Even before the first call-to-order convened the state legislature for its 2013 session in Tallahassee on March 5, there was a hitch in the usually one-sided tug of war between Florida's unevenly proportioned governing bodies. Two weeks earlier, Gov. Rick Scott raised the hackles of his Republican Party by caving on the Medicaid expansion necessary for the state to be in compliance with the Affordable Care Act – Scott gave a deer-in-the-headlights explanation to the media that the death of his mother had changed his mind about expanding Medicaid. The decision came on the heels of his public-relations-conscious budget announcement, which touted a $74.2 billion state budget ($4 billion more than last year) that offered $1.2 billion for public education, including an across-the-board $2,500 raise for teachers. Both moves, while transparently targeting a re-election effort in 2014 for an incumbent with abysmal approval ratings, seemed to catch Republicans off guard. Party leadership expressed muted disappointment with Scott's moderate-friendly moves, suggesting that, because the budget and the Medicaid expansion would require legislative approval, more conservative interests might yet have the last word. But with mounting public pressure – a reported 62 percent of Floridians support the health care expansion; nobody dislikes teachers – there were signs that the Tea Party fervor that swept the state further to the right in 2010 might be subsiding. "Rick Scott has betrayed Florida voters," crowed a Feb. 26 headline from Fox News columnist Cal Thomas. Or perhaps he's trying to attract them.
The governor's about-face wasn't the only scene-setter for this year's legislative session. New leadership in the Senate and in the House of Representatives – Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and Speaker of the House Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel – ended 2012 with a promise of leaner, less-frivolous governance, attaching their respective tenures to ethics housecleaning and elections reform. Having dodged the bullet of a scandal shaped like former Republican Party of Florida Chairman Jim Greer (who pleaded out last month amid suspiciously deactivated threats to take the party down with him) legislative Republicans still held a majority (albeit no longer a supermajority), and they promised not to abuse it.
Not everyone's buying the assumed public face of the new majority, public schism or not. Among the 685 Senate bills and 614 House bills already filed are the telltale signs of business as usual: a state government that promises proactive economic reforms while simultaneously chipping away at personal freedoms. Education legislation largely means greasing the wheels of the privatized charter system; election reform, at best, will mean a return to what was there before 2011 when Republicans cut early voting; campaign finance reform merely makes it easier for corporations to buy elected office; there are proposed bills that would weaken local government controls while hurting workers; and abortion – or the prohibition thereof – remains on the table. It's the same legislature in a different year.
"Nothing is changing, other than Gov. Rick Scott and the legislators [being] scared of their public perception," says Amy Ritter, the executive director of Florida Watch Action, the group behind the anti-Scott Pink Slip Rick campaign. "Floridians are starting to realize that, wait a minute, these are the guys creating eight-hour lines to vote; these are the guys that are cutting our education and then using it as a political prop to win re-election. Floridians are starting to wake up. [Gov. Scott's] PR stunt is just a dance around a fire that doesn't really equate to anything other than a governor with low approval ratings desperately needing to win over middle-class Floridians, and it's not going to happen."
When former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush – founder and chairman of the national Foundation for Excellence in Education – showed up in Tallahassee Feb. 14 to speak with legislators, it was his latest attempt to mold the state's public-education system into the privatized model he has long envisioned. Bush's effects on Florida's teachers and students – including FCAT woes and charter school expansion – were subsequently maligned by a Feb. 24 editorial in the Palm Beach Post.
"[Bush's] Foundation for Excellence in Education accepts donations from private companies that would profit from lax new laws that Florida and other states are rushing to enact," the Post opined. "The sort of careless 'reform' Jeb Bush advocates will end up with taxpayers fleeced and students and parents cheated. He has a reputation for reform. He has a record of making messes."
Since 1996, the number of for-profit charter-school operations in Florida has risen from zero to 579, and 150 have closed during that period. This year, several bills seek to expand the operations of charters in the state – including virtual and homeschooling options – and they're putting Democrats and educators on edge. One bill (PCB-CIS 1301) would reduce local school-board oversight of charter schools while simultaneously forcing those districts to offer up excess district properties for free to the private operations. Another bill (PCB-CIS 1303) would expand state funding for online courses to students who are registered as homeschoolers in their districts. The most concerning, though, has been the re-emergence of the Parent Empowerment in Education bill (SB 862), the so-called "parent-trigger bill," that would allow parents to vote on the fate of consistently low-performing schools, likely turning them into charters. These, among other corporate education initiatives, are opening the floodgates for bad education all around, according to Florida Education Association public policy advocacy director Jeff Wright.
"Each time you're taking something either away from the K-12 program or the university program, you don't have a way to control any of the outcomes," Wright says. "And there are just big companies behind all of it."
