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Following outcry, legislative immunity bill dies in House committee

TALLAHASSEE — In a shining example of how quickly the political tides can change, House leaders on Monday backed away from a proposal to clarify legislative immunity shortly after the incoming Senate president expressed his opposition to the idea.

Sen. Don Gaetz said opponents to the Legislature's proposed redistricting maps had politicized the immunity issue by questioning the timing of the House's measure — which would have protected lawmakers and their staff from having to testify if they get sued. Besides, said Gaetz, R-Niceville, legislators already are protected by current law.

"My view is there is already sufficient and substantial legal protection against 'intrusive deposition' of legislators in matters of public policy," Gaetz, who also chairs the Senate Reapportionment Committee, wrote in a memo to his colleagues. "No additional legislation is needed, and to attempt to enact a bill at this time allows it to be misconstrued by redistricting opponents."

Shortly after Gaetz went public, House leaders said they would let the issue die this year.

"The suggestion that this bill is an attempt to avoid deposition in the litigation related to redistricting could not be further from the truth," Rep. Gary Aubuchon, R-Cape Coral, said. "The genesis of this legislation results from ongoing litigation attempting to compel members' testimony regarding their official legislative acts."

The measure, HB 7123, was scheduled to be heard in a committee where Aubuchon serves as chairman. He announced Monday that it would not be placed on the agenda, indicating the matter is dead this session.

"I would encourage returning members to take the issue up next year," he said.

But in a subtle dig at the other chamber's opposition, Aubuchon pointed out that the proposal "was drafted in coordination with the Senate president's office."

Last week, the House Judiciary Committee approved the bill, which says legislators, former legislators and their staffs don't have to testify in court or turn over documents. Supporters said the timing had nothing to do with redistricting, rather it was an effort to clarify the law since there have been several attempts recently to subpoena legislators on other matters.

But groups who planned to oppose the newly drawn maps blasted the legislation and said the timing — it was filed the day before the committee vote — indicated the new rules were an attempt to prevent lawmakers from testifying during anticipated court hearings related to redistricting.

At the same time Aubuchon was announcing the immunity legislation would stall in his committee, House Speaker Dean Cannon released a strongly worded statement condemning those who linked the proposal to the upcoming redistricting battles.

"The hysterical reaction we've witnessed over the last few days has been ill-informed and politically motivated," said Cannon, R-Winter Park. "Unfortunately, a debate this year on this subject will never be free of partisan rancor, blatant political opportunism, and unrestrained hypocrisy on the part of those who wish to discredit the most open and transparent redistricting process in Florida's history."

Incoming House Speaker Will Weatherford, who also chairs the Redistricting Committee and said last week that he wouldn't refuse to answer questions about redistricting, applauded the decision to let the immunity issue die this session.

"There is no need for HB 7123 right now," Weatherford, a Republican from Wesley Chapel, wrote on his Twitter account. "I am glad Speaker Cannon is going to pull the plug on the bill. The right thing to do."

Tia Mitchell can be reached at tmitchell@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.

Following outcry, legislative immunity bill dies in House committee 02/20/12 [Last modified: Monday, February 20, 2012 8:47pm]
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