The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida maintains a legislative office at the state capital in Tallahassee. During the sixty-day Regular Session which convened on March 4, the ACLU tracked over 200 bills and actively lobbied, often with coalition partners, approximately 50 bills.
Legislative Committee, Regional Offices & Local Chapters The Legislative Staff Counsel (Larry Spalding), the Director of Public Policy (Courtenay Strickland) in conjunction with the Executive Director (Howard Simon) collaborated to identify bills with civil liberties implications and to prioritize legislation that would be the subject of the ACLU lobbying effort.
The ACLU of Florida legislative committee, composed of board members representing many of the state's 18 chapters, worked with the legislative and public policy staff to provide advice, critical analysis and lobbying assistance.
Our legislative program benefitted tremendously this session from the expansion of the ACLU of Florida regional offices (located in Tampa, Pensacola, Melbourne, Orlando and Jacksonville) and additional staff for specialized areas of concern (public policy, voting rights, racial justice, church/state, reproductive freedom, immigration, and LGBT rights). We also experienced significant grassroots participation at the chapter level under the direction of our field coordinator (Kileen Marshall), as well as significant grassroots activism in conjunction with coalition partners such as the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC), Planned Parenthood (FAPPA), Equality Florida, and the Florida Immigrant Coalition (FLIC). The legislative office, as it does each Regular Session, was aided by interns from the Florida State University College of Law who performed research and legal writing assignments to fulfill their pro bono requirement at the law school.
Major issues from Florida Legislature 2008
The Regular Session of the Florida Legislature in 2008 was dominated by passage of the state budget in a year when revenues were down several billion dollars. Nonetheless, legislators found time to focus on several social wedge issues.
The Budget The austere FY 2008-2009 budget eventually passed both houses largely along party lines. Republicans were proud that they did not impose any new taxes, nor did they tap reserves and/or trust funds to any significant degree. Democrats were critical of the budget and faulted Republicans for failing to raise the cigarette tax to fund healthcare, for not repealing unwarranted sales tax exemptions, and for not closing corporate tax loopholes.
Normally, the ACLU is not actively involved in the budget process. This session, however, we did track some of the deep budget cuts in education, healthcare, and court system funding issues that crippled programs that impact implicated constitutional protections.. For example, funding of the public defenders and the Office of the Capital Collateral Regional Counsel (CCRC) were fiscal matters we tracked throughout the session since cuts in these areas significantly impact the right of indigent criminal defendants to effective legal representation.
Social Wedge Issues At the top of the wedge-issue list were abortion and evolution.
The debates on these issues showed that the strength of the religious right did not diminish in the Florida Legislature even though Governor Charlie Crist, a center-right Republican, replaced Jeb Bush, a staunch conservative.
With as little as one week remaining in the Regular Session, we feared that bills on both abortion and evolution would be enrolled and sent to the governor. Fortunately, neither was. The failure of the social conservatives to win passage can, in large part, be attributed to the response from ACLU and coalition members to our legislative action alerts. For that, we are most grateful.
The evolution/academic freedom bill which would have permitted the teaching of creationism and intelligent design in the public schools' science classrooms died because each chamber passed a different version of the bill. The Senate language was permissive while the House language was mandatory. Neither chamber was prepared to conform its language to that of the other house.
The abortion bill would have required all women to receive an ultrasound when seeking a first trimester abortion. Ultrasounds are currently required in the second and third trimesters. The bill was defeated on the Senate floor by a vote of 20-20, a majority vote being required for passage.
Legislators also debated, but did not approve, a new specialty license plate with the words "I Believe" over a picture of a cross and stained glass church window.
Social conservatives were also active at the Florida Taxation and Budget Reform Commission. This November voters will be asked to approve two proposed constitutional amendments that will permit the use of taxpayer dollars for the benefit of church-run and faith-based schools and social programs.
