Pensacola, Florida
Thursday December 14th 2017

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Don Gaetz: Still Serving

By Rick Outzen

Don Gaetz retired from the Florida Senate last year after serving 10 years, two of which were as Senate President, 2012-14. However, he hasn’t retired from public service. Gaetz serves on the state’s Constitution Revision Commission and will take over as chairman of Triumph Gulf Coast in January 2018.

When asked jokingly if his wife Vicky just wanted him out of the house, he agreed.

“That is true,” said Gaetz. “My son (Congressman Matt Gaetz) does not want me to come to Washington and stand over his shoulder. This is a way of keeping me busy because I don’t have any skills. I can’t paint the house or anything like that.”

The Constitution Revision Commission is a process mandated by Florida law that allows the voters to revisit the document every 20 years. Gaetz is one of 37 “tribal elders,” as he described the commissioners, appointed by Governor Rick Scott, House Speaker Richard Corcoran, Senate President Joe Negron and the Florida Supreme Court.

He said, “We have the option of taking a clean sheet of paper out and starting out with ‘We the people.’  Or we can embroider some changes around the edges.”

Gaetz pointed out that Florida is the only state that has a constitutional revision process like this. He said that the commission tries to update the state and look ahead for the next 20 years.

“What is the structure of government? What are the powers or limitations of government that will help our state grow, prosper, and be a good place to live for the next 20 years?” he told Inweekly.

To date, Constitution Revision Commission has held 10 public hearings, which nearly 2,000 people attended and almost 800 testified. Gaetz described the process as laborious because the Florida Constitution is about eight times longer than the U.S. Constitution and includes “everything from pregnant pigs to mind numbing language about bonding requirements.”

He joked, “It’s an arduous task, but they’ll, I guess, do anything to keep me from running for office. This is keeping me busy.”

The Constitution Revision Commission will deliberate over the next year. Then, no later than six months before the November 2018 election, it will propose whatever rewrites for the Constitution the commission intends to propose for the ballot.

“The voters can say, ‘Yep, that’s a good idea,’ or, ‘No, that’s a bad idea,” Twenty years ago, there were nine proposed amendments to the Constitution, eight of them passed,” Gaetz explained. “It depends upon what the amendments are, what the subject matter is, and whether we’re really in tune with the people of the state. Everybody gets a chance to vote on our work product.”

Sixty-percent of the voters must approve an amendment before it becomes a part of the Constitution. The Constitutional Revision Commission adopted for its rules that 60 percent of the 37 commissioners must agree before an amendment goes on the ballot.

If 23 commissioners agree, then the amendment will go before the voters in November 2018. He said, “There’s no review by the Supreme Court, no approval by the governor or the legislature. It goes right on the ballot the way that we recommend it. Then, if 60 percent of the voters agree, it goes into or out of the Constitution.”

Facing tight deadlines, the Constitution Revision Commission has broken up into subcommittees, where “we’ll consider ideas that citizens have brought to us for deleting things from the Constitution, adding, changing, improving.” Gaetz chairs the Ethics and Elections Committee of the Constitutional Revision Commission.

“I found out that the Old Testament was right, that original sin just keeps coming back. Politicians and people involved in politics just have a way of becoming the old Adam, to put it in Biblical terms,” joked Gaetz, who chaired the legislature’s redistricting committee and pushed for ethics reform every year he in served in the Florida Senate.

“I intend to propose strengthening the ethics requirements for public officials, from the local level right up through the federal level,” he said.

Triumph Gulf Coast
Florida House Speaker Corcoran also appointed Gaetz to serve on the Triumph Gulf Coast board of directors, which will manage $1.5 billion of the BP oil spill settlement earmarked for economic development and invest the funds in the diversification of Northwest Florida’s economy.

Gaetz clarified why Northwest Florida is receiving those funds.

“Now, that $1.5 billion, that’s not the money that individuals filed suit or claims for,” he said. “It’s not the money the local governments got from BP; it has nothing to do with the Clean Water Act. Instead, our Attorney General, Pam Bondi, put an economic damages claim on behalf of the state against BP for lost revenues to the state.”

It was Senator Gaetz who made sure the money came to the Florida Panhandle. He said, “We got $2 billion, and I sponsored legislation to make sure 75 percent of that would come back to Northwest Florida. The Triumph Gulf Coast board are the people responsible for deploying those funds.”

The Hurricane Ivan and the 2010 BP oil spill uncovered that the Northwest Florida’s economy was a “two-trick pony or two-legged stool,” dependent largely on tourism and military bases.

“If something bad happens in the Gulf of Mexico, our tourist economy goes to its knees,” he said. “Even the perception of an oil spill caused $2 billion worth of damages to the state from loss of tax revenues because we didn’t get those people from Indiana and Ohio coming down here and vacationing for some time.”

The military spending might not be as vulnerable unless the leaders want to do a base re-alignable.

“If folks in the Pentagon get the sniffles, we get pneumonia here, in terms of the effect on the military economy,” Gaetz said. “The whole purpose of the $1.5 billion, which comes from BP in economic damages claims, is to put a third leg under the stool of our economy, diversify our economy.”

He said he didn’t care what type of industry is brought to Northwest Florida “as long as my grandchildren and their children have the opportunity to compete for good jobs in an economy that’s stronger even than our tourist economy, and stronger even than our military economy.”

Gaetz wants Triumph Gulf Coast to leverage the $1.5 billion through partnerships with local governments and the private sector, so the funds will attract another $1 billion in investments in the economy. He said, “Then, we’re talking about real money.”

Gaetz added, “The funds coming through Triumph Gulf Coast will help build our economic infrastructure in a profound and transformational way. We want to be able to strengthen our economy so that we can contribute, in a meaningful way, to the future.”

He wants to lessen the region’s dependency on the military and tourism but without hurting those sectors of the economy.

Gaetz said, “We’re not just going to sit and wait for people to come to us and ask for money. We’re going to go look for transactions where we can partner with the private sector, partner with local and federal government sources, and really try to bring some economic infrastructure, better jobs, and more jobs to Northwest Florida.”