NAVIGATION

February 18, 2018
Cold shoulder: Anti-discrimination legislation doesn't pass Florida's House or Senate

Photo: Getty Images

Rep. Holly Raschein sponsored a bill that broadens anti-discrimination protections.

Diversity in Florida

Cold shoulder: Anti-discrimination legislation doesn't pass Florida's House or Senate

Jason Garcia | 10/28/2015

The push for anti-discrimination legislation has gotten nowhere in the Legislature despite backing from some heavy-hitters in the business community.

Just before the start of the Florida Legislature's 2014 session, some of the state's biggest and most influential businesses banded together in support of a proposed law to prohibit discrimination against gay, bisexual and transgender Floridians.

It was a momentous occasion for the long-stalled legislation, variations of which had been filed in Tallahassee every year since 2007. The coalition of businesses - including Florida-based companies such as CSX, Darden Restaurants and Florida Blue, as well as major employers such as Walt Disney World and Wells Fargo - together employed dozens of lobbyists, spent millions on campaign contributions and spoke with a voice that resonated in a Republican-controlled Legislature that prided itself on being "pro-business."

The measure never made it out of either the Florida House's Criminal Justice Subcommittee or the Senate's Commerce and Tourism Committee. In fact, in the two sessions since the businesses came out in support of the legislation, it has yet to be given a single hearing in either chamber of the Legislature. Meanwhile, the House has devoted two committee hearings to a proposal to prohibit people from using bathrooms that don't match the gender of their birth, a measure widely criticized as hostile to transgender Floridians.

The struggles of the anti-discrimination legislation reflect the realities of the modern Legislature, which is dominated by socially conservative Republicans, most of whom represent districts where their biggest potential threat is a challenger who attempts to paint them as not conservative enough. But it also indicates that businesses have yet to flex their political muscles in the way they have in the past on issues such as tort reform and tax policy.

"I don't know that the business community has leaned in hard enough," says one lobbyist involved in the issue who asked not to be identified.

"I think people quite honestly didn't think it (getting the legislation passed) would happen," adds Rep. Holly Raschein (R-Key Largo) who sponsored the legislation last year and has already refiled the bill for the 2016 session, which begins in January. "I, too, as the bill sponsor would like to see more outpouring of support, more messaging, more things like that."

Business leaders say they are about to get more serious. The coalition of businesses supporting the issue, organized through an advocacy group called "Florida Businesses for a Competitive Workforce," has grown to more than 400 businesses, signing up everyone from a barber shop in Bartow to Office Depot, NextEra and Carnival. The coalition last year hired a top lobbying firm, Southern Strategy Group, to represent it before the Legislature, paying the firm an estimated $60,000 over the last year.

The coalition in August hired a new campaign manager: Patrick Slevin, a Republican strategist and communications pro who has represented clients such as the Florida Insurance Council, Las Vegas Sands and the Florida Medical Cannabis Association. Other staffers include veteran Tallahassee PR pro Christina Johnson and fundraiser Deborah Tannenbaum, who has raised money for everyone from former Democratic gubernatorial nominee Jim Davis to the Fair Districts Florida constitutional amendment campaign.

"Our coalition can be described as a sleeping giant that's now awakening," Slevin says. "Our strongest muscle that we're going to begin to flex more than we have before is our corporate partners - having the CEOs more engaged and having the companies more engaged in the advocacy. Legislators are going to see more prominence in the corporate narrative of this issue."

While typically framed as a social issue, a statewide anti-discrimination policy is just as much an economic issue, business interests say. Younger workers consider a community's tolerance - toward the LGBT community as well as others - when deciding where to work.

What's more, potential economic development deals for Florida have collapsed because the state lacks a statewide anti-discrimination policy, says Florida Blue CEO Patrick Geraghty, who is chairman of Florida Businesses for a Competitive Workforce. (John Tonnison, the executive vice president and worldwide CIO of Tech Data, is the group's secretary, and Philip Dinkins, senior vice president of Cushman & Wakefield, is its treasurer.)

Some companies thinking about relocating "are shocked that we have such an antiquated approach to this issue," Geraghty says. "We have lost business opportunities in this state because we aren't inclusive statewide."

Anti-discrimination advocates say polls they have conducted around the state that show the issue has become far less polarizing among voters - including Republicans - particularly in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to legalize same-sex marriages nationwide.