Prevention First Act This is the third year that the Prevention First Act was introduced in the Florida Legislature. It called on the Department of Health to make information on family planning services more accessible, required that emergency contraception be made available to all rape and incest survivors in emergency rooms, and required licensed pharmacies to follow a set of guidelines to ensure that lawful requests for contraception are not impeded. The bill was passed unanimously by the Senate Health Regulation Committee, a sign of progress on the issue, but ultimately died in committee. The ACLU of Florida's 2005 study showing that most emergency care facilities fail to ensure that victims of sexual assault are offered emergency contraception played an important role in the debate. The Prevention First Act is supported by ACLU at both the state and congressional levels, and will again be an ACLU priority in 2009.
Florida Healthy Teens Act This legislation would have required any public school that receives state funding and provides information or programs regarding family planning, pregnancy, or sexually transmitted infections to provide comprehensive, medically accurate, abstinence-based, factual, and age-appropriate information concerning sexuality and related decision making. The bill died in committee. Interestingly, the bill's sponsor made an attempt on the Senate floor to add the provisions of this bill to the so-called "academic freedom" (evolution/'Intelligent Design') bill that would have gutted science education in Florida. The amendment was rejected and the Senate passed the evolution bill (which ultimately died because the Senate and House versions did not match), but the attempt made the point that our children's future is at stake when we fail to provide them with accurate l information, whether about the origins of life or protecting their health. Addressing the failed abstinence-only sex education program is an ACLU priority. This bill will again be filed in 2009.
Abortion The abortion bill would have required all women to undergo an ultrasound when seeking a first trimester abortion. This was a clear attempt to intimidate women who have already made a very difficult and personal medical decision and it would have interfered with the doctor-patient relationship. The ACLU and our coalition partners opposed the bill which was defeated on the Senate floor by a vote of 20-20. This bill or a more draconian version is certain to return in 2009.
Unborn Victims of Violence Act This legislation was another measure by anti-choice members to grant legal personhood to a fetus and was designed to undermine the U.S. Supreme Court's Roe vs. Wade decision. Pursuant to the proposed legislation, if a woman is injured or killed and the death results in the termination of her pregnancy, then the perpetrator of the crime could be charged with homicide, a criminal offense separate from the criminal offense with which the person could be charged as a result of the injury or death of the woman. The bill would have removed the existing requirement that the perpetrator intended to commit the crime, a due process guarantee required for most criminal offenses. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, the bill also would have changed the words "viable fetus" to "unborn child" in an attempt to establish fetal personhood. The bill, which was opposed by ACLU and its coalition partners, died in Senate messages. This perennial bill will return in 2009.
Alcohol Abuse by Expectant Mother Among other things, this proposed legislation would have established criteria for the involuntary commitment of expectant mothers with alcohol abuse issues. ACLU supported voluntary treatment services and programs, but opposed involuntary admissions. The bill died in committee.
Single-Sex Classes in Public Schools This bill permits students to be separated in designated classes and programs by gender, but that participation in single-gender classes are to be voluntary. ACLU opposed the bill (SB 242), which the Governor allowed to become law without his signature.
Equal Rights for Men and Women This legislation would have ratified a proposed amendment to US Constitution. ACLU supported the joint resolution that died in committee.
Female Inmates with Minor Children The bill would have required female inmates with minor children to be assigned, where feasible, to a facility near their children. ACLU supported the bill which was passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee but which ultimately died in committee.
Racial Profiling This bill prescribed the responses of the Attorney General when a complaint is filed alleging racial profiling against a law enforcement officer or agency. Another bill would have established a governor's task force to determine if there is evidence of statewide racial profiling. ACLU supported both bills which died in committee.
Wrongful Incarceration Compensation This legislation provides a limited method by which a person may seek compensation for wrongful incarceration. ACLU supported the bill with the exception of the "clean hands" provision which denies the benefits of the act to someone previously convicted of a separate criminal offense. SB 756 was ordered enrolled and was approved by the Governor.
Additionally, ACLU supported a separate claims bill filed on behalf of Alan Crotzer who spent 24 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Governor Crist signed the bill into law which awarded Crotzer $1.25 million for the time he spent in prison.
