Beruff’s CRC Power Grab Temporarily Thwarted

Dennis Maley
Governor Rick Scott had clear intentions when he appointed Manatee County developer and close political ally Carlos Beruff as chair of the Florida Constitutional Revision Commission. Over the years, the sharp-elbowed political infighter has shown disdain if not outright contempt for the rules, especially when they get in the way of his intentions. This week, Beruff's willingness to flout established precedent reached new lows when the CRC met to establish operating rules for the commission’s upcoming work.

The Constitutional Revision Commission is a 37-member panel first convened in 1977 and assembled every 20 years. It has the considerable power of putting proposed constitutional amendments directly on the ballot (in this case, for November of 2018). Its members consist of political appointees: 15 selected by the governor (including the chair), nine selected by the Speaker of the Florida House, nine selected by the President of the Florida Senate, and three selected by the Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court. The Florida Attorney General is automatically appointed as well.

It wasn't much of a surprise when Scott appointed Beruff as chair on March 1, and many viewed Beruff’s initial promises of transparency with understandable skepticism. With a 2018 U.S. Senate run nearly certain to be in his future, the governor would obviously see the CRC as a platform for putting forth initiatives he could then use as issues during the campaign. Not surprisingly, he also installed Brecht Heuchan, a political consultant who helped run Let's Get to Work, Scott's 2014 reelection PAC.

Governor Scott has shown himself to be a skilled politician and prolific fundraiser, however, he has never enjoyed a warm and fuzzy relationship with the Florida Republican political establishment. Indeed, his relationship with RPOF leaders in the state legislature has been downright contentious at times, and suffice it to say that the other forces involved in shaping the completely Republican-controlled CRC weren't necessarily on board with the governor exercising de facto autonomy through Beruff.

Beruff first rankled other members in early March when he proposed a new set of rules that would dictate how the commission was to operate. Beruff's rules were largely based on those used during the last convening of the CRC with some small but crucial changes. The developer (who himself ran for U.S. Senate in 2016) essentially wanted final say on which proposals were included on the ballot, an unprecedented caveat that was hotly contested by the non-Scott elements of the commission.

Beruff then created the Official Rules Working Group, a six-member panel that was to iron out the operating rules at a meeting in May. That group, composed of two appointees each from the governor, speaker and senate president, failed to reach the desired outcome. In fact, they actually made a recommendation that the panel be in compliance with the Florida Constitution by requiring that all meetings of two or more members be subject to sunshine laws. Not liking the result, Beruff simply disbanded the group and called for a meeting of the entire commission, declaring that the rules would be established by a full vote instead. That meeting took place in Orlando on Tuesday.

Senator Tom Lee (R-Thonotosassa) was a member of the rules group who didn't go in for Beruff's power grab. After it was disbanded, Lee, who was appointed to the CRC by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, filed an amendment to adopt the rules of the 1997 commission as a "starting place." Former Senate President Don Gaetz, who was appointed to the CRC by current Senate President Joe Negron, also expressed concern that the group was disbanded by Beruff because he and the governor's staff didn't like the results, arguing that the commission needed a "presider, not a decider."

Specifically, Beruff wanted the power to reject proposals by individual members or committees, kill proposals by sending them back to committees after they had been amended by other committees, and have the ability to decide autonomously which proposals are referred to which committee. He opposed subjecting the CRC to Florida sunshine laws, instead advocating for legislative standards that would allow up to two members to meet in secret and discuss matters that are or could come before the commission.

Miami attorney Roberto Martinez, who was appointed by Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Jorge Labarga, was the strongest advocate for ensuring transparency by adhering to sunshine laws and also filed an amendment prior to this week's meeting. In total there were 74 amendments slated to be heard on Tuesday, many of which responded directly to the autonomy that Beruff had sought through the disbanded rules group. In fact, for a moment it seemed like tipping his hand had backfired and the commission would wind up insisting on rules that were much more specific than those from 1997, in order to directly confront the inordinate powers he'd sought.

Heuchan, however, devised an end around, proposing a "strike-through" amendment as a substitute to the first amendment raised, one that would override all of the others, installing a complete set of rules that mostly stuck to the framework from 1997. This didn't sit well with the non-Scott wing, many of whom raised "points of orders" in an attempt to prevent Heuchan’s amendment from being the only one to come before the commission.

Gaetz referred to the Mason’s Manual of Legislative Procedure—the official parliamentary authority of most state legislatures, including Florida's—objecting to Heuchan's amendment as "not germane" because it expanded the initial amendment beyond its intended scope. This led to the most memorable quote of the meeting when a clearly frustrated Beruff declared, "There are no rules!"

In the end, the commission voted 19-11 on factional lines in favor of the strike-through amendment, after which Beruff decided that no other amendments would be considered, adjourning the meeting and leaving most of the questions on transparency and committee control unanswered. The CRC is tentatively scheduled to meet again later this month, though no date has been announced.

Beruff has long had his way with local government boards—county commissions, water authorities and the like. But the home-builder discovered during his 2016 Senate run, which ended in a landslide primary defeat to Sen. Marco Rubio, that political bulldozing isn’t always as easy as the literal variety. Not even an uber-wealthy developer can always spread around enough campaign cash to corral all of the votes and special interests, even within a single party.

Beruff’s attempted power grab not only creased the non-Scott wing of the RPOF, but it brought an onslaught of backlash from good government groups and transparency advocates who turned out at the University of Central Florida's Fairwinds Alumni Center on Tuesday. Public opposition is becoming an increasingly-familiar phenomenon whenever Beruff is out in front of something, and the Miami transplant may find that such an inconvenient dynamic makes even the best-compensated political cronies a bit nervous.

There seems little question that Beruff will press on with his effort to control the CRC to his liking, even if he had to settle for mere vagueness this week. Whether or not he is successful in light of the attention that is now focused on the matter, however, remains to be seen.

Dennis Maley is a featured columnist and editor for The Bradenton Times. His Sunday opinion column deals with issues of local concern. He is the author of the novel, A Long Road Home, and the short story collection, Casting Shadows, which can be ordered in paperback here, or in the Amazon Kindle store here.

Reader Comments
Nancy R Dean[email protected]
JUN 11  •  One thing about Mr. Beruff, he never stops in his roughshod attempts to control governing bodies. All citizens must maintain constant vigilance.