Its still the holiday season, and for those fortunate enough to take some time off of work, its an opportunity to rest, relax and spend time with loved ones before the new working year begins.
Lawmakers are no different. Come January, Floridas state legislators are back to work as legislative committee meetings commence. Committee meetings, of course, are a critical part of the sausage-making process that produces oodles of new laws every year.
In total, five weeks of committee meetings are scheduled before the actual state legislative session begins March 3. One week before is the bill-filing deadline.
That might be three months away, but lawmakers arent exactly waiting around sipping eggnog, pinky-up.
According to the Florida Senates bill registry, 97 bills have already been filed. Representatives in the state House have filed 168 bills. Some address important issues such as pension reform, anti-discrimination and taxes. Others are more obscure -- though no less important to their respective special interests.
On the heels of a record $77 billion state budget, and a projected $628 million general revenue increase on the horizon, the race is on to file legislation.
Last years session saw 2,827 total bills filed. Not all of them became laws, of course, but that doesnt mean lawmakers werent trying. Here at Watchdog, were trying to do our part to shed light on a few bills that may be overlooked for the bigger ticket items. Heres a look at a few interesting ones currently in the taxpayer queue:
Greyhound racing injuries: Before you start thinking this is a politically motivated bleeding-heart animal rights bill, consider its dubbed the Victoria Q. Gaetz Racing Greyhound Protection Act. Gaetz is the wife of former Senate President Don Gaetz, a conservative Republican from the Florida Panhandle. The bill would require dog tracks to report racing greyhound injuries.
Sexual orientation change efforts: Licensed counselors and therapists, listen up. Trying to change a minors sexual orientation could land you in hot water with the Florida Department of Health. State Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Palm Beach, wants to abolish any attempts by licensed professionals to dissuade young people from pursuing same-sex relationships. The bill does, however, allow for professional support for minors seeking gender transition and identity exploration. But actively trying to change gender identity or gender expression is a no-go. Confused? Its probably safe to assume some members of the Legislature will be, too.
Medical tourism: Without question, Floridas top industry is tourism. With countless beautiful beaches, a mild winter and Disney World, how could it not be? In 2013, more than 94 million people visited the Sunshine State, generating $76 billion in economic activity and accounting for 23 percent of the states sales tax revenues, according to Visit Florida. So why not use taxpayer money to build on that success? Thats at the heart of a new plan to market Floridas health care facilities as tourism destinations. Because, if you have to have surgery, why not make a vacation out of it?
Patriotic film screening: If you call yourself a real American then how could you not support a bill requiring every school board in the state to show eighth-graders and 11th-graders the movie America: Imagine the World Without Her. Dollars to doughnuts, thats how state Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, will pitch this bill. America is indeed a great nation, but if theres extra homework and a quiz attached, that may be grounds for gridlock.
Financial literacy month: If passed, this bill would officially designate April 2015 Financial Literacy Month. Four pages of bill text provide a history lesson dating back to 1787 on why financial ignorance is a bad thing. Driving home the point is a litany of unsettling modern statistics, including $2 trillion in American consumer debt, three in 10 citizens report having no extra cash, and 40 percent of the public grades themselves C, D, or F, when it comes to money. The solution: a one-month declaration that financial literacy is important, especially for school students. No word yet on how much this might cost.
Malt beverages: In Florida, you can buy beer in kegs, in cases, in six-packs and in fancy bottles with cork-stoppers. You also can buy beer at a bar. But if you want to buy 64 ounces of beer in a reusable container known as a growler, youd be breaking the law. But that could soon change. A bill filed in the state House and a companion bill filed in the state Senate would end that strange restriction. The House bill would also make it illegal to use EBT welfare cards to buy alcoholic beverages. Its already illegal to use EBT benefits to buy liquor. As a Watchdog investigation revealed, the state isnt all that serious about enforcement.
State lotteries: Hailing from one of South Floridas most affluent bayfront areas, state Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Coconut Grove, has introduced a trio of gambling-related bills that would apply to the entire state. An advanced deposit wagering bill would allow for an individual to deposit money into an account with a registered gaming outfit that would be used solely for betting. Another bill, simply called gaming, would forbid direct political contributions by gaming permit holders to state elected officials. That measure is dubbed the Public Confidence in Gaming bill. The veteran lawmaker also wants to create a new program to sell lottery tickets online. But, its really about funding education, right?
Lawmakers have until Feb. 25 to file legislative bills.
William Patrick is a reporter for Watchdog.org. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WillPatrick77.