Legislative session recap: A look at the twists and turns of the Florida legislative session that was

Smell ya later, Tallahassee!

click to enlarge FL House Speaker Richard Corcoran. - Meredith Gedding/Florida House of Representatives
Meredith Gedding/Florida House of Representatives
FL House Speaker Richard Corcoran.

We laughed. We cried. We wondered if meaningful change would ever happen, better late than never.

And some changes did happen over the course of the 2018 Florida legislative session — some good, some bad, some having implications for the coming midterms and beyond.

When we previewed the session way back in January, we promised fireworks. Yet we had no idea what was in store.

We saw power plays from the likes of far-right House Speaker Richard Corcoran (R-Land O’ Lakes), who is likely to jump into the governor’s race with a formidable arsenal of campaign cash any day now. We saw conservatives like State Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, vote against a union-busting education bill. We saw Dems vote for a gun safety bill they didn’t love because it had a few things they liked.

Undeniably, the big conversation driver this session was the Valentine’s Day slaughter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, and the drivers of that conversation were the students who survived the shooting.

Still, lawmakers had to grapple with countless issues, from the aforementioned education bill to the environment to puppies.

Yes, puppies.

Let’s take a look at some of the more interesting bills that were proposed, and what became of them.

HB 9: Corcoran’s “sanctuary cities” show

Prior to the gun debate eclipsing everything else post-Parkland, immigration was the topic du jour. Corcoran was championing a bill State Rep. Larry Metz (R-Yalaha) filed last August that would punish leaders of so-called sanctuary cities. In other words, mayors who don’t want their law enforcement officers to terrorize immigrant communities. (Pssst... reality check: County sheriffs, who tend to be conservatives, are the ones who process all arrests and thus have the purview to carry out federal immigration laws.) Corcoran’s PAC then released an ad featuring a brown person skulking around suburbia before gunning down a pretty white girl at random. It was a tour de force for a Republican candidate trying to maneuver as far to the right as possible to impress primary voters. Believe it or not, critics panned that ad as racist. But we digress.

So what happened? Corcoran put HB 9 on the agenda very early on; it was taken up in committee on the first day of session. It passed the full House just three days later. It then went to the much more moderate Senate, where it lay dormant before going quietly into the night on March 10.

SB 462: What the frack, man?

Environmentalists were pumped that lawmakers, at least in the Senate, appeared open to an unequivocal statewide ban on the practice of hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking (basically, shooting pressurized water and/or chemicals into the earth in pursuit of fossil fuels). State Rep. Kathleen Peters (R-Treasure Island) and State Sen. Dana Young (R-Tampa) were its respective sponsors in the House and Senate. It was moving along swimmingly in the latter chamber, and groups like Environment Florida saw potential for a favorable floor vote. Had it cleared the House, the victory would have at least been symbolic.

So what happened? Well, believe it or not, the petroleum industry descended on Tallahassee. And despite two committee stops in which the bill unanimously cleared, Senate Appropriations Chair Rob Bradley (R-Orange Park) inexplicably took it off his committee’s agenda. When environmental groups learned that the bill had been shelved, they implored Senate President Joe Negron to revive it, even rallying outside his district office. But he ignored their pleas.

Florida Forever!

Environmental advocates did not go home empty-handed. The legislature voted to put $100 million into Florida Forever, the state’s popular but dormant environmental land-buying program, into its budget. Since the recession, the GOP-led legislature has largely starved the program.

So what happened? Hey, it’s an election year and Floridians of every political stripe see environmental protection as paramount.

SB 7026: Gun/school “safety,” or the NRA’s epic breakup with Rick Scott

Following the Parkland shooting, survivors seized the moment. They were savvy enough to recognize that the massacre took place during a legislative session in what happened to be an election year. They pressured politicians, pushing for reform, mostly on guns. Most Florida Republicans would rather give up their firstborn than defy the NRA, so the reform that came about focused on “safety.” It raised the minimum age for buying a gun to 21, banned “bump stocks” and blocked people who have been treated for certain mental issues from buying guns. But “school safety” was the main focus here, so on the flip side it also set up a program for arming some teachers.

click to enlarge DRIVING THE CONVERSATION: Students called for stronger gun safety laws. - Kimberly DeFalco
Kimberly DeFalco
DRIVING THE CONVERSATION: Students called for stronger gun safety laws.

So what happened? Governor Rick Scott, who came to prominence as a Tea Party guy in 2010 and went on to earn an A+ from the NRA, signed it into law March 9. The NRA immediately lost its shit and sued. Political observers wonder whether it’s all theatrics leading into Scott’s possible U.S. Senate bid against popular Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson.

