Looser gun laws and low taxes? Those were just two of the items the Republican-dominated Legislature advanced this week, offering more proof (as if any were needed) that it’s an election year in Florida.
The Sunshine State — snidely spoofed as “The Gunshine State” by gun-control advocates — has long been a testing ground for legislation fired out by the National Rifle Association, thanks mostly to NRA lobbyist and onetime national president Marion Hammer.
While gun-related bills didn’t fare so well last year, they’re perennially on the agenda in the Capitol, and this election year is no different.
Committees in the House and Senate are moving forward with measures that would allow people with concealed-weapons licenses to carry guns on the grounds of churches and other religious institutions that include schools.
The Senate proposal, however, would ban firearm possession during hours when schools or day-care centers are operating.
A House committee backed a similar plan in a party-line vote — just a day after two teenagers were killed and 18 others were injured in a shooting spree at a Kentucky high school.
Florida law allows religious facilities to be open to people who have concealed-weapons licenses and are armed. However, state law prohibits people from carrying guns at schools.
As with gun-friendly proposals, lowering taxes — or at least keeping them low — is a ubiquitous item on the GOP agenda.
In a priority of Gov. Rick Scott and Speaker Richard Corcoran, the Florida House on Thursday overwhelmingly approved a proposed constitutional amendment that would make it more difficult to raise taxes and fees.
The proposal, which could go on the November ballot, would require two-thirds votes by the House and the Senate in the future to increase taxes and fees, up from the usual majority votes.
Meanwhile, another election-year proposal strongly supported by conservatives also inched closer to the ballot this week. A Constitution Revision Commission panel approved a measure that would narrow the right to privacy, the bedrock of numerous Florida Supreme Court decisions overturning anti-abortion laws.
At the other end of the spectrum, a proposed constitutional amendment that would expand the rights of convicted felons made it onto the November ballot.
The proposal could open the door for more than 1 million Floridians to regain the right to vote, something proponents maintain is a critical component of enabling convicted felons to feel like they’re fully integrated into society.
Ambrose Bierce, the great turn-of-the-19th-century American wit and writer, offered this sly definition of redemption in “The Devil’s Dictionary.”
“The doctrine of Redemption is the fundamental mystery of our holy religions, and whoso believeth in it shall not perish, but have everlasting life in which to try to understand it.”
Shot at restoration
Desmond Meade broke down in tears while recording a video announcing the “Voting Restoration Amendment” had been approved Tuesday to appear on the November ballot as Amendment 4.
The proposal would automatically restore voting rights to felons who have served their sentences, completed parole or probation and paid restitution. Murderers and sex offenders would be excluded.
For Meade, the chairman of the Floridians for a Fair Democracy political committee behind the petition drive, the proposed constitutional change is personal.
Meade, a convicted felon and law-school graduate who struggled for years to have his rights restored, spearheaded the campaign, largely bankrolled by the American Civil Liberties Union and other big donors.
“I know I’m getting a little emotional right now because only God knows the hard work that was put in to get to this point,” a tearful and buoyant Meade said in a Facebook Live post.
“No one thought we would get here. But we’re here. We’re one step closer. We’re one step closer to liberating and giving over 1.6 million a shot at redemption, a shot at restoration, a shot at citizenship,” he said. “We’ve got one more step to go.”
Black state legislators have tried repeatedly to change state law to allow the automatic restoration of rights. But the Republican-dominated Legislature either quashed or ignored the efforts.
Florida is one of just four states that do not automatically restore felons’ voting rights, once they have completed their sentences and paid restitution. Critics of Florida’s system say it is cumbersome, lengthy and, for many, expensive.
Meade, for example, originally applied to have his rights restored in 2006, but he got caught up in a backlog of thousands of others eager to take advantage of changes authorized by former Gov. Charlie Crist and the Cabinet that made restoration easier.
But the process took so long that, by the time Meade’s application was examined, he was no longer eligible for the quasi-automatic restoration of civil rights, which include the right to vote.
By then, a new system instituted in 2011 — pushed by Gov. Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi — had taken effect. Since then, just a fraction of the more than 100,000 former felons who sought to have their rights restored were successful.
The restoration of felons’ rights has long been controversial in Florida, with critics of the state’s process comparing it to post-Civil War Jim Crow policies designed to keep blacks from casting ballots.
A system approved in 2011 by Scott and the Cabinet required felons convicted of nonviolent crimes to wait a minimum of five years to have their rights restored, while others could wait up to 10 years before being eligible to apply. Backers of the process have argued that the restoration of voting rights for felons should be earned and only after a sufficient waiting period.
Meade, originally convicted of drug crimes and, later, of aggravated assault and possession of a firearm, received a letter the same year the 2011 changes went into effect telling him he had to wait at least another year to petition to have his rights restored — more than five years after he had first applied.
He told The News Service of Florida last year he abandoned his effort and instead focused on revamping the system, pointing out that some people have waited more than a decade just for a hearing to have their rights restored.
Stamping out a scourge
Florida lawmakers are poised to spend at least $50 million to stamp out the opioid epidemic that’s caused a spike in overdoses throughout the state.
Dealing with what Scott declared a public health emergency last year is a top priority for the governor and leaders in both legislative chambers.
The House and Senate have each earmarked about $50 million — more than half of which comes from federal funds — to address the drug scourge. The money would be steered to direct services in local communities, with targeted outreach to pregnant women, as well as outpatient care, residential and recovery support and medication-assisted treatment.
The House and Senate, which released initial budget proposals this week, also want to spend about $1.1 million for upgrades to the prescription drug monitoring program, which is a statewide database aimed at preventing addicts from “doctor shopping” for drugs. The money would go toward providing real-time data uploads and data analysis and to integrate the database with electronic health records.
Story of the week
A proposed constitutional amendment that would automatically restore the voting rights of felons who have completed their sentences and paid restitution was approved for the November ballot as Amendment 4.
Quote of the week
“You either stand with the people whose money the government takes or you stand with the government that takes it.” — State Rep. Tom Leek, a Republican from Ormond Beach and the sponsor of a proposed constitutional amendment that would make it more difficult for the Legislature to raise taxes.