Moreover, says Wright, at almost every turn, legislators are dropping in exemptions for nontraditional teachers, specifically from the teacher-performance and tenure laws set to go into effect in 2014. In this new, Bush-led scenario, the money follows the student, thus eliminating the middleman of the school district or the public school teacher. That sort of shifting accountability led Republican Orange County Public Schools chairman Bill Sublette to state in public that he would prefer that the state just "end the charade" of involving charter schools in public school business, thus forcing an unfair competition between the two.
Even if Senate Democrats – who last year managed to block the bill from passage on the last day of the legislative session – are publicly decrying their inability to muster that much force this year, Wright remains strategically optimistic. For one, Gov. Scott, who would have to sign the bill into law, didn't actually meet with Bush last month. Also, given that Democrats have increased their number in the legislative body to 14, they have some leverage. Wright specifically refers to House Speaker Weatherford's proposal (HB 7011, sponsored by state Rep. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford) to shift state employees' pension plans – including those of incoming teachers – into 401(k) accounts. That move hit a hitch last month when independent studies revealed that the savings might not outweigh the costs. Likewise, the governor's key ambition to cut manufacturing taxes in order to create more jobs in Florida will require a two-thirds vote from the Senate, which could give Democrats the upper hand. Regardless, says Wright, public opinion is on the side of the teachers.
"Those who are in office now are beginning to see that parents have had enough," he says. "They don't like a lot of this stuff."
CAMPAIGN FINANCE REFORM
On Jan. 30, House leadership and House Rules Chairman Rob Schenck, R-Spring Hill, announced their plan (HB 569) to overhaul what had become an increasingly troublesome – and seemingly corrupt – campaign finance system. The reform was a cornerstone of incoming Speaker Weatherford's crusade for greater transparency, and at least on the surface, an objective step forward for Florida politics. Under the proposal, the state's 700 Committees of Continuous Existence (slush funds used to divert unlimited campaign cash) would be eliminated in exchange for an increase in maximum campaign contributions from individuals for state races from $500 to $10,000. In effect, Weatherford asserted, the bill would simply adjust the goalposts to match the influx of cash brought into politics in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling. Individuals would be able to keep up with corporations, and everything would be transparent instead of bundled and kept in the shadows.
"We think everyone has to kind of get over the five stages of grief for those who hate the amount of resources that go into politics," Weatherford told reporters, according to the Tampa Bay Times. "I don't like it either. But we have numerous rulings from the Supreme Court and we can't change that. So given those confines, there are decisions we have to make about how we allow money to be spent in politics."
It didn't take long for critics of the proposal to come out of the woodwork. On Feb. 14, the man responsible for blowing the whistle on Jim Greer, former Republican Party of Florida vice chairman Allen Cox, told the Times that the initiative left a giant loophole.
"If we really want to have sunshine for campaign finance reform, we should eliminate the massive loophole that allows the speaker and president to raise funds on behalf of the party, park them at the party, and then dictate to the party how and where they will be spent," he said.
On that same day, the League of Women Voters of Florida organized a conference call to decry the measure, specifically its focus on increasing funding limits to four times those allowed for federal races. League president Deirdre Macnab said that she was "deeply concerned" about the $10,000 figure, suggesting that higher contribution limits were a recipe for protected incumbency. Adam Skaggs, with the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, backed her up.
"We commissioned research that demonstrated in states that have contribution limits up to $500, like Florida, incumbents enjoyed margins of victory over their challengers that are 14.5 percent lower than in states with contribution limits over $2,000," he said. "When states double their contribution limits, incumbents widen their margins of victory by seven points. So, essentially, the higher the contribution limits in a state, the more of an advantage incumbents have."
Skaggs went on to cite examples of higher campaign contribution limits (or no limits) leading to corruption in Missouri, New York, Maryland and most notably Illinois, where campaign misdeeds led to the conviction of two governors and the institution of new funding limits. He also found the logic behind Florida's exponential raise in limits to be counterproductive to political engagement. In a state that already boasts one of the lowest rates of participation, diminishing the value of a minor campaign contribution could only serve to discourage Main Street voters. Lloyd Leonard, the senior director of advocacy for the League of Women Voters of the United States, saw the move as nothing short of "institutionalized bribery" that would create an even stronger quid pro quo between corporations and candidates, all of it sneakily kept off the record.
"Our democracy needs both transparency and contribution limits, and it's simply not acceptable to say we should trade off elements from each when we need both," he said.
Besides, added Macnab, it wouldn't be out of character for the Legislature to remove the transparency aspects of the bill in the future, which should give Florida residents cause for "grave concern."
