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  1. Opinion

Column: Can Florida Compete? Florida leadership remains silent.

Published May 24, 2018

An economy is as strong as its businesses, but those businesses are only as strong as their employees.

As Florida's largest company with operations around the world, Tech Data knows that, in order to compete for both talent and business globally, we must embrace and harness the power of diversity in all its forms. I have personally witnessed how quality of life and cognitive diversity, both in and out of our office, propels the creativity and impact of the teams with which I am privileged to work.

Conversely, I have also witnessed how preconceptions of a less than socially progressive and inclusive state can make it more difficult to recruit top talent to Florida. Not for the opportunity or compensation offered, but because Florida does not protect all its residents from discrimination in employment, housing, and public spaces.

In addition to my role at Tech Data, I serve as the president of Florida Competes, a coalition of 11 Fortune 500 companies, 35 large corporations and associations, and more than 450 small businesses in the state. Florida Competes and its members are committed to strengthening Florida's economy by supporting the Florida Competitive Workforce Act (FCWA), which modernizes the Florida Civil Rights Act of 1992 to include sexual orientation and gender identity among the existing protections such as race, religion and disability. Currently, 18 states have fully comprehensive anti-discrimination laws on the books, putting Florida at a disadvantage when competing for top talent.

This year, the measure filed by Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, Rep. Rene Plasencia, R-Titusville, and Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, garnered remarkable bipartisan support with 69 House and Senate members signed on as co-sponsors — an incredible 45 percent of the entire body, with an unprecedented 57 percent of those as freshmen members. HB 347/SB 66 secured the third-highest number of signers of any proposed initiative this session.

However, in a confounding move by leadership, the bill did not budge. Forty-five percent of the Legislature stood up on behalf of equal opportunity and economic prosperity, but a small handful of powerful members turned their backs on the LGBT community and basic civil rights for all.

Opponents of the FCWA had two arguments against the legislation. Both are unfounded.

The first: Some contend this legislation would open the floodgates to litigation. An argument inconveniently debunked by real Florida experience and data. In Broward County and Palm Beach County, Florida's second- and third-most populous counties with Human Rights Ordinance protections, just 2.6 percent and 1.1 percent of complaints filed were related to sexual orientation and gender identity, respectively. The Florida Commission on Human Relations serves as a stopgap for frivolous lawsuits and meritless claims; if the state's existing laws were updated to include the LGBT community, businesses throughout the state would receive the same protections from groundless litigation.

The second: Some argue this legislation would create "special rights" for a specific population in the state — namely, LGBT Floridians. Also misguided. Current law provides legally sanctioned discrimination to a specific population in the state. All Floridians should be treated fairly under the law — no one should be left out purposely.

As Amazon considers Miami as a Top 10 finalist to build its second headquarters, how does Florida compete with other states who adhere to Amazon's tenets of inclusion, diversity, and fairness? We don't. Because right now in Florida, the LGBT community can be fired from their job or denied housing simply because of who they are.

Economic prosperity is dependent upon businesses growing and a skilled workforce available to fill jobs. To continue economic growth in our state, we should look at the best practices of Fortune 500 companies — of which 82 percent have explicit policies in place prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Silence from leadership on this legislation was deafening. Our state is simply behind. The FCWA has been introduced every year for nearly a decade, and it continues to stall despite strong bipartisan support. Another legislative session, another year of unprecedented support, and another year of not being heard in a single committee.

Florida businesses were ready. State legislators: Where were you?

John 'JT' Tonnison is president of Florida Competes and executive vice president, CIO of Tech Data Corp., a Fortune 100 technology company headquartered in Clearwater, and Florida's largest company by revenue.

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