, they are accountable directly to voters.

But that is the advantage that some supporters say gives the revision commission the ability to tackle tough issues that lawmakers avoid. "It is explicitly an end-run around the Legislature," says Mr. Williams.

One such tough issue is gun control. Under current state law, gun shops statewide must perform a criminal background check and wait three days before selling a handgun in Florida. The constitution revision commission is backing a proposal that would allow local governments to decide for themselves whether to expand the background check and a waiting-period requirement to apply to all guns sold in a jurisdiction, not just handguns sold in gun shops.

Marion Hammer, president of the National Rifle Association and a longtime lobbyist in Tallahassee, says the proposal is a power grab by local politicians that will weaken rather than strengthen gun laws in Florida. Violations of the current state-wide law are felonies, she says. Any adopted local regulations would create a patchwork of local laws no stronger than misdemeanors.

She says gun owners across the state are so offended by the proposal that they are likely to vote down all the commission's suggested revisions. "There is something there that everybody can hate," she says.

Different from US Constitution

State constitution expert Williams notes that state constitutions perform a different function from the US Constitution, which is a statement of shared bedrock principles and has only been amended 27 times in 200 years. By contrast, he says, state constitutions are amended much more frequently and are more free-wheeling in the topics they cover.

"The federal constitution sets up a government of enumerated powers - somewhat limited powers - and everything else is left to the states," he says. "The state constitution exists as part of the general political landscape in the state and they are essentially tools of lawmaking. State constitutions are sort of super-statutes."

He adds, "This is highly political stuff."

Sally Spener, executive director of Florida Common Cause, views the constitution revision commission as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to enact reforms and initiatives that never seem to have a chance in Florida's Legislature.

Political pressures

One such initiative was for the creation of an independent reapportionment commission to keep political influence out of the drawing of legislative districts. But even the constitution commission is not immune from political pressure.

The reapportionment proposal was dropped from the commission's agenda earlier this year after heavy lobbying by political powers in Tallahassee.

"We may not have another shot at that issue for another 20 years. And we were so close," Ms. Spener says.

But Spener says she is pleased that the commission has gotten other key issues such as campaign-finance reform and an equal-rights amendment for women on the ballot for November.

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