After nationally derided voting delays in the 2012 general election that caused up to nine-hour wait times for voters in some densely populated areas, legislators have been backed into a corner to answer for Florida's 2011 omnibus voter-suppression law, HB 1355. That bill reduced early voting days from 14 to eight and set up punitive guidelines for voter-registration groups. Subsequent efforts by Gov. Scott and legislators to "purge" voter rolls and push through long and winding constitutional-amendment ballot language backfired enormously, sending Republicans in Tallahassee into vague backpedaling pronouncements that typically ended with blame being placed on county supervisors of elections. "Something should be done," was the general chorus coming into 2013. And, somewhat surprisingly, something is, and in an unexpectedly bipartisan manner.
Numerous elections-reform bills have been filed, but House Bill 7013 – a measure that would extend early voting back to 14 days, shorten amendment language to 75 words and give supervisors of elections latitude over early-voting locations, thereby reversing some of the damage of the 2011 law – seems to be gaining the most traction. The bill has already passed through its first subcommittee, but only after Democrats withdrew nine amendments (presumably to be brought back up in the future). The bipartisan nature hasn't sat well with everyone. State Rep. Joe Saunders, D-Orlando, worried that the bill only made up some of the ground – specifically the voter-registration limitations – that was lost to HB 1355. "There's so much more we can do. The leadership on the other side is boxing us in," he said, according to the Tampa Bay Times. Others were concerned about the mass rejection of absentee ballots in the 2012 stakes, something the bill doesn't address.
In an op-ed for the Miami Herald, American Civil Liberties Union of Florida executive director Howard Simon laundry-listed numerous possible improvements, including same-day registration, online registration, loosening requirements for photo identification and alleviating felon disfranchisement.
Florida Watch Action's Amy Ritter says her organization is monitoring the progression of the bill closely; seeing as her usual target, Gov. Scott, has only spoken vaguely on the issue, she's concentrating on the legislature.
"We saw the backlash coming out of the November election, and they couldn't hide from it. They knew they had to fix it," she says. "We're here to make sure that it's not just for show. We're not asking for crazy reforms. These are reasonable reforms that any solid-minded legislator would push forward."
On Feb. 13, state Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, addressed some of those concerns – specifically same-day registration when you've moved across county lines and automatic registration when you get your driver's license – calling his bill Desiline's Free and Fair Democracy Act, directly referencing the same 102-year-old Miami resident, Desiline Victor, who suffered long lines and was later honored by President Obama in his State of the Union speech.
"Voting is a fundamental building block of our democracy," Braynon said in a statement. "By making it easier for all Floridians to exercise this human and American right, we are helping to ensure that people remain confident and engaged in their communities."
It only came as a mild surprise when in early February, two Central Florida legislators, state Sen. David Simmons, R-Maitland, and state Rep. Steve Precourt, R-Orlando, concurrently filed bills intent upon formalizing state rules on how private businesses treat their employees, thereby removing the home-rule powers of counties and municipalities to craft their own regulations. The move was alluded to during the controversial Sept. 11 Orange County Board of County Commissioners meeting in which commissioners voted to keep the citizen-led earned sick time initiative off the ballot. That move set off a series of legal challenges (aka LOLTEXTGATE) that have most recently led to the commissioners being ordered to hand their cellphones over to law enforcement and backtrack on their own vote with a Feb. 26 decision to put the measure on the next available ballot anyway. Of course, that ballot won't appear until 2014, which could mean that the local vote on earned sick time would be moot due to state pre-emption. And during the initial hearing – and in subsequent appearances – Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs voiced support for a statewide law.
"It's not shocking that two guys from Central Florida who get all of their money from the corporations that are trying to kill sick time are the ones who are then trying to kill sick time," Organize Now executive director Stephanie Porta says. "So they wrote a 'kill shot' to the Orange County community that followed the rules and petitioned their government. So, this is about disenfranchising voters again." (The Florida Retail Federation, Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, Associated Industries of Florida, utility groups and Associated General Contractors have all endorsed the bills.)
Simmons' bill, SB 726, subtitled "Regulation of Family or Medical Leave Benefits for Employees," gives the illusion of allowing employees statewide five days of unpaid sick leave without fear of termination, five days for doctor appointments and one emergency leave day, all requiring a note from a physician. It also forbids counties and cities from making their own rules on the matter.
"This proposal forces workers – many of whom do not have health insurance – to seek costly and often unnecessary certifications from health providers for basic illnesses that do not warrant a doctor's visit," Porta says. "And it could require employees to participate in wellness or preventive care programs, which could mean additional costs to employees."
Another potentially adverse effect, says Porta, is that it could actually limit the number of unpaid days off that anybody could have to five, which could have broader implications.
But it's Precourt's bill that could do the most damage. HB 655, called "Political Subdivisions," takes the violation of county rule even further. Under this bill, all local wage and benefits ordinances would become obsolete, including living wage laws that are presently utilized in city of Orlando contracts and in Miami-Dade County and Broward County, among others (the city of Orlando is "monitoring" the bill, according to spokeswoman Heather Fagan). Though the bill does make exceptions for federal grant money that requires certain wage provisions, anything else is fair game.
