The Legislature has many ways to kill a bill

Every legislative session for the past four years, lawmakers have introduced multiple bills to regulate texting while driving in Florida.

Supporters say it's a no-brainer law that would reduce traffic fatalities, particularly among teens. Thirty states already have texting-while-driving bans, with 12 of those laws passing in 2010.

Florida is not one of them.

Last year's attempt died in the House, when then state-Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff refused to let a bill get through the finance and tax committee she chaired.

"I'm not saying my personal opinion was the only thing that mattered. They happened to send the bill to my committee, and yes, I killed it," said Bogdanoff, a Republican from Fort Lauderdale who is now a state senator. "It goes against my philosophical position that government shouldn't tell us how to conduct our lives from the time we wake up in the morning until we go to sleep at night."

One way to understand the powers at play in Tallahassee is to look at the journey of one bill as it navigates its way through the forces of politics, money and influence.

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State lawmakers file thousands of bills each year. About 10 percent make it through committees, votes in both chambers and are signed into law by the governor.

Those that make it have one or a combination of these factors: support from the most powerful political leaders, a strong lobby, emotional pull, or effect on a financial or public safety crisis.

Among the first stops for a bill: committees headed by appointees of the Senate president and House speaker. Typically, those committee chairs share the political leanings of the people who appointed them.

"You do have the gatekeepers," said Bogdanoff. "I did not do anything that was inconsistent with my presiding officer. They're putting you in a position of trust that you are going to be responsive to the politics of the body at the time."

From 2007 to 2010, dozens of bills intended to regulate texting and cell phone use while driving died in committees, often on their first stop.

"These are the types of laws that a lot of conservatives in the Legislature believe are too much government," said Sen. Paula Dockery, a Lakeland Republican who sponsored a texting ban last year.

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In general, texting bans have lacked any type of strong lobby, another key factor in getting legislation passed.

On issues like insurance, health care, the environment and labor, lobbyists walk the halls of the Capitol by the dozens, informing decisionmakers about the pros and cons of legislation, pushing an issue onto the radar.

"There's no money in this bill," said Sen. Nancy Detert, a Republican from Venice whose texting-while-driving ban made it through the Senate last year. "It would be nice if they pushed it, but they don't get paid to push it so they don't."

She's sponsoring the bill again this session.

Support is coming from AAA and the solid waste industry, which sees it as a safety issue for their drivers and workers who ride on the backs of trucks.

But in the past, their support has been no match for opposition from the giant telecommunications industry.

"It's easier to stop a bill than pass it," said former Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, who in 2010 sponsored a bill he dubbed "You Talk, You Walk" that prohibited minors from talking on cell phones while driving. It passed in the Senate but had no companion in the House.

In 2002, a bill that would have created enhanced penalties for accidents caused by driver distraction, including cell phone use, received such overwhelming opposition that the law that ultimately passed went in a completely different direction.

"The telecom industry turned that bill into a bill that outlawed local communities from controlling the issue. There are a lot of very powerful special interests in Tallahassee and if you run into one of them, you have a big problem," Gelber said. "They have armies of lobbyists who have great relationships with legislators and they know a million ways to kill a bill."

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Even without a huge lobby, though, bills can pass if they have emotional pull, such as Jessica's Law, which passed in 2005 to punish sex offenders after the rape and murder of a young girl.

A real or perceived financial crisis, such as soaring property taxes or plummeting state revenues, can also help.

Texting bans have neither.

"At this point in time specifically, we are so fixated and focused on our budget that bills like this tend to get somewhat lost in the shuffle," said Rep. Doug Holder, R-Sarasota, who has sponsored texting and other distracted driving bans four years in a row. "It doesn't mean that it's not as important, it doesn't mean it shouldn't be pushed. It's just a difficult time to get bills like this passed."

Meanwhile, research on texting bans already in existence provide fodder for opponents.

Studies show that driving while distracted is a factor in 25 percent of accidents and using a wireless device is the No. 1 cause of driver inattention. But it's unclear how many accidents are caused by texting.

And research in states that have enacted texting bans in recent years conclude accidents have increased because drivers will look down at their phones in their laps to text without detection by law enforcement, according to the insurer-backed Highway Loss Data Institute.

Bogdanoff and others argue the texting bans are too narrowly focused.

"There are a lot of things that people do in their cars that cause accidents. Texting is one of them," she said, explaining she'd more likely back a distracted driving bill that would enhance penalties for drivers who cause an accident while doing anything from texting to eating a hamburger or tuning a radio.

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Senate President Mike Haridopolos and House Speaker Dean Cannon have assigned texting-while-driving bills this year to three committees in each chamber, a typical number. None have been scheduled for hearings yet.

Once again, the small-government political leanings that permeate the Florida Legislature could doom the proposals.

Sen. Jack Latvala, a St. Petersburg Republican appointed as chair of the Senate transportation committee by Haridopolos, has already said he objects to imposing more rules on adults, although he said he would back a ban that applied only to minors.

And once again, lawmakers will struggle to balance a continually shrinking budget.

Huge financial concerns and small-government political culture aside, Detert believes this may be the year some type of texting ban passes in Florida because the effort has the backing of a force even greater than politics.

"It helps that Oprah's making all of her guests sign a pledge saying they won't text and drive," she said.

Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Never quite fitting the bill

Lawmakers filed at least 18 bills to regulate texting or other cell phone use while driving during the 2010 legislative session. A look at the major ones' fates:

SB 608 (sponsored by Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston): Banned use of cell phones while driving except when using a headset or hands-free device. Died in first committee.

HB 333 (sponsored by Rep. Luis Garcia, D-Miami): Banned use of cell phones while driving except when using a headset or hands-free device. Died in first committee.

HB 893 (sponsored by Rep. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale): Banned use of cell phones while driving except when using headset or hands-free device. Died in first committee.

SB 244 (sponsored by Sen. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami Gardens): Banned use of cell phones while driving except when using a headset or hands-free device. Passed Transportation committee, but died in Communications, Energy and Public Utilities.

HB 687 (sponsored by Rep. Charles Chestnut, D-Gainesville): Banned use of cell phones while driving in a school zone. Died in first committee.

SB 418 (sponsored by Sen. Larcenia Bullard, D-Miami): Banned use of cell phones while driving in a school zone. Died in first committee.

SB 448 (sponsored by Sen. Nancy Detert, D-Venice): Created the "Florida Ban on Texting While Driving Law," banning driving while using a wireless communications device for certain purposes. Passed Senate by 34-4 vote. Died in House.

HB 41 (sponsored by Rep. Doug Holder, R-Sarasota): Created the "Florida Ban on Texting While Driving Law," banning driving while using a wireless communications device for certain purposes. Passed one committee but died in Finance and Tax committee.

SB 324 (sponsored by Sen. Carey Baker, R-Eustis): Bans a person under 18 from writing or sending a text message while driving. Died in Committee on Communications, Energy, and Public Utilities.

The Legislature has many ways to kill a bill 02/25/11 [Last modified: Saturday, February 26, 2011 3:45pm]

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