Chris Cate: Welcome to the Fluent in Floridian Podcast, featuring the sunshine state's brightest leaders, talking about the issues most important to the people of Florida and it's millions of weekly visitors. I'm your host Chris Cate, and in this episode, created by Salter Mitchell PR, I talk to Mary Adkins, a professor at the University of Florida and author of the book Making Modern Florida: How the Spirit of Reform Shaped a New State Constitution.
In our conversation we talk about what Florida's constitution was revised in the 1960s, and why leaders created the constitution revision commission. We also discussed the impact of these commissions and what Floridians can expect from the current revision commission, and you can hear it all right now. Mary, thanks so much for being on the show. We're in the middle of a very unique time in our state right now when the constitution revision commission, which meets every 20 years, gets together to review our constitution and propose new amendments for Floridians to either approve or reject. Can you start by sharing a little bit about how this whole revision process got started?
Mary Adkins: Sure, Chris. It got started as a part of the new constitution that Floridians voted on and adopted in 1968. The new constitution was needed because it, among other antiquated features, had a very rigid legislative apportionment system. It was very hard to change, it could only be changed by the legislator, and in the meantime, it was accurate for 1885. By 1960-ish, things were pretty malapportioned. All the people lived in the South, all the legislative districts, I'm exaggerating this, but most were in the North, and something had to change, and it was very hard to get it changed. The legislator did pass a bill calling for a constitution revision commission.
That commission met in 1966, it was chaired by Chesterfield Smith, it had a bunch of, a mix of reformers and [inaudible 00:02:07] in it, and they created a draft of a new constitution. They submitted it to the legislator, which had just been reapportioned. It was young, urban, progressive, it tweaked slightly this constitution and it adopted the new constitution, and that constitution contained within it a unique way to be amended, and that was a regularly automatically recurring constitution revision commission made up of the attorney general and appointees, and it was there because the people who voted in, or excuse me, who drafted that new constitution knew that the people of Florida needed a way that they could have power over their own constitution and not be dependent just on the legislator. This group had seen that the legislator was not always going to be responsive to what the people needed.
Chris Cate: Were there any other examples of states setting up a revision commission like we were doing, that Floridians could structure a model after, or was Florida's process really a one of a kind process?
Mary Adkins: Florida's constitution revision process was and remains unique among the states. Some other states have provisions for a revision commission. Typically, they are triggered by some event, or they can be voted into existence, but Florida is the only one that has an automatically recurring, regularly reoccurring revision commission, and also one that does not have to submit its proposals anywhere before putting them on the ballot. That's an awesome power.
Chris Cate: How aware are most Floridians of the effort to modernize our constitution back in the '60s, and were most Floridians in favor of it or was it a pretty controversial change for Florida?
Mary Adkins: It's hard to tell how aware most Floridians were. There were quite a few newspapers articles at the time, but there are plenty of newspaper articles now about the CRCs work, yet the average citizen isn't aware of its work. There were groups like the League of Women voters and the Florida Bar that were very active in trying to get there to be a new constitution.
As far as controversy, yes, there were still plenty of people who felt the old constitution was just fine. I think there was a little bit of fear of too much more change, because Florida was changing really fast then. The moon race was happening, more and more people were flooding into the state, Disney was coming. There may have been a little bit of sort of digging your heels in against change. On the other hand, many people, particularly people newer to the state, and very strongly people in urban areas, were strongly in favor of a new constitution.
Chris Cate: In what ways did our constitution change then? I mean did it, apart from just the kind of reapportionment, how did the laws actually change to benefit Floridians in the South?
Mary Adkins: One big thing was that it provided for local home rule. Before the new constitution, localities could do very little beyond the most routine duties by themselves. Everything else they had they needed to go ask their legislative delegation for help, and needless to say that clogged up the legislator, it kept it busy with local bills, and made it very hard to pass state wide bills.
Putting hands in the, putting power in the hands of the localities was a big change. The court system, which actually got adopted a few years after the rest of the constitution, was a huge change. It had been almost random under the old constitution. Many, many statutory and local courts, under the new constitution of course there's a uniform system for levels of court and they're uniform across the state.
