It started Tuesday, and now Florida’s annual lawmaking bonanza is well underway. Please try to contain your excitement.
Usually the legislative session starts in March, but this year, Governor Rick Scott and Florida lawmakers opted to move their annual series of Tallahassee treks up a couple of months.
Oh, it definitely has nothing to do with wanting to make sure that any controversial billson the docket are filed as far away as possible from the November midterm elections. Florida’s legislators would never think in terms of what would best protect their power. They probably just enjoy the cool weather up there.
As with every year, session is a blend of tedium (sooooo many committee meetings), passionate advocacy and activism, potential for uncalled-for behavior/dumb tweets (Frank Artiles/Matt Gaetz) and political fights that have nothing to do with the issue at hand. Also: The vast majority of bills don’t even make it to a full vote, but it’s fun to watch the particularly shitty and evil ones crash and burn — but not fun to see the good ones often get ignored for reasons we know all too well — as lawmakers squabble over the budget (the one thing they have to pass).
And it’s all happening in one of the most important midterm election cycles we’ve seen, at a time of political upheaval and a sea change for gender dynamics in the workplace.
Here are some of the issues we’re keeping an eye on over the next eight weeks or so.
House Speaker Richard Corcoran allegedly wants to be governor (well, as of this writing he hasn’t announced and probably won’t until after session). Rick Scott, who is now governor, wants to be a U.S. Senator (also hasn’t announced, but...). The two are both conservative Republicans, but they are looking at very different playbooks in order to reach their ends. Corcoran, a Lutz Republican, is staking out the far right, with such hits as “Let’s Drain the State’s Tourism Promotion Fund!” and “It’s Hip to Ban Refugees!” Scott, meanwhile, has been very un-Rick Scott lately in terms of environmental initiatives — so much so that he even shifted his views on offshore drilling, for once expressing unequivocal opposition to the Trump administrations’s plan to allow offshore drilling off Florida’s coast. Protecting Florida’s delicate environment and vulnerable natural resources isn’t exactly cheap (especially as obscene development continues to unfold throughout the state), but it’s kinda necessary. And, it’s popular with most voters, except for the ones who will be deciding the outcome of the August Republican primary. So you might see some conflict between the Corcoran and Scott camps there. Dog-whistlin’ for Jesus (just kidding! It’s the primary)
Speaking of statement pieces, Corcoran is backing one he can champion in order to appeal to ghoulish primary voters on the far right and to distance himself from in the general in order to squeak by Gwen Graham or whoever: sanctuary cities. Yep, we’re still pretending that those exist in Florida. State Rep. Larry Metz, R-Yalaha, filed a bill Corcoran is backing, and Corcoran talked about this so-called scourge in his opening address on the first day of session. So it’ll be a big deal, even if cities can’t exactly choose whether or not to enforce immigration laws. That authority falls to county sheriffs’ departments, and you can guess where these tend to fall on the political spectrum.
You’ve probably heard this before: There is potential for something seismic in Tallahassee when it comes to sexual harassment accusations, sexual impropriety, you name it — that Jack Latvala’s downfall was just the start. It’s pretty easy to imagine a boys’ club culture up there that needs to be ended, but it’s also easy to imagine that there are some figures who would weaponize the #MeToo movement to take down political rivals (would you really put it past some of these people?). Not that any accusers that emerge over session shouldn’t be believed. We should believe them, and there should be consequences for the perpetrators. It’s just that we could see some particularly ambitious people in Tallahassee exploiting the shit out of what should be an earnest effort to purge creepy sexism from the State Capitol.
Speaking of Latvala, last year he backed a bill that would ban the practice of fracking throughout the state. You know — the literal cracking open of the earth in order to satiate our hopeless dependence on fossil fuels and stuff. Other Republicans want to legalize it (ostensibly because they want to “regulate” it). But on this issue environmentalists have allies in State Sen. Dana Young (R-Tampa) and State Rep. Kathleen Peters (R-Treasure Island), who are sponsoring companion bills that would ban fracking statewide. Whether or not they will go anywhere is another question (even if cities throughout the state have passed measures advocating a ban), but pro-environment policies have been getting closer and closer every year.
“With 90 cities and counties in Florida having passed ordinances or resolutions opposing fracking and hundreds of peer-reviewed papers on fracking’s environmental and health impacts, it’s time for Florida to protect our waters and communities from this dangerous drilling and ban fracking once and for all,” said Jennifer Rubiello, director of the nonprofit Environment Florida.