That polling is likely to be helpful dealing with GOP legislators who are often wary of antagonizing social conservatives, an influential bloc in Republican primaries. For instance, Rep. Kathleen Passidomo, chairwoman of the House Civil Justice Subcommittee, who refused to hear the anti-discrimination legislation during the 2015 session, is now running for an open seat in the Florida Senate and faces at least two other Republican opponents.

Noteworthy was an election earlier this year, when two Republican House members in northeast Florida - Travis Hutson of St. Augustine and Doc Renuart of Ponte Vedra Beach - ran against each other for a state Senate seat that came open when John Thrasher was named president of Florida State University. Hutson was one of a handful of GOP lawmakers who had signed on as a co-sponsor of the anti-discrimination legislation, a fact that Renuart used as a line of attack during the campaign. Hutson won the primary and then the general.

Businesses are by no means unified on this issue. Neither of the state's leading business-lobbying groups - Associated Industries of Florida and the Florida Chamber of Commerce - has taken a position on the issue.

AIF, run by conservative former lawmaker Tom Feeney, declined through a spokeswoman to discuss the anti-discrimination legislation. Florida Chamber President Mark Wilson pointed out that while the issue is important to some of his members, chamber leaders "also appreciate the concerns of small businesses over additional lawsuits and employer mandates."

Business leaders who support the issue say there is no longer any reason to wait.

"Sometimes, when I talk to public officials, I hear, 'Well, the next generation is so progressive on this issue. We can let them handle it,' " says Florida Blue's Geraghty. "My response is, 'That's not leadership.' "

About the Bill: Dubbed by supporters as the "Florida Competitive Workforce Act," HB 45 (and its Senate companion, SB 120) would add "sexual orientation" and "gender identity or expression" to the classes of people protected by the Florida Civil Rights Act of 1992. Doing so would prohibit employers, unions and government agencies from discriminating against gay, bisexual or transgender Floridians in decisions about employment, housing or public accommodations. Victims of such discrimination would have the ability to file complaints with the Florida Commission on Human Relations and, if the commission determines that there is reasonable cause to believe a violation has occurred, to sue the violator for compensatory damages, plus punitive damages up to $10,000. The Attorney General could also initiate civil actions against violators.

Local Ordinances

While the Florida Legislature has so far declined to extend protection against discrimination to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Floridians, a growing list of local governments is stepping in to fill the gap with their own "human rights ordinances." Here are some of the latest developments:

The Newest County

In August, Osceola County became the 11th county in Florida to prohibit LGBT discrimination, despite objections from religious leaders in an area where nearly 50% of the population is Hispanic or Latino. The measure passed on a unanimous vote. The county commission's lone Republican, Fred Hawkins, told the Orlando Sentinel, "I don't want to see discrimination against anybody. Discrimination is ugly."

The Newest City

A few weeks after the vote in Osceola County, the village of Wellington and the town of Lake Clarke Shores in Palm Beach County became the 23rd and 24th municipalities to pass an anti-discrimination.

The Big Kids

Each of Florida's five largest counties by population (Miami- Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Hillsborough and Orange) has enacted human rights ordinances, as have several large cities including Miami, Orlando, Tampa, West Palm Beach and Sarasota. More than half of Floridians now live in areas where LGBT discrimination is prohibited, according to the Florida Businesses for a Competitive Workforce, the business-backed group lobbying for a statewide law.

Northern Toeholds

Most of the governments that have adopted human rights ordinances are clustered along the I-4 corridor and south. But a handful of spots across north Florida have also followed suit, led by the university-dominated counties Alachua and Leon. Among the smaller north Florida cities with ordinances are Atlantic Beach, Gainesville and St. Augustine Beach.

The Holdout

The biggest local government in Florida without an ordinance prohibiting LGBT discrimination remains Jacksonville/Duval County, where both former Mayor Alvin Brown (a Democrat) and newly elected Mayor Lenny Curry (a Republican) have tiptoed around the issue despite widespread support from city business and political leaders, including former Jacksonville Mayor and current University of North Florida President John Delaney. The hesitancy underscores the tricky politics of the consolidated city/county, which combines both a liberal-leaning city electorate with more conservative suburban voters. Advocates have expressed optimism that an ordinance will pass under Curry's watch.

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