Public Safety/Sexual Predators There were approximately a dozen bills filed this session dealing with persons convicted of sexual offenses. All of the bills were opposed by the ACLU, although we did affirmatively lobby for a uniform statewide residence restriction of 1000 feet in response to divergent county and municipal residence restriction ordinances that range from 1000 to 2500 feet. None of the bills were enrolled.
DNA Testing/Offenders A bill to expand the DNA database of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) to include certain first degree misdemeanor offenses and specified gang activity offenses was opposed by the ACLU, but signed into law by the governor (Chapter No. 2008-27). A separate bill providing for the DNA testing of persons adjudicated mentally incompetent was opposed by the ACLU and died in committee.
Criminal Gangs Several bills were filed this session dealing with criminal gang activity. The ACLU did not speak out on most of the legislation, which was designed to address a growing criminal problem in our state. However, we did oppose definitions in an enrolled bill (HB 43) which we believe are overboard and may ensnare individuals and groups who share a common interest that is unrelated to criminal gangs.
Capital Collateral Representation This bill would have established changes to the capital collateral regional representative (CCRC) system. ACLU supported restoration of the Northern Regional Office (privatized during the Jeb Bush administration), but opposed provisions that restricted payments to private registry counsel. The bill died in committee.
Marijuana Grow Houses ACLU opposed legislation designed to lower possession of a specified number (300 to 25) of cannabis plants as prima facie evidence of intent to sell. As an alternative, ACLU argued in favor of a study commission to review the state's overall drug and sentencing policy, and to urge that the state consider a new direction in drug policy given that the so-called 'War on Drugs' has succeeded only in locking up huge numbers of people, not reducing drug-related problems. HB 173 was ordered enrolled.
Safety Belt Law Enforcement For the first time since the bill's initial introduction several years ago, ACLU took no position (rather than one in opposition) to making enforcement of wearing a seat belt a primary rather than a secondary offense. The bill died on the House calendar.
Public Display of a Noose ACLU supported a bill that prohibits the display of a noose specifically with the intent of intimidating another person. The bill died in committee.
Gay & Lesbian Rights
School Safety/Bullying and Harassment ACLU supported the Jeffrey Johnston Stand Up for All Students Act which prohibits bullying & harassment of any student or employee in a public K-12 educational institution. Although the legislation does not specify prohibit acts of bullying or harassment against LGBT students, which ACLU urged in committee testimony, specification is permitted at the district school level where we are hopeful it will occur. HB 669 was ordered enrolled.
Prohibited Discrimination Several bills were introduced which would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, and familial status. ACLU supported the most inclusive of the bills and took no position on those that omitted "gender identity or expression." All of the bills died in committee.
Companion Registry ACLU supported the Florida Companion Registry which would have required recognition of domestic partnership agreements in all 67 counties. The bill died in committee.
Adoption ACLU called for a full repeal of the state's gay adoption ban, but supported legislation that would have partially repealed the ban by creating judicial exceptions (a full repeal bill was not filed this year). The bills died in committee.
Religious-exempt Child Care Programs ACLU opposed a bill designed to allow child care programs or weekday preschool programs that qualify as religious-exempt child care programs to choose to be exempt from the requirements for state child care licensing. The bill died in committee.
Teaching Chemical & Biological Evolution ACLU opposed the evolution/academic freedom bill would have opened the door to the teaching of creationism and intelligent design in public school science classrooms. Fortunately, the bill died in House messages.
Prior to floor action on the bills, ACLU sought to educate legislators and create media coverage favorable to our position by producing an event, "Sound Science for Florida's Public Schools." The event was preceded by a news conference and was sponsored by numerous national science organizations and other groups. It featured a host of speakers, including Dr. Harold Kroto of the FSU Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, who received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1996.
"I Believe" License Plate ACLU opposed a new specialty license plate with the words "I Believe" over a picture of a cross and stained glass church window. The bill died in committee.
"In God We Trust" License Plate ACLU took no position on another specialty license plate with the words "In God We Trust", which is the state motto. SB 734 was ordered enrolled.
