TALLAHASSEE — In a year where lawmakers promised to focus on jobs, jobs, jobs, the Republican-led Florida House spent more than seven hours Tuesday talking about abortion, guns, gambling and religion.
"It's God, guns and freedom day," Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Destin, said last week in anticipation.
The House spent most of the day on six bills that limit access to abortions, two that help gun owners and one that would allow taxpayer funding of religious organizations.
Another five hours of debate and votes on the abortion and religious organization bills is scheduled for today.
"We should be focused on the jobs we all were sent here for — to create jobs, and to pass a budget," said Rep. Scott Randolph, D-Orlando, after a news conference challenging the abortion bills. "Yet, for whatever reason, that's not what we're doing."
More than a dozen of the chamber's 39 Democrats raised the jobs issue during floor discussion of HB 1397, an abortion bill sponsored by Rep. Rachel Burgin, R-Riverview. Among other things, the measure would expand the state's prohibition on third-trimester abortions to include a ban once the fetus is viable. It also would require ethics training for physicians who perform the procedure and that abortion clinics be owned by doctors.
Hand on her hip, Burgin fired back at Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, who questioned what her bill does to advance job creation.
The House spent a significant amount of time last week on legislation to fight pill mills, which also is not a job creator, she said.
"It was important because Floridians are dying," Burgin said. Her bill, she said, is equally important because it's about life and safety.
"Not every bill has to be about the economy," she said in response to a later question.
In an interview before the discussion began, Rep. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, echoed those sentiments.
"I've been a strong pro-life advocate my entire life," said Brandes, co-sponsor of HB 97, a bill introduced by Gaetz that prohibits health care plans created through the federal health care law from offering abortion coverage.
Brandes said such bills benefit Floridians.
"The fundamental question is when does life begin. I believe life begins at conception," he said. "We have a duty to protect those lives. I consider those unborn children Floridians."
Some legislation moving through the House this year, such as bills deregulating dozens of professions, establishing an economic development fund for the governor and a cut to unemployment compensation taxes, have been cast as job-creation efforts.
But a huge amount of time and energy has gone toward a conservative social agenda.
"It doesn't help my constituents who can't pay their bills or are being kicked out of their homes because of foreclosures," said Rep. Mack Bernard, D-West Palm Beach, who noted that in some parts of his district unemployment is greater than 40 percent. "I am disappointed, but this is the process. Some members have to be happy and sometimes you have to feed some members red meat. This is the red meat."
Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa, defended the social bills.
"Obviously, these are issues that are of significant importance to a large portion of the citizens of this state," said Young, who posed with a gun in one of her campaign pieces last year.
She noted that Tuesday's calendar also included a bill she sponsored that would free dog track owners from a requirement that they hold a certain number of live races each year to maintain licenses for a casino or card room. Track operators say greyhound racing is a money loser. Some lawmakers objected to the bill, which passed 86-31, saying it will lead to more gambling in the state.
But Young sees it as an economic development initiative.
"It's getting government out of the way of a legitimate business enterprise," she said.
Rep. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, deemed it "an interesting day in the Florida House," during debate on HB 45, which prohibits local governments from regulating firearms.
"We seem to care more about inanimate hunks of metal than we do about women," he said.
The bill passed 85-33.
The House also voted 88-30 in favor of a bill that would limit the ability of doctors to question patients on gun ownership.
And the chamber passed HB 353, which requires drug-testing of welfare recipients, with a 78-38 vote.
Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, sponsored the bill that would open the door for taxpayer funding of religious organizations. He argues that the law prohibiting such funding has its roots in discrimination against Catholics.
He dismissed criticism that the House is spending too much time on social issues and not enough on the economy.
"It's a 60-day session," he said. "If you look at the preponderance of what we're going to do this session, it's dealing with the budget, jobs and the economy. To say that we should just deny that people send us here to answer some of the big questions of our day, I don't agree with that. We should spend a reasonable amount of time during the session discussing these things."
A day or two, he said, is reasonable.
As for the Florida Senate, that chamber will spend part of today's session on bills relating to abortion and guns. On Tuesday, SB 502, which designates the barking tree frog as the state amphibian, passed its final committee stop and is ready for a floor vote.
Times/Herald staff writers Mary Ellen Klas, Aaron Sharockman and Katie Sanders contributed to this report. Janet Zink can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.