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Clashes over opioid response, sexual harassment force lawmakers to work late

In the end, lawmakers passed their first coordinated response to the opioid crisis. They didn't pass sexual harassment legislation.
SCOTT KEELER   |   Times
 Left to right: Appropriations chairs Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R- Miami, and Senator Rob Bradley, R- Fleming Island, were all smiles, Thursday, 3/8/18 after reaching a budget agreement in Tallahassee.
SCOTT KEELER | Times Left to right: Appropriations chairs Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R- Miami, and Senator Rob Bradley, R- Fleming Island, were all smiles, Thursday, 3/8/18 after reaching a budget agreement in Tallahassee.
Published Mar. 10, 2018
Updated Mar. 11, 2018

In the final hours of the 2018 legislative session, lawmakers had to work late to settle disputes over sprawling opioid legislation and a bill to tackle sexual harassment among lawmakers and lobbyists.

The sexual harassment bill was a guaranteed flash point between to the two chambers. And predictably, it failed.

But a fight over the Legislature's first coordinated response to the opioid crisis was a last-day surprise.

The hangup came from House budget chair Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami Gardens, who complained that the Senate's version of the opioid bill specifically carved out more than $5 million for the maker of one drug: Vivitrol, which is used to help people recover from heroin addiction.

But it was a bizarre reason to hold up a bill designed to combat an epidemic that is killing at least 16 people a day.

Vivitrol, which is mentioned by its generic name in the bill, is widely used in addiction treatment. And the budget, which was finalized this week, already devotes $10.5 million to the drug.

In the end, the Senate agreed to amend the bill to allow providers to spend the money on any of the three major drugs used to treat addiction, including Vivitrol.

The Legislature didn't finish until 10:45 p.m., and without the Senate taking up its sexual harassment legislation.

For nine weeks, lawmakers could not reach consensus on how state government should respond to growing concerns about sexual misconduct that led to two senators to resign and triggered a criminal investigation of one, Republican Jack Latvala of Clearwater, while he campaigned as a candidate for governor.

At the start of the session in January, legislative leaders declared sexual harassment reforms a top priority, and then — nothing.

The Senate's bill to make sexual harassment a crime was stalled in the committee after the chairman, Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, refused to hear it, saying the bill "needs a little more time to figure out all that's in there."
He said on the Senate floor Friday that he wanted to clear the record.

"Contrary to some popular reporting I would like to clarify for this body I have never ever been of the opinion that we should not deal with this issue and deal with it head on," Baxley said. "Sometimes you run out of committee meetings."

The House then passed its version of the bill, leaving all eyes on the Senate. One of the bill's sponsors, Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, then brought the bill to the Senate floor with a two-thirds vote required to skip its remaining committees. The other sponsor, Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, said it was a bill that needed to be passed.

"One of the things that we've learned is that there are issues in workplaces across the state and ours was no different," Benacquisto said.

The Senate's bill outlawed unwanted sexual advances by legislators, candidates for public office, agency employees and lobbyists. It imposed new penalties for those who violate these rules and bans the hiring of so-called "closers" — often young men and women hired by lobbying firms who may be expected to submit to sexual advances from lawmakers in the closing days of the legislative session.

But in the end, the Senate chose not to take up the House version at all.
Negron said the house's bill would make it tougher for agencies to fire employees who are guilty of sexual harassment and "set up a labyrinth of proceedings that are unnecessary and makes it so we can't address those issues."

"We have a zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment," Negron said.
Book said after that she was disappointed.

"Tallahassee has been a good old boys club, and the good old boys club is alive and well," Book said. "Even within my own caucus."