"There are domestic violence protections and sick time, along with other things that they don't even know," Porta says. "They have no idea what they're pre-empting. They haven't even come up with a list of all the laws that they're pre-empting, because they don't even know." The bill passed its first committee along party lines on Feb. 20, but behind the scenes (according to Porta) that was with the understanding that a carve-out amendment would be provided to preserve Miami-Dade's living-wage provisions. The Local and Federal Affairs committee chairman, state Rep. Eduardo Gonzalez, R-Hialeah Gardens, reportedly made that clear in the hearing. But even that seems unlikely.
"Some counties, like Miami-Dade, are so large that their ordinances are really distorting the current economy and there is a need for uniformity," Precourt told the committee, according to the Miami Herald.
Organize Now – and a broad coalition of 25 organizations – are doing their best to keep the focus on the constitutional and local charter issues the bills would raise for counties.
"This is about local power," Porta says. "There are a lot of people that might not agree with us on the issue, but a lot of people that want to hold onto the power that is in our county charter and written into the state constitution."
If there's any trusted bellwether that the Florida Legislature is entrenched in the same rhetorical mire as it has been in its recent extremely conservative history – despite presentiments otherwise – it's the continued insistence on addressing women's reproductive health, specifically as it relates to abortion. Last year, nine abortion bills were stopped after extensive lobbying from pro-choice groups like Planned Parenthood, and in November, Amendment 6 – which would have prohibited public funds for abortions (among other restrictions) – lost by a 10 percent margin in the general election. That hasn't stopped the diehards from banging the anti-abortion drum, however.
"At a certain point you just wish that the members that we have in Tallahassee would spend more time addressing the real-life issues women are facing with their families and less time launching politically motivated attacks on women's health. But it seems to be more of the same," Planned Parenthood of Greater Orlando president and chief executive officer Jenna Tosh says. "After coming off of this huge landslide victory with Amendment 6 for women's health and an election where we saw politicians making sweeping statements about women and women's health, which were roundly dismissed by the electorate and roundly rejected, [we wish] that we would see something different, but we don't."
On Jan. 22 – ironically, the 40th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision – state Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Palatka, filed his annual volley to all but outlaw abortion entirely. The bill (co-sponsored in the House by Speaker Don Gaetz, tellingly) has a Senate companion, SB 1056, filed by Greg Evers, R-Pensacola, and is, according to Tosh, "the most extreme abortion ban in the country," in that it makes no exceptions beyond the life of the mother.
Perhaps more insidious, though, are the ancillary bills that toy with semantics as a means to pro-life ends that have been filed in advance of session. HB 759, filed by Larry Ahern, R-St. Petersburg, and SB 876, filed by Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, come under the seemingly innocuous title of "Unborn Victims of Violence Act." While nothing new – similar bills have been filed, or amendments proposed, in previous years – the bill would effectively rename "viable fetus" as "unborn child" in Florida statutes for DUI manslaughter and vehicular homicide, which would potentially double the charges of defendants (or, in some cases, the pregnant woman) even if the defendant had no knowledge of the pregnancy. On Feb. 28, state Rep. Cary Pigman, R-Sebring, piled on with the controversial Infants Born Alive bill (HB 1129), another iteration of a historied pro-life wedge issue in which fetuses that somehow survive abortion procedures are afforded the same rights as "any other child born alive in course of natural birth."
Another red flag comes in the form of the divisive Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act, or "Termination of Pregnancy Based on Sex or Race of the Unborn Child," also filed by Van Zant. A similar bill was filed, and killed, in last year's legislative session, but the subject matter has a national hook. In May 2012, a similar initiative was laughed out of the U.S. Congress, but was used by Republicans as a means of forcing Democrats to vote in favor of something that would rile up Republicans in time for congressional elections, the New York Times reported.
"After 16 years of providing health care and education here in Orlando, we know that particularly here in this community, African-Americans face numerous obstacles when it comes to obtaining affordable health care. It's really disappointing to see these issues used as a political wedge, because frankly, unintended pregnancy and abortion are not the only important reproductive health outcomes with these disparities," Tosh says. "African-Americans, particularly here in Florida, experience higher rates of HIV/AIDS, higher rates of reproductive cancers, higher rates of all sexually transmitted infections than other groups of Americans. And what we're looking at are barriers to care that need our attention, and that frankly need the attention of the Legislature."
Tosh says that though other bills have been filed in the interest of assisting women with pregnancy – specifically in terms of employment nondiscrimination – they're likely to get less attention than "politically motivated nonsense" like the standard round of anti-abortion volleys.
"There are ways, certainly, to help women get the access to care, the legal protections they need to have healthy pregnancies and to have healthy families," she says. "But that's not the conversations we're having."