Weekly Roundup: Big changes in the eleventh hour

Weekly Roundup: Big changes in the eleventh hour

TALLAHASSEE Fla. (WWSB) - Lawmakers picked up the pace as the clock wound down on the 2021 legislative session, with Republicans calmly slipping in last-minute changes and Democrats frenziedly - and futilely - trying to stave them off.

Eleventh-hour amendments addressed some of this year’s most contentious issues, such as a proposal to ban transgender female athletes from competing on girls’ high-school and women’s college teams.

The issue was believed to be out of the running less than two weeks ago when the Senate bill sponsor pulled the plug on a bill.

But as Tallahassee insiders know, nothing was kaput until the white hanky dropped in the fourth-floor rotunda Friday afternoon to mark the end of the legislative session.

House Republicans attached the transgender athlete ban to an education bill late Wednesday afternoon, passed it, and sent it back to the Senate. The Senate then gave final approval.

While this year’s 60-day session was a stark departure from previous years - the Capitol halls were hollowed out in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19 - some things never change.

In the flurry of the session’s final week, GOP lawmakers offered what is known as “strike-all” floor amendments to revamp bills. Democrats unleashed a barrage of questions as they scurried to analyze the last-minute alterations.

A Republican amendment to a measure focused on making it harder for Floridians to vote by mail prompted Rep. Tracie Davis, D-Jacksonville, to erupt on the House floor Thursday night.

“You have allowed a [Democratic] caucus less than three hours to prepare for something that will change Florida’s election law for millions of voters, and you look at me as if I am talking a different language,” Davis, a former deputy supervisor of elections in Duval County, heatedly said, pointing out that the amendment was 48 pages.

In another late move, Republicans delivered a blow to fishing guides and environmentalists who thought they had beaten back a legislative effort to overturn a 2020 vote by Key West residents restricting cruise ship operations.

A day after the plan appeared dead, the Senate resuscitated the issue by slipping it into a sweeping transportation bill. The House then passed the measure, which is on its way to the governor.

GEORGIA ON MY MIND

Republican lawmakers backed away from more stringent proposals contained in earlier versions of an elections overhaul, but the bill en route to Gov. Ron DeSantis continued to draw fierce opposition from Democrats who said it would put up barriers to voting.

The measure (SB 90) focuses largely on vote-by-mail processes, mirroring in some aspects proposals being considered or passed by other GOP-led legislatures throughout the country. The efforts have come after a huge increase in the November elections of vote-by-mail ballots cast by Democrats nationwide, including in Florida.

DeSantis and other Republican leaders boasted about Florida’s smooth handling of the 2020 elections amid the coronavirus pandemic. But many of the changes included in the bill are rooted in problems that arose in other states, including states that lacked Florida’s decades-long history of voting by mail.

Critics of the elections revamp said the proposed changes are unnecessary and are evocative of Jim Crow-era laws and regulations designed to prevent Black people from voting.

The Senate voted 23-17 to pass the revamped version of the legislation on Thursday, with one Republican - Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg - crossing party lines to join Democrats in opposition. The House followed Thursday night by passing the bill in a 77-40 vote along party lines.

Sen. Travis Hutson, a St. Augustine Republican who sponsored the changes that were adopted by the House and Senate on Thursday, argued that Floridians have a variety of ways to cast ballots. The changes are needed to ensure against election fraud, he said.

“I believe that every legal vote should count. I believe one fraudulent vote is one too many. And I’m trying to protect the sanctity of our elections,” Hutson said.

But Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, called the voting restrictions “particularly insulting,” given the state’s “sordid” history of imposing barriers to the ballot box for people of color.

“Jim Crow. Poll tax. Literacy tests. We even used lynching as a barrier for, what, just to stop some people from voting,” Thurston, who is Black, said.

Other Black lawmakers also blasted the bill in the House.

“People like me have been relegated to the back of the bus, not allowed to participate in our democracy, and you want me to sit here calmly and accept that this is something that’s going to be good for the electorate,” Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Windermere, said, calling it a “shameful day” for the House.

‘LET THEM PLAY’

With Democrats decrying the “eleventh-hour” move, the Florida House and Senate on Wednesday revived and passed a controversial plan that would ban transgender female athletes from competing on high-school girls’ and college women’s sports teams.

The House tucked the transgender athlete proposal into an education measure and sent the revamped bill to the Senate. The Senate signed off on the proposal in a 23-16 vote late Wednesday, with one Republican - Gayle Harrell of Stuart - crossing party lines to join Democrats in opposition.

Under the measure awaiting DeSantis’ signature, female students’ eligibility for sports teams would be based on their “biological sex” on birth certificates issued “at or near the time of the student’s birth.”

A stand-alone Senate bill aimed at preventing transgender athletes from competing on girls’ and women’s teams stalled April 20. But the issue re-emerged Wednesday as an amendment to the education bill (SB 1028) and quickly passed.

The transgender athlete issue sparked some of the most fierce debates of the session, with critics arguing that a ban would target youths who are already at risk for suicide, ostracizing, and bullying.

Sen. Victor Torres, D-Orlando, said he has a transgender granddaughter who has faced numerous obstacles as she matured. He urged his colleagues to oppose the proposed ban Wednesday.

“We don’t need to destroy the lives of those children and their futures. If they want to play, let them play,” he said. “We don’t need this. We thought it was dead. But obviously, some don’t care. And we have to care.”

But Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Kelli Stargel, a Lakeland Republican who sponsored the stand-alone bill that stalled, defended the plan Wednesday, saying it is “common knowledge” that men are stronger than women.

“It’s not meant to be hurtful. It’s not meant to be discriminating. It’s not meant to attack any group,” Stargel said. “This is not about that. This is about sports and having competitive advantage and having the ability to compete.”

STORY OF THE WEEK: Working toward Friday’s conclusion of the 2021 legislative session, Republicans in the House and Senate flew through some of this year’s most controversial issues and settled on a record $101.5 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “You can’t gaslight me and tell me you turned the lights down but tell me it’s highly illuminated and it’s not dim in here… Jim Crow today wears a suit, carries a briefcase, and is now James Crow, Esquire.” - Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Windermere, referring to an elections package that will make it harder for Floridians to vote by mail.

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