Check out the 2007 Florida Legislature Calendar [http://www.aclufl.org/legislature_courts/legislature/2006/2007legislatur...
The 2006 Florida legislative session began with serious concerns that, in November, ACLU would be confronted with a massive public education and fundraising campaign to deal with several constitutional amendments that would eviscerate the citizen-initiative process, weaken an independent judiciary, and enshrine some of the religious rights' core issues (school vouchers, pledge of allegiance, marriage protection) in the state constitution. Additionally, there were approximately 100 bills to evaluate, track and lobby. The following is where the ACLU stood at the end of the regular session.
I. Constitutional Amendments
The biggest story of the 2006 Florida legislative session was the failure to pass several controversial amendments that were expected to be on the November ballot. At the top of the list was school vouchers. The Florida Supreme Court's finding that the state's Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) violates constitutional guarantees of a uniform system of public schools dealt Governor Jeb Bush a major political blow two months before his last legislative session. He and Republican legislative leaders in both the House and the Senate vowed to restore "school choice". It did not happen.
Governor Bush's two priority amendments (class-size and tuition-vouchers) split the Florida Senate in the final week of the session. Both joint resolutions died with adjournment.
There were some 42 proposed constitutional amendments this year. The House and Senate judiciary committees set out to do a sweeping overhaul of the Florida Constitution. There was a lot of high drama, but not a lot of change. The Legislature was only able to pass a measure that deletes some obsolete provisions and fixes grammar and syntax. There was a wholesale retreat on most measures including an effort to increase term limits from 8 to 12 years.
During the regular session, powerful special-interest lobbyists aggressively and systematically pressured legislators to pass a series of voter-gag bills aimed at severely restricting citizen-led ballot initiatives, such as the ones voters passed to ban smoking in restaurants and to set term limits for state legislators. The ACLU and our coalition partners were fearful that many of these joint resolutions would pass.
One of the reasons these amendments are not on the ballot is Democrats united in opposition, but their numbers alone were insufficient. They were joined by several Republicans in the Florida Senate who had the courage and independence to stand up to these special-interest groups by voting, in particular, against two of the worst voter-gag bills of the 2006 session. SB 0720 and SB 1244 would have made it extremely difficult for grass-roots groups to wage voter registration and petition drives. SB 1244 would have gone so far as to establish harsh criminal penalties and excessive fines for any form turned in by a signature gatherer more than 10 days after it had been signed.
On the November Ballot. The Secretary of State's office has posted the order for ballot questions on the November 2006 ballot. Unfortunately, there is likely to be some voter confusion because ballot positions two and five are left blank (previously held by proposed amendments extending term limits which was removed by the Legislature, and another establishing an independent redistricting commission which was invalidated by the Florida Supreme Court).
Amendment 1 - Revise State Planning and Budget Process Amendment 3 - Require Supermajority for Future Constitutional Amendments Amendment 4 - Earmark Tobacco Settlement Funds for Anti-Smoking Education Amendment 6 - Increase Homestead Exemption for Elderly Amendment 7 - Property Tax Discount for Permanently Disabled Veterans Amendment 8 - Limit Property Taking Under Eminent Domain
Access official titles, summaries and links to full texts here. [BAD LINK]
ACLU during the 2005 regular session opposed Amendment 3 (Require Supermajority for Future Constitutional Amendments), and supported during the 2006 regular session Amendment 8 (Limit Property Taking Under Eminent Domain).
II. Courts Strike Down Independent Redistricting
Efforts to end political gerrymandering in Florida took two fatal hits this spring. Although ACLU has not deemed redistricting a civil liberties issue, there can be no doubt that the two court decisions had a more profound impact on the future of politics in Florida than any bill passed by the Legislature.
The Florida Supreme Court ruled a ballot initiative sponsored by Common Cause failed to meet the single-subject requirement and would not be allowed on the November ballot. The proposed amendment would have established a nonpartisan independent redistricting commission to replace the present Congressional redistricting process and state legislative redistricting process. The current system allows the majority party to draw the lines that historically has resulted in incumbent protection and few contested races.
The United States Supreme Court decision in the Texas redistricting case gave the green light to the controlling parties of state legislatures nationwide to use redistricting as a political weapon. The decision opens the door to an endless process of redrawing electoral maps for political gain and realignment. The real losers in both cases were the voters.
III. Gay & Lesbian Rights
During the 2006 legislative session, ACLU worked with several coalitions to enact or defeat specific bills. Coalition members do not always agree on a wide range of issues or even why a particular bill should be supported or opposed. Nonetheless, public interest organizations understand that our only chance of successfully opposing special-interest lobby groups is to work together whenever we can. One of the more effective coalitions addressed gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender issues pending in the Legislature.