Huge... tracts of land
A fracking ban might not have as much traction as fans of clean air and water hope it would, but groups do have expectations that the legislature will actually follow the direction of Florida voters (for once). In 2014, the vast majority of the state’s voters approved an amendment to the state constitution that was meant to fund land conservation efforts via an already existing bucket of money. Welp, you can probably guess how the legislature sought to “implement” it. (Hint: They didn’t!) But Rubiello and others look at the advancement of Senate Bill 370, filed by Orange Park Republican Rob Bradley. It lacks the required House companion, but that’ll probably change in the coming weeks. The bill funds land and water conservation to the tune of $100 million — about a third of what environmental advocates would want, but, hey, it’s not nothing.
For non-love of trees
As we’ve tried to cover at every possible juncture (and we believe it’s important to kinda hit people over the head with because it’s that damned infuriating), certain state lawmakers are deliberately trying to strip cities and counties of their power and autonomy. It’s a process called preemption. It’s the reason that a gun owner can bring his or her piece to a playground if he or she feels like it, and local officials can do nothing about it. And it’s the reason Miami Beach can’t pass a minimum wage that’s more appropriate to its cost of living than, say, that of...I dunno...Eustis?
In a nutshell, some lawmakers hate it that cities like St. Pete, Tampa, Tallahassee, Miami and the like are passing progressive policies that (ever so slightly) diminish the bottom line for the donor class.
Anyway, this year, local tree ordinances are in lawmakers’ preemption crosshairs via SB 574, which Sen. Greg Steube (R-Sarasota) filed in November.
Plenty of cities have rules limiting the removal of trees because, well, lots of reasons. They provide shade, they enhance an area’s sense of place, they literally fucking absorb carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen and thus literally help us breathe, etc. Do you know what would happen if you gave Florida man cart blanche with a chainsaw in his back yard? Not good things.
In all seriousness, environmentalists are terrified that abolishing local tree ordinances will be a boon to developers and others who either don’t understand the consequences of their actions or don’t care.
Inject the hounds
Remember how a greyhound trainer was arrested last year after regulators found evidence of cocaine in the systems of multiple dogs who were regularly running at St. Petersburg’s Derby Lane? And how a dozen dogs running at tracks throughout the state had also tested positive for a cocaine metabolite? Well, in defiance of efforts to shut down greyhound racing in Florida, the state where it’s most prolific, the racing industry is pushing a bill that would allow “prohibited substances” at “environmental levels” in racing dogs. Animal welfare advocates say that could include cocaine (even if the proposal has a provision or two that would enhance track safety).
Yet it wouldn’t be easy to find a lawmaker who’s gung-ho about sponsoring it. While the Florida Greyhound Association is backing the proposal, it has yet to find a sponsor. Plus, voters may have the opportunity to ban greyhound racing outright come November via a proposed constitutional amendment that could make it onto the ballot. So there’s that.
A perennial favorite issue for the Florida legislature’s ultraconservative wing: placing limits on women’s autonomy. Year after year, they file a smorgasbord of bills aimed at the right to choose, from an all-out abortion ban (which at this point would probably get swatted down in court pretty quickly) to 24-hour waiting periods to less direct attacks on abortion rights.
A bill (SB 444) being floated this year — by Sen. Aaron Bean (R-Jacksonville) in the senate and Rep. Jackie Toledo (R-Tampa) in the house — would create permanent funding for so-called “crisis pregnancy centers,” which are typically religious facilities that often offer misleading information about fetal development and littles else.
Needless to say, women’s health advocates are planning on fighting this one.
“Senate Bill 444 would permanently fund fake clinics that operate with virtually no oversight and harm Florida women seeking the full range of reproductive health care,” said Mark Ferrulo, director of Progress Florida, in an emailed statement. “Florida taxpayers should not be forced to fund these anti-abortion, fake clinics that deceive and shame Florida women.”
And, finally, Sen. Young and Rep. James Grant (R-Tampa) have filed bills in their respective chambers to fund transportation initiatives throughout the state, including the notoriously traffic-strangled Tampa Bay region (!). But if that makes you perk up because you think it means light rail, prepare to be disappointed. Young and Grant want to focus on less-fixed, more tech-heavy options, like driverless cars and buses as well as hyperloop trains. It takes money from Orlando’s SunRail system, instead infusing regional entities like TBARTA with cash to attempt to overhaul transportation.