Florida Non-Discrimination Bill Gaining Muscle
Excerpted from: Cold Shoulder: The push for anti-discrimination legislation has gotten nowhere in the Legislature despite backing from some heavy-hitters in the business community
By Jason Garcia
Oct. 28, 2015
Just before the start of the Florida Legislature’s 2014 session, some of the state’s biggest and most influential businesses banded together in support of a proposed law to prohibit discrimination against gay, bisexual and transgender Floridians.
It was a momentous occasion for the long-stalled legislation, variations of which had been filed in Tallahassee every year since 2007. The coalition of businesses–including Florida-based companies such as CSX, Darden Restaurants and Florida Blue, as well as major employers such as Walt Disney World and Wells Fargo–together employed dozens of lobbyists, spent millions on campaign contributions and spoke with a voice that resonated in a Republican-controlled Legislature that prided itself on being “pro-business.”
The measure never made it out of either the Florida House’s Criminal Justice Subcommittee or the Senate’s Commerce and Tourism Committee. In fact, in the two sessions since the businesses came out in support of the legislation, it has yet to be given a single hearing in either chamber of the Legislature. Meanwhile, the House has devoted two committee hearing to a proposal to prohibit people from using bathrooms that don’t match the gender of their birth, a measure widely criticized as hostile to transgender Floridians.
The struggles of the anti-discrimination legislation reflect the realities of the modern Legislature, which is dominated by socially conservative Republicans, most of whom represent districts where their biggest potential threat is a challenger who attempts to paint them as not conservative enough. But it also indicates that businesses have yet to flex their political muscles in the way they have in the past on issues such as tort reform and tax policy.
“I don’t know that the business community has leaned on hard enough,” says one lobbyist involved in the issue who asked not to be identified.
“I think people quite honestly didn’t think it (getting the legislation passed) would happen,” adds Rep. Holly Raschein (R-Key Largo) who sponsored the legislation last year and has already refiled the bill for the 2016 session, which begins in January. “I, too, as the bill sponsor would like to see more outpouring of support, more messaging, more things like that.”
Business leaders say they are about to get more serious. The coalition of businesses supporting the issue, organized through an advocacy group called “Florida Businesses for a Competitive Workforce,” has grown to more than 400 businesses, signing up everyone from a barber shop in Bartow to Office Depot, NextEra and Carnival. The coalition last year hired a top lobbying frim, Southern Strategy Group, to represent it before the Legislature, paying the firm an estimated $60,000 over the last year.
While typically framed as a social issue, a statewide anti-discrimination policy is just as much an economic issue, business interests say. Younger workers consider a community’s tolerance–toward the LGBTQ community as well as others–when deciding where to work.
What’s more, potential economic development deals for Florida have collapse because the state lacks a statewide anti-discrimination policy, says Florida Blue CEO Patrick Geraghty, who is chairman of Florida Businesses for a Competitive Workforce.
Some companies thinking about relocating “are shocked that we have such an antiquated approach to this issue,” Geraghty says. “We have lost business opportunities in this state because we aren’t inclusive statewide.”
Anti-discrimination advocates say polls they have conducted around the state that show the issue has become far less polarizing among voters–including Republicans–particularly in the aftermath of the US Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriages nationwide.