Gay Adoption.For the first time in 30 years, the Florida Legislature held a hearing on a bill challenging Florida's blanket ban that disqualifies gay people from adopting no matter how qualified they are or what serves the child's best interest. The bill, as expected, did not pass. Nonetheless, the testimony at the hearing -- by parents, children, and nationally renowned child welfare professionals -- changed minds at the Capitol. The education efforts, coordinated primarily by Equality Florida, generated over 100 positive news stories in the press and five major Florida papers took positions opposing the ban.
Anti-Bullying.The Florida Anti-Bullying bill cleared all committees in both the House and Senate. It passed the House unanimously (116-0), but died on the Senate calendar. ACLU and our coalition partners initially opposed this bill because it included language that would have repealed all of Florida's strong safe schools policies. In the final weeks of the regular session, however, the coalition was able to amend the bill to protect our state's best policies. Prospects for the 2007 legislative session are excellent.
Domestic Partners.A bill opposed by ACLU that would have forbidden universities from using public dollars to provide healthcare coverage to domestic partners died in committee.
IV. Criminal Justice
Only a limited number of criminal justice bills were enrolled. Here are some the bills ACLU tracked:
Restoration of Civil Rights.A minor victory occurred with the passage of a bill that requires administrators of county detention facilities to provide application forms for restoration of civil rights to prisoners who have been convicted of a felony and are serving sentences in that facility. ACLU supported the bill.
Post-sentence testing/DNA.This enrolled bill removed a four-year statute of limitations and expanded the categories of crimes available for DNA testing. ACLU supported this bill.
Mandatory Seat Belts.ACLU opposed the mandatory use of seat belts as a primary offense. The bill died in committee.
Dart firing stun guns/training and use.The taser bills set forth training and standards for the use of dart-firing guns. ACLU took the position that dart-firing guns (sometimes called tasers) are a valid law enforcement tool, but are subject to abuse because of a lack of adequate training and clear guidelines when it is or is not appropriate to use a taser. ACLU also requested that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement maintain a statewide database on adverse incidents to monitor when problems are likely to occur. Unfortunately, the database was not included in the bill. The enrolled bill does not go far enough in our view, but it is a good start toward accountability.
Sexual Predators/Residences.There were several bills dealing with sexual predators. Most sought to expand residence zones and reporting requirements. An enrolled bill reduces from 14 days to 5 the period required to designate a residence either temporary or permanent making it necessary for the sexual offender to report to local law enforcement. ACLU monitored this bill and urged lawmakers to establish distinct categories of sex offenders who could be treated differently under the law with those committing the most heinous crimes receiving the closest monitoring and those with relatively minor offenses not being subjected to the same rules and regulations as an actual sexual predator.
Capital Felony Sentencing. This legislation would have required that an advisory sentence of death be made by unanimous recommendation of the sentencing jury following the defendant's conviction or adjudication of guilt for a capital felony. The bill died in committee. ACLU supported efforts to require a unanimous jury recommendation before implementation of a death sentence and opposed a house bill that endorsed the current system.
Restoration of Felon's Right to Vote.Legislation was filed in both houses that provided for automatic restoration of a former felon's right to vote following completion and satisfaction of sentence of incarceration and community supervision. Similar bills were introduced that would have excluded several offense categories in an effort to gain additional support. ACLU supported these bills as one of its priorities. All died in committee.
Boot Camps.The death of a fourteen-year-old juvenile whose beating by prison guards at a juvenile boot camp in Bay County led to stricter rules for the operation of such facilities and the eventful closing of most boot camps in the state. ACLU supported the enrolled bill.
Advocates of the separation of church and state expected a more active session from the 2006 Florida Legislature. It was not as dramatic as early feared for which we can give thanks.
Pledge of Allegiance.A joint resolution to place the Pledge of Allegiance in the Florida Constitution died in committee. ACLU opposed the bill.
Faith-Based Advisory Council.ACLU monitored legislation that created an advisory (as opposed to policy) council. We stressed that if such a council were to be established by statute, then it needed to be representative of the diverse religious community in our state, and that any recommendations should not favor a particular religion but rather provide equal access and treatment to all members of the faith community.
Abstinence-Only Instruction.ACLU opposes abstinence-only sex education in the public schools. We favor the ABC approach of abstinence-only as the primary option, being faithful to a single partner as the second option, and the use of condoms as the third option if there are multiple sex partners. ACLU supported legislation that would have required parental notification of abstinence-only classes and the opportunity to have a child opt out with his or her parents' permission. The bill died in committee.