Chris Cate: The commission meets every 20 years, but the second commission after the initial creation was in the '70s, only 10 years after the first. Why did they set that first commission to happen only 10 years after we had just revised our constitution?
Mary Adkins: Well the easy reason that I could tell you is because the constitution was written that way, but I'm sure you'd like to know why it was. The writers of that 1966 constitution realized that they were making a pretty different constitution, and they did not fool themselves that they were getting it perfect.
The built in this earlier review that would kick off the 20 year cycles, with the thought that, "Just in case something that we have put in here that's new doesn't work out, the people won't be stuck with it for too long before they have a chance to change."
Chris Cate: How successful would you say that the CRCs have been, the last two or three commissions that we've had?
Mary Adkins: Well the one working right now is the third since the new constitution. In 1977 and '78, that was the first CRC under this constitution, and they were quite ambitious and put a lot of proposals on the ballot, zero of which passed. It would be a mistake to call them unsuccessful because many of the things that they proposed eventually became part of the constitution. For instance, they proposed a right to privacy, an explicit right to privacy, that didn't pass, but two years later it did pass as a constitutional amendment. Similarly, they wanted to reduce or abolish the state wide elected cabinet. That failed, there was a whole controversy about whether they were going to propose a reduced or an abolished cabinet. They proposed and abolished on, that failed, but again 20 years later, the cabinet did get reduced.
They also served as a great lesson, almost like a classroom lesson for the next CRC, the 1997-98 one, which learned, "Let's make sure we have a broad consensus before we put anything on the ballot. Let's also be realistic and think about what might actually get passed by the public before we place it on the ballot." That CRC had eight of its nine proposals pass, including reducing the cabinet, including having a local option for gun background checks. Having a local option for trial level merit retention of judges, which it passed in theory, but then no locality ever took it up and voted on that. They also put in some very strong language supporting public education. They were, they had more success, if you count success as how many of the proposals passed.
Chris Cate: You mentioned earlier that, there really isn't a tremendous awareness of the CRC right now amongst Floridians. What kind of obligation does the state have to makes sure voters are informed about what's going on right now?
Mary Adkins: I think the state is a big entity. I do think that there is an obligation to inform voters. I think voters also have an obligation to inform themselves. The CRC seems to be very, quite aware of news. It has a very easy to use website, flcrc.gov. They regularly produce press releases with their schedules and with other announcements that they make. The website itself is easy to use. Every meeting that the group holds, even committee meetings, is broadcast free on the Florida Channel.
All these things are wonderful, but people basically have to already know about the CRC to find it, right? The trick is getting people to know about it otherwise, and newspapers cover it. Very interestingly, 20 years ago, the 1997-98 CRC commissioned a focus group, and the focus group was made up of people who self identified as well informed, "I read the paper every day. I watch the news on TV every day." Yet of that group, this is at the end of that CRCs work, of that group, only 24% of them were aware that there was a CRC.
Chris Cate: Wow.
Mary Adkins: I don't know if people just see the word constitution and they turn it off, or they see the letter CRC and they don't know what it is so it doesn't draw them into read in it or watch it, but it's a challenge.
Chris Cate: Since these amendment proposals are not approved by the Supreme Court before they're voted on, how much does the Supreme Court have to reject them once they've been approved by voters?
I mean will the amendments be constitutional as they are approved, because they are I guess constitutional once voted upon and not subject to review, or can the Supreme Court step in at some point and say, "Okay, this was too far and not inline with the rest of the constitution?
Mary Adkins: That's a great question. I think that they would be, quote, constitutional, because they would be a part of the constitution. They would still be subject to challenge as being say, inconsistent with another part of the constitution, or inconsistent with the United States constitution. Challenges would still be possible, but it, you wouldn't be able to say, "That's not constitutional under the Florida constitution," if it's part of the Florida constitution.
I think the place where it might show up the most readily would be in a situation in which, for instance, with restoring voting rights of felons. There's a citizen's initiative going around right now that would do that. There are also proposals before the CRC that would do that. They're worded differently from each other. If both passed, the court would probably face a challenge from someone saying, "Which one of these is correct?" They would probably have to figure out a way to either make them be read together in a way that would make sense, or interpret it some other way.
