Florida Legislature shuns gay bills

Safe Schools bill has a chance, but others will likely die without hearings

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Four gay-friendly bills are ready to make their way through the Florida Legislature, which opened its 2008 session on March 3. Collectively the bills would ban employment and housing discrimination against gays, lesbians and transgendered people, protect kids from school-yard bullying, provide benefits to domestic partners of state employees and recognize the rights of unmarried partners in cases of medical emergency.

Most of the bills, however, are doomed to fail. In fact, they will likely be dismissed without even receiving a hearing in the conservative-dominated legislature. Of the four, only one, the Safe Schools bill, is believed to have any chance of moving forward. But a version of the bill that is expected to move forward is essentially a gutted version of the original bill that specifically addressed harassment against GLBT students.

As Equality Florida prepares to bring hundreds of students and GLBT supporters to Tallahassee next week for the group’s lobbying week, backers of the bills are stoically realistic about the slim chances of getting their bills heard in the conservative body.

“In this legislature?” quips Rep. Scott Randolph dismissively when asked about the chances of getting his bill known as the Florida Companion Registry heard in this session.

Randolph’s bill seeks to allow unmarried partners to make important decisions, such as medical decisions in cases where partners have become incapacitated by illness or accident and can’t make decisions for themselves. The representative, however, admits that he does not expect the bill to move forward. He said he introduced it to bring attention to issues of domestic partners that voters will be considering in the November election when the so-called marriage amendment will be on the ballot.

“Our goal has been to create something to pique the interest of senior citizens,” he said. “And to getting a legal opinion on how it relates to the marriage amendment.”

The bill is assigned to the committee on Ethics and Elections, but it has not been scheduled for a formal hearing.

At the end of the first week of session, the controversial anti-discrimination bill that seeks to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, introduced by Rep. Kelly Skidmore, is also without a hearing date.

“This year, we got committee referrals,” Skidmore said Tuesday, pointing out that committee referral is marked progress compared with the bill’s reception last year, when it was virtually dead on arrival. The bill has yet to be scheduled for a hearing.

“This is the kind of issue that legislators are uncomfortable with,” Skidmore said. “We’re not getting a ‘yes, we’re considering it’ from folks.’”

As the session nears the end of the committee process, it’s almost certain that the bill will die without a hearing. Skidmore says she’s been deliberating with fellow representatives since October. If no committee chairs tell her they will schedule a hearing during the first weeks of session, it’s likely that they won’t, she said.

The domestic partners bill, introduced by Rep. Rick Kriseman, will likely get the same chilly reception.

“We’re not expecting it to get a hearing,” said Kevin King, Kriseman’s legislative aide. “It’s not a bill that they’re typically eager to pass.”

Kriseman is concentrating his efforts on bills that stand a better chance of moving forward, King said.

The only gay-friendly bill to buck the negative trend has been the Safe Schools bill that proposes to ban school bullying. The bill made it through a committee hearing Tuesday. It will next go to a legislative council.

“The hearing went quite well,” said Mallory Wells, lobbyist for Equality Florida.

But while it moves ahead, the bill identifies only race, sex and religion as categories of bullying. Gay activists and others want to amend the categories section of the bill to prohibit bullying that targets students who are targeted based on their sexual orientation, gender identity or expression and physical appearance.

The same bill passed a House vote in 2007, but failed in the Senate when Sen. Stephen Wise, chairman of the Senate’s Pre-K–12 Appropriations Committee, refused to release the bill on time for a vote.

This year, the bill’s backers are expecting to have the same support, Wells said. Wise, who has publicly opposed the bill, remains in the same position. Wise did not return calls seeking comment.

The dismal showing of gay issues in the Florida Legislature prompts politicians like Skidmore to work their grassroots supporters. Last week, she urged residents to call and write their representatives to support the bill in honor of slain gay teen Simmie Williams.

“Just because someone says to me ‘I don’t think I have time to schedule a hearing’ doesn’t mean you stop trying,” Skidmore said.

Instead of being shut out completely by the conservative House, Randolph said lawmakers should work on their tactics.

“Being in the minority, you have to think differently,” he said. “It’s not necessarily the ultimate goal to bring [a bill] to a vote. Sometimes the goal is to get people talking and strategizing.”

© 2008 | A Window Media LLC Publication


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