Education Accountability.ACLU supported bills to require greater accountability of private and religious schools that receive taxpayer dollars (vouchers) to educate Florida's children. The bills died in committee.
Tax Exemption for Religious Activity.ACLU monitored an enrolled bill that settled litigation in Orange County between the local property appraiser and an organization that promotes a historical biblical display. The question was whether the display was a theme park or a religious activity warranting tax-exempt status.
Prevention First/Health.ACLU supported a bill to require the Secretary to develop and maintain a Department of Health web site with information on family planning and referrals to local community resources to assist women and families in preventing unintended pregnancies. The bill died in committee.
Parental Notification/Minors.ACLU opposed legislation to change the requirements for parental notification when a minor is seeking an abortion. The bill, if enacted, would have changed venues available to minors, lengthened time periods for a final judicial decision, and would have made judicial review more onerous. The bill died on the House calendar.
Corporate Scholarships.Even though the Florida Supreme Court struck down the state's school voucher program (OSP) and the Florida Senate failed to pass a constitutional amendment to overrule the court decision, the Legislature did expand the corporate voucher program making current OSP students eligible for continued funding. ACLU monitored the bill.
VI. Civil Liberties
There were other civil liberties issues that did not fall into single categories. Some of the more interesting ones were:
Equal Rights Amendment.Ratification of the ERA continues to be sought. Unfortunately, the bill was not even afforded a committee hearing in 2006.
Internet Screening/Public Libraries.ACLU opposes efforts to place filters on all library computers. We believe local librarians can forge individual solutions that can protect minor patrons without a one-size-fits-all solution by the Florida Legislature. The bill died on the House calendar.
License Plate/DUI.ACLU opposed the bills that would have required persons convicted of DUI to display a "Scarlet Letter" license tag on their vehicle. The bill died on the House calendar.
Voting Systems.ACLU supported several bills dealing with criteria for approval of voting systems, and the requirement for a mandatory paper record of votes cast for the purpose of conducting a viable recount. Each of these bills died in committee.
Military Funerals.ACLU opposed an enrolled bill that enhanced penalties for disrupting military funerals. We viewed these protests, as repugnant as we may find them, protected speech under the First Amendment with adequate criminal sanctions under the current law.
Travel Ban.ACLU opposed an enrolled bill that prohibits the use of public and private money by state academic institutions for travel to designated terrorist states. We took the position that the new law interferes with the right of academic freedom, public expression and free speech by students and university personnel. ACLU has filed litigation presenting a legal challenge to the statute in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida.
VII. Other Issues of Interest
The Legislature did create 55 new judgeships that had been held hostage in prior years in the war between the judiciary and the legislative/executive branches.
- A punitive bill proposing a constitutional amendment directing how the Florida Constitution should be interpreted died in committee.
- A bill that rewrites a rule of criminal procedure in which the defense has been given the last say in some cases for 150 years was approved in the waning days of the session. The Florida Supreme Court, however, has the final authority on the issue.
- Another bill to overturn a criminal procedure rule on when to determine whether a murder defendant is retarded died in Senate committee.
- Business and insurance companies were successful in repealing "joint and several liability" which was their priority legislation for the session. It was a major defeat for the trial lawyers.
- The NRA suffered a rare defeat when its "take your guns to work bill" died in committee. ACLU took no position on the bill that was actively opposed by business.
- State agencies will henceforth have to justify their continued existence before the newly created Council on Efficient Government. The objective is to determine if government services can be provided cheaper and better if privatized.
- The House passed a bill forbidding state universities and community colleges from using tax dollars for assistance to foreign students. The bill that was opposed by ACLU died in the Florida Senate.
- The Christian Coalition was unable to get the required number of signed petitions to place a Marriage Protection (Anti-Gay Marriage) Amendment on the 2006 November ballot. Proponents expect it to be approved for the 2008 presidential election.
- All of us who know and love Key West are delighted that the Florida Legislature has designed key lime as our official state pie.
Larry Helm Spalding Legislative Staff Counsel American Civil Liberties Union Tallahassee, Florida
BECOME INVOLVED [http://www.aclufl.org/take_action/index.cfm]
Thank you for your interest in and support of the legislative office. If you are not already subscribed to the ACLU Legislature Alert listserv, please consider joining. You may do so by accessing our web site at www.aclufl.org and clicking on email alerts. There you will find several options including Legislative Alerts as well as Civil Liberties News, Church/State News and Criminal Justice News.