Chris Cate: Amendments are seemingly always very complicated when they're on ballots to understand exactly what impact it's going to have, if you're not, if this is really the first time you're learning about it. Do they, does the CRC have more room to add more language onto the ballot, or what kind, do they have any restrictions about how things are worded on the ballot?
Mary Adkins: Well they have to be clear, but they don't really have rules that would prevent them from, for instance, grouping unlike proposals into one amendment on the ballot. That would be possible, and in fact, the 1977-78 CRC did that a little bit, where you would perhaps put something about education and something about homestead on the same amendment.
It's possibly not a good idea, because I think voters understand, voters don't want things like that. They understand that maybe somebody's putting on something that you might not like in with something that you really want, so then you've got to take the bitter with the sweet. What I'm saying is, they don't have constitutional rules that keep them from doing something like that.
Chris Cate: Well what advice would you give to the current members right now sitting on the CRC?
Mary Adkins: You know what, the best advice I've heard came from an interview that I did with a member of the 1997-98 CRC. His name was Carlos Alfonso, and here's what he said, and I think it's beautiful advice. He said, "Lay your ego at the door. Don't think about your party and be a Floridian."
Chris Cate: Yeah, that's good advice. Do you think the, I mean it seems to be, I don't know that it's necessarily a equally bipartisan group. Can you, how would you describe the makeup of the current CRC?
Mary Adkins: I've heard it as described as Republicans of all stripes. It is mostly, and predictably, made up primarily of members of the Republican party, and I think that's to be expected, given the people who appoint the members of the CRC. A Republican governor, a Republican House Speaker, a Republican senate president, and then the Chief Justice, who is officially non-partisan, has just three appointments.
Then the automatic member, the attorney general, is of course also Republican. I've heard said that there are three Democrats on the CRC, but there are I think an array of voices and different kinds of viewpoints. Nobody is defined solely by their party affiliation, and I don't think that we have 34 people that think exactly alike simply because they're all Republicans.
Chris Cate: Do you think that still doing this every 20 years is a good idea?
Mary Adkins: I do, because it gives us a chance to really look at a whole document, and it keeps it from just being amended piecemeal as the former one was. Now we have lots of ways to amend this constitution.
A lot people feel that it's already a sort of slapped together piecemeal, but really the every 20 years review gives us a chance that most states don't have, to just look at the whole document and say, "What is in this that doesn't make any sense? Maybe I'll make a proposal to take it out?" Or, "What is in this that is in conflict with another part of the constitution?" If something like that were to have happened. I do still think it's a good thing.
Chris Cate: Well I want to transition now to the final four questions that I ask every guest at the end of every interview. The first being, who is the Florida leader who you admire?
Mary Adkins: There are several, but probably Reubin Askew the most. I think that he took Florida during a difficult period, and restored integrity to the government. He also did a whole lot to I think save the judicial branch of the government.
Chris Cate: What is something in Florida that you think deserves more attention than what it's getting?
Mary Adkins: If I can give two, one would be public education needs to be strengthened, not weakened, and the judiciary needs to remain independent and be, and have independent funding so that it can remain independent.
Chris Cate: Where is a favorite Florida location for you to visit?
Mary Adkins: Anywhere there's water.
Chris Cate: And finally, what's your favorite Florida sports team?
Mary Adkins: I am a Florida Gator.
Chris Cate: Not surprisingly. All right, well I really appreciate you sharing all this information and for taking the time to chat with us today.
Mary Adkins: Thank you, Chris, I've enjoyed it.
Chris Cate: Thanks for listening to the Fluent in Floridian Podcast. If you aren't subscribed to the podcast yet, I hope you'll look us up and subscribe to the show on your favorite podcast app, like Apple Podcast, Stitcher, or Google Play Music. If you leave a review, that would be great too. Thanks to my team at Salter Mitchell PR for making this podcast possible.
If you need help telling your Florida story, we've got you covered. We offer issues management, crisis communications, social media, advocacy, and media relations assistance. We also have our own in-house creative and research teams. Look us up at saltermitchellpr.com for more information. You can also find more information about the Fluent in Floridian Podcast at fluentinfloridian.com. Have a great day.