BILLS to Watch

SB 366/HB 231: Nonpartisan Elections for State Attorneys and Public Defenders
This bill, filed concurrently in the Florida House and Senate by two locals, Sen. Audrey Gibson (D-District 6) and Rep. Tracie Davis (D-District 13), would make the offices of state attorney and public defender nonpartisan. The bill is proposed in reaction to numerous races around the state, including here in Duval County, that have been closed by write-in candidates, potentially at the behest of a political party to restrict the voting block to members of their own party. Locally, many civil rights activists were outraged when the state attorney’s race was closed to Democrats, primarily because 96 percent of African-American voters in the district are not Republicans and thus could not vote. Interestingly, the Florida Times-Union reports that local Sen. Aaron Bean (R-District 4) suggested to instead shift those races to a completely open primary like Duval’s municipal elections, with the best of the field going on to the general election; local Sen. Rob Bradley (R-District 5) merely wants to eliminate the write-in loophole; and Public Defender Charles Cofer, who beat Matt Shirk in the Republican primary, told the T-U that he supports the legislation so much, he’s willing to testify to its merits before the legislature. This one promises some heated debate before it’s all said and done.

HB 303/SB 436: Religious Expression in Public Schools
Courtesy of local Rep. Kimberly Daniels (D-District 14), this broad-reaching mountain of a bill would create a turnip truck of rights for kids and teachers to practice religion on school grounds, such as by wearing Church of Scientology hijabs (“A student may wear clothing, accessories and jewelry that display a religious message or symbol in the same manner and to the same extent that secular types of clothing, accessories and jewelry that display messages or symbols are permitted to be worn.”); answering “Satan created fossils of dinosaurs to make people doubt the Bible,” to “Which theory regarding the extinction of dinosaurs do you believe is correct?” on a science test (“A student may not be penalized or rewarded based on the religious content of his or her work if the coursework, artwork or other written or oral assignments require a student’s viewpoint to be expressed.”); or having church services at school attended and/or proceeded over by teachers (“A student may pray or engage in religious activities or religious expression before, during and after the school day in the same manner and to the same extent that a student may engage in secular activities or expression.” and “A school district may not prevent school personnel from participating in religious activities on school grounds that are initiated by students at reasonable times before or after the school day if such activities are voluntary and do not conflict with the responsibilities or assignments of such personnel.”) Just imagine being the only kid playing on the jungle gym while your entire fourth grade class listens to your teacher at Bible study. What could possibly go wrong?

SB 70/HB 57: Crimes Evidencing Prejudice
This bill, filed by Sen. René García (R-District 36) and Reps. Neil Combee (R-District 39) and local Jason Fischer (R-District 16) would add categories to the list of victims protected from hate crimes. Categories that would be added include “actual or perceived race, sex, creed,” … “actual or perceived employment of the victim as a law enforcement officer or emergency service employee.” (Emphasis added) The addition of gender to this bill may prove controversial, as it may include gender non-conformity and transgender people. “Actual or perceived race” may score a win with law enforcement frustrated at being unable to enhance penalties for crimes in which a victim wasn’t actually of the race the perpetrator had thought, but could be difficult to prove at trial. Adding creed, or religion, is likely to appease lots of folks, perhaps until rednecks start receiving enhanced penalties for crimes against Muslims. Adding police officers and emergency service personnel would create the first employment-based protection from hate crimes. Here in lock-’em-up-and-forget-’em Florida, it seems likely that the legislature will be amenable to these changes.

SB 72: Voter Registration
Sen. Jeff Clemens (D-District 31) has filed legislation that would create automatic voter registration for anyone who applies for or renews a driver’s license or state ID card. It will be interesting to watch this play out in the legislature, particularly if one side — or political party — tries to come up with reasonable-sounding tactics to kill legislation that would enable more people to participate in the democratic process. Smart money’s on, well, money being the thrust of their best argument, specifically the cost of shifting over to such a system.

SCR 194: Equal Rights for Men and Women
Way back in 1972, the U.S. Congress approved an Equal Rights Amendment for women and men. To become part of the U.S. Constitution, 38 states had to ratify it by 1982. That didn’t happen and you may be surprised (read: not surprised at all) to learn Florida is one of the 15 holdouts. Though the deadline has long passed, there is renewed interest to get three more states to ratify the amendment and pressure Congress to extend the original deadline. Hence, this bill being filed by Sen. Gibson, along with a companion bill filed by Rep. Daisy J. Baez (D-District 114) in the Florida House. In December, Gibson reminded Florida Politics, “ERA has been filed every year hoping for ratification to get enough states to add the amendment to the Constitution.” Though some may see the bill as unnecessary, it would clarify the level of scrutiny courts give to claims alleging gender discrimination. For such claims, the U.S. Supreme Court has established intermediate scrutiny, also known as heightened scrutiny, which falls somewhere between rational basis and strict scrutiny, for such cases, a standard long criticized for being overly vague and inconsistently applied. Whether it passes or fails is anyone’s guess, but it is certain to be entertaining to listen to representatives who oppose the bill as they try not to trip over their own tongues by saying something that future opponents could use against them on the campaign trail. ’Cause if they do, their constituents can anticipate “Doesn’t support women” mailers and robocalls aplenty.

HB 311/SB 242: Agreement Among the States to Elect the President by National Popular Vote
Mere hours before President Donald Trump’s inauguration, Rep. Joe Geller (D-District 100) proposed legislation that would authorize Florida to award its electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. If enacted, Florida would join the 10 states and the District of Columbia that have already enacted such legislation. The bill will go into effect only if states and D.C. representing a total of 270 electoral votes enact similar laws. It is not likely that this bill will get much traction among Republicans, but it is certainly reflective of the concerns shared by many liberal Americans.


Correction: A previous version incorrectly stated that 96 percent of African-American voters in Duval County are Democrats.