Family First ACLU opposed modifying the application form for a new or renewed driver's license to include the option to make a voluntary contribution to Family First. Our position was that the state should not be in the business of acting as a collection agent for religious-based charitable institutions, and that to approve the procedure for Family First would open the door to similar requests from numerous other charitable and religious organizations. SB 630 was ordered enrolled.
Corporate Tax Credit Scholarship Program ACLU opposed a significant expansion of the Corporate Tax Credit Scholarship Program, a school voucher program that was not addressed in the Florida Supreme Court decision striking down Jeb Bush's Opportunity Scholarship voucher program. HB 653 was ordered enrolled.
Clemency/Restoration of Civil Rights There were several bills relating to clemency, employment for persons previously convicted of a felony, and restoration of civil rights, including the right to vote, for individuals with prior felony convictions. ACLU supported each of these measures; all died in committee. The non-partisan Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, of which the ACLU of Florida is a founding member, held a well-attended and dynamic Day of Action in Tallahassee in support of these bills. Hundreds of people came together at the Capitol in order to draw attention to the continuing injustice of denying civil and voting rights to persons with past felony convictions. The success of the Day of Action was a tribute to the movement against denial of voting and civil rights, a growing movement in Florida.
Apportionment and Redistricting ACLU supported a proposed constitutional amendment that would establish standards for legislative reapportionment and congressional redistricting including creation of a redistricting commission. The resolution died in committee.
Post-election Audits ACLU supported legislation that would require the Secretary of State to appoint an independent post-election audit team each year and a specified number of manual audits after each election. The bill died in committee.
Primary Election ACLU supported a proposed constitutional amendment allowing all qualified electors to vote in the primary election when all the major party candidates for an office have the same political party affiliation and there are no minor party candidates in the race, regardless of the presence of a write-in candidate or candidate with no party affiliation. The bill died in committee.
There were a dozen bills filed relating to immigration. None of the bills were heard in committee although the House did permit a workshop (no votes were taken) on the six House bills. This permitted legislators to posture and some of the public to vent. ACLU spoke in opposition to each of the bills stating that though immigration is a major issue of concern to many Floridians, it is Congress, not the Florida Legislature, that needs to address this important matter. ACLU also noted the detrimental effects that some of the bills' provisions could have on equal protection, due process, privacy and racial justice, for all Floridians, including citizens and legal immigrants.
AIDS Education in Public Schools ACLU supported legislation relating to education courses on HIV & AIDS. HB 153 was ordered enrolled.
Human Immunodeficiency Virus Testing ACLU monitored, but took no position on, a bill that addresses when consent cannot be obtained within the time necessary to conduct an HIV test on an individual and begin prophylactic treatment of exposed medical personnel. SB 1648 was ordered enrolled.
HIV/AIDS Awareness License Plate ACLU supported a new HIV/AIDS Awareness license plate. The bill died committee.
HIV Testing in Prisons and Detention Facilities ACLU supported legislation that would require the Department of Corrections to perform an HIV test on an inmate within 14 days after the inmate enters prison and to record the results in the inmate's medical record. The bill also would have mandated an HIV-positive inmate to participate in an education program. The bill died in committee.
Public Campaign Financing ACLU opposed a proposed constitutional amendment to eliminate public financing of campaigns of candidates for elective statewide office. The bill died in Senate messages.
Relating to Initiatives ACLU opposed legislation designed to make the citizen initiative process even more difficult than it is currently. The bill died on House calendar. Real ID ACLU monitored several transportation bills that had components of the federal Real ID requirement. No significant changes were made this session in the current law that would move Florida closer to full compliance with Real ID.
Public School Dress Requirements ACLU opposed a dress code for public school students prohibiting "saggy pants". The bill would have led to the further policing of students in school, filling the school-to-prison pipeline. The bill died in House messages.
Required Instruction in Public Schools ACLU supported legislation to require the teaching of government and civics in the public schools. The bill died in committee.
Larry Spalding Legislative Staff Counsel Courtenay Strickland Director of Public Policy
Click here for the ACLU of Florida's 2008 bill track.