A proposal to require women to have an ultrasound before they can obtain an abortion in their first trimester narrowly cleared a Senate committee Tuesday, signaling the plan could face tougher passage before the full Florida Senate.
The Florida House approved a similar plan last week by a significant margin, 70-45, but the all-male Senate Health Regulation Committee approved the Senate version (SB 2400) just 4-3, with one member absent.
Joining in the dissent was Seminole's Sen. Dennis Jones, one of the chamber's more moderate Republicans. His votes and the comments of other moderate Republicans may pose a problem for sponsor and Senate Majority Leader Dan Webster, R-Orlando, who needs 21 votes to prevail.
The Senate has 26 Republicans and 14 Democrats, one of whom, Sen. Gary Siplin of Orlando, voted for the bill in committee Tuesday.
"This is about using the latest technology," Webster said of the ultrasound. "It is the best information you can give a woman about the fetus in her womb."
Both Senate and House bills contain provisions where women can opt out of viewing the ultrasound images by signing a document. Women who show proof of sexual assault, domestic violence, incest or serious medical problems can get out of having the doctor explain to her the ultrasound images. Critics say that's unrealistic, given that 60 percent of sexual assault victims are afraid to report the crime.
And other moderate Republicans contacted by the Times say they have reservations, including Paula Dockery of Lakeland, Mike Bennett of Bradenton and Sen. Jim King of Jacksonville.
"In a year when we have enough controversy and turmoil — not the least being the budget — why do we have to have an abortion debate?" said King, who isn't on the committee. "And having another hoop is an invasion of a woman's right to choose."
LAND APPRAISAL Oversight may not pass
A bill spurred by the controversial Jim Smith land deal in Pinellas County sailed unanimously through a House panel Tuesday, but chances it will become law appear to be fleeting.
The measure (HB 127) sponsored by Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, would require the Department of Revenue or another county's appraiser to set the value of the property owned by the elected property appraiser in each county.
A Pinellas grand jury recommended the change after investigating the Smith case last year. Smith sold a 1.5-acre lot he owned to the county for $225,000, nearly four times the assessed value that his office set. Smith has maintained he did nothing wrong. The controversy led to the firing of the county attorney and the resignation of the county administrator. Smith and two county commissioners have announced they won't run for re-election.
But the Senate has yet to hear a similar measure at all. Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said resistance to change among some appraisers and a tight budget year have worked against his bill (SB 512).
His bill would only require the revenue department to review the work of an elected appraiser's staff in assessing the appraiser's personal property.
Hooper said he's open to changes as long as significant oversight is enacted.
"I'm fine with it as long as the residents of Pinellas County feel this will never happen again," Hooper said.
AUTOMATIC COMPENSATION Adjustment was key
Following a key Senate committee vote Tuesday, the Legislature is poised to pass a law that would automatically compensate the wrongfully incarcerated, but only if prisoners have not committed a prior felony.
Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, conceded her bill would have died had she not accepted the "clean hands" provision that is favored by Republicans.
Once she did, the Senate Criminal Justice committee approved the bill (SB 756) sending it to a final committee and, presumably, the Senate floor. The House is prepared to pass similar legislation.
Joyner said she wanted to help two prisoners who are eligible under the proposal, which provides education funding and $50,000 for each year of incarceration. She hopes to refine the process in future years.
The vote follows final approval last week of a claims bill to pay Alan Crotzer $1.25-million for the 24 years he spent in prison before DNA evidence cleared him of a double rape conviction. Crotzer, formerly of St. Petersburg, had a prior felony and would not have qualified under the automatic compensation system.
MENTAL HEALTH Bill coverage trimmed
A plan to raise insurance benefits for mental illnesses to match those for physical ailments was dramatically scaled back Tuesday in hopes of saving some aspect of the legislative proposal.
Rep. Ed Homan, R-Temple Terrace, agreed to cut the array of mental illnesses to be covered to six. The House healthcare council also approved only including companies with more than 50 employees — less than half of Florida businesses, Homan said — and any group insurance plan can exclude those benefits if premium costs rise at least 2 percent.
The six illnesses are schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, panic disorder, bipolar affective disorder, major depressive disorder and specific obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Insurance and business lobbyists have opposed the bill (HB 19) saying mandated coverage would require premium costs to balloon. House Republican leaders also oppose the mandate.
"It's not even parity," Homan said afterward, echoing the resignation of other advocates of the bill, which had 42 co-sponsors.
A broader Senate version (SB 164) by Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, is awaiting a final hearing, although Homan was skeptical its stronger language could survive full votes in the House.