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  1. Florida Politics

Committee leaders control which bills get a chance in Florida's Legislature

Published Apr. 12, 2015

TALLAHASSEE — To Republican Sen. Rene Garcia, allowing undocumented immigrants to apply for a driver's license is only logical.

"If these people are going to be in this state and they're going to be driving," the Hialeah senator says, "they should at least have driver's licenses so they can have insurance."

But his driver's license bill, SB 300, hasn't attracted much interest from other lawmakers. Six weeks into the nine-week legislative session, the measure is essentially dead, one of hundreds of ideas that likely will never see the light of day.

Many of those dead bills are policies pushed by Democrats, like a higher minimum wage, or a ban on backyard gun ranges. With overwhelming GOP majorities in both the House and Senate, it's not surprising such bills haven't taken hold.

Yet dozens of proposals backed by Republicans — including high-profile leaders like former Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville — have fallen to the cutting room floor, too.

For example, Gaetz proposed SJR 1142, amending the state constitution to stop property taxes from increasing if a property's value decreases.

"It seems to me that taxes ought to follow values, instead of taxes going up even if values go down," Gaetz said. "But Sen. (Miguel) Diaz de la Portilla has chosen not to hear the bill."

To land a bill on the governor's desk, it takes more than just backing from lawmakers in the majority party. The chair of at least the first committee a bill is assigned to has to be on board. A single bill could have to clear as many as four committees.

Committee chairs never moved on HB 33 by Rep. Holly Raschein, R-Key Largo, which would have prohibited workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Ditto HB 77 and SB 96, by Rep. Neil Combee, R-Polk County, and Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, respectively. They've tried for two years to require every eighth- and 11th-grade student in Florida to watch America: Imagine the World Without Her, a Dinesh D'Souza documentary that asks the question, "Is America a source of pride, as Americans have long held, or shame, as progressives allege?"

In the House, GOP-backed bills for medical marijuana have gone up in a puff of smoke.

One such bill would have sped up the process for producing and selling Charlotte's Web, a strain of cannabis low in high-inducing THC, that the Legislature made legal last year but is caught up in Health Department rule-making processes. Asked about its future in the House, Speaker Steve Crisafulli said, "Nothing at this time."

A single committee chair who doesn't agree with a bill can stop its progress entirely. That's what Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, has seen happen with SB 1118, a bill allowing business owners to install solar panels that hasn't been brought for a hearing in the Senate Communications, Energy and Public Utilities Committee.

He said special interests' easiest way to control the fate of hot issues is by asking committee chairs to make sure a bill isn't heard before the session ends on May 1. No hearing; no votes; no new law.

"They don't come straight out and say it like that," Brandes said. "They just say, 'Boy, it would be great if you tried to hear this bill in the middle of May.' "

But he, like every other committee chair, is responsible for stopping bills before they have a hearing in his Transportation Committee.

Consider a proposal to make texting behind the wheel a primary offense, allowing police to pull drivers over for staring at their phones on the road. The bill, SB 192 by Sen. Thad Altman, R-Melbourne, cleared its first Senate committee by a 5-3 vote but is stalled in the transportation committee.

That's where Garcia's bill for undocumented immigrants to carry driver's licenses is stalled as well.

This late in session, with one committee meeting left, Brandes said his focus is only on bills that have a good shot at becoming law.

"I don't waste staff time on bills that aren't going to be heard," he said.

With the House showing reluctance on its version of Altman's texting and driving bill and the governor's refusal to sign legislation similar to Garcia's driver's license provision in the past, Brandes said it doesn't make sense to hear them at this point.

Earlier in the process each year, the litmus test is more subjective. A bill can get a hearing in Brandes' committee if "I generally agree with the policy, if it's necessary for Florida's transportation system," he said.

Being a committee chairman, however, doesn't make Brandes immune from the same angst of having legislation blocked by fellow Republicans. He's been one of the biggest supporters of stalled medical marijuana legislation. And his renewable energy bill hasn't moved either.

To those who have been part of the lawmaking process in Tallahassee for years, this is just the way business is done.

Gaetz admits in no uncertain terms that his property tax bill is dead. If not for a lone committee chair's reluctance, he said, it had a good shot at passing both the House and Senate.

"If the bill would have gotten to the Senate floor, it would've passed. If it had gotten to the House floor, I believe it would've passed," Gaetz said. "That's why they make next year."

Contact Michael Auslen at mauslen@tampabay.com. Follow @MichaelAuslen.