HB 7055: (Public) school’s out

Florida lawmakers want to promote school choice while unraveling teachers’ unions? No! Public education activists looked on in horror as this expansive education bill cleared committee after committee in either chamber. In part, the bill could move more than $100 million in state funding to charter schools via scholarship programs that would cover students who transfer from public to private schools — say, due to bullying, as is the case with one program funded under the law. Another program covers private school tuition for students who fail reading tests while at a public school. Naturally, this had fans of public education fuming. Another provision of the bill brought busloads of union activists up to Tallahassee — and not just active members of teachers’ unions — to protest the union-busting provision we mentioned above. That component of HB 7055 requires 50 percent of eligible teachers within a given union’s coverage area to be card-carrying members (since Florida is a so-called “right to work” state). If a teachers’ union doesn’t count at least half a school district’s eligible teachers among its ranks, that union becomes subject to decertification. Critics call the bill a power play aimed at further crippling teachers’ unions, which often support Democrats.

So what happened? Well, it easily cleared the House in early February (of course), and the Senate futzed around with it for about a month before passing their version. Corcoran was reportedly hugging supporters on the House floor after it cleared that chamber. Like most legislation, the votes took place largely along party lines, though a Republican (Tom Lee of Thonotosassa) and a Democrat (Bill Montford of Tallahassee) voted with their respective opposition. Lee — again, a pretty conservative guy, but one who appears to be thinking of jumping into the race for Florida CFO — said the 50 percent threshold was too much and ought to drop to 40 percent. Scott signed the bill into law March 11.

SB 4: USF St. Pete loses

USF’s St. Pete and Sarasota campuses have enjoyed separate accreditation for years. That status has allowed those institutions to grow independently of the administration at the university’s main campus in Tampa. Since its separate accreditation, for example, USF St. Pete has kind of become its own thing, and the campus is now busy and thriving — a far cry from the sleepy commuter campus it was when it was directly under the USF Tampa umbrella. But that didn’t matter to this bill’s House sponsor, State Rep. Chris Sprowls, who apparently believes stripping the campus of its independence will somehow help USF by boosting the system’s overall graduation rates. Or something. But civic and business leaders in St. Petersburg worry that a loss of autonomy would diminish USFSP’s identity and turn it back into the afterthought it once was.

So what happened? The governor signed the bill after it cleared both chambers. In fact, he signed this one on the very day he signed HB 7055, and called 2018 “a great year for education.”

Multiple bills; Puppy mill ban ban

Preemption, a practice by which the state tries to block local governments from creating their own regulations, rears its head at least once every session. This time around, it came into play not once but twice as a rider snuck first onto a broader tax policy bill, then onto an ag bill. The target? Puppies. Rather, cities’ and counties’ efforts to ban the sale of dogs and other pets bred at industrial-scale breeding facilities, which are known commonly as puppy mills. The amendment, which Monticello Republican State Rep. Halsey Beshears stuck onto the ag policy, would have kept cities from barring sale of animals from USDA-certified facilities. The thing is, USDA in the Trump era doesn’t make for transparency when it comes to documents relating to inspections of puppy mills, let alone whether any violations have taken place. The agency sent the Tampa Bay Times literally pages of blacked-out inspection documents several weeks ago nearly a year after the newspaper requested those records.

So what happened? Had it not been for keen-eyed animal rights group lobbyists, this one might have slipped right through the cracks. Lawmakers shot down the tax bill rider earlier this year, and Beshears quickly withdrew the ag bill amendment hours after he filed it. But animal welfare groups are wary of any effort to sneak such a proposal into state law in future sessions, and say they’ll remain vigilant during session for years to come.

HB 67:  In which Florida legislators agree on a memorial! No, seriously! 

As a state south of the Mason-Dixon, Florida has seen many battles over Confederate monuments. The further inland you go, the more Confederate flag mudflaps you see. Yet a bipartisan spate of lawmakers all seemed to agree that perhaps this time, instead of deifying those who fought for the right to buy and sell other humans, we put resources toward the construction of a solemn monument condemning the scourge of slavery. So a bill providing resources for a slavery monument at the state Capitol had quite a few cosponsors.

So what happened? It unanimously passed, and as of deadline now awaits the governor’s signature.

SB 140: Because child brides are technically still legal here

Apparently, forcing children to get married is still a thing in Florida — even here in the Tampa Bay area. Do we need to explain why freedom of religion should probably exclude the ability to force your 13-year-old to marry a grown man (or anyone else)? No? Good. So lawmakers filed a ban.

So what happened? The ban originally had 18 as the minimum age for marriage, but that magically changed to 17 (no comment, lawmakers from rural districts). It passed unanimously in the Senate and had one nay vote in the House: State Rep. George Moraitis (R-Fort Lauderdale) called it “very reasonable” for a 16-year-old to marry without parental consent. Good thing he’s not up for reelection this year, huh?

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