The 2019 legislative session hasn’t even begun, but the mea culpas are already rolling in.
House Speaker José Oliva sparked a firestorm in a discussion with South Florida TV journalist Jim DeFede that went viral Thursday.
Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, repeatedly referred to pregnant women as “host bodies” when asked about the perennially controversial topic of abortion.
The conservative lawmaker is a fierce small-government proponent who believes people should be able to make their own decisions, he told DeFede, a veteran Miami reporter who works for the station CBS4.
But when asked about a slew of bills backed by anti-abortion legislators, the House leader said abortion is a more complicated issue because “there are two lives involved.”
“It’s a complex issue because one has to think, well there’s a host body and that host body has to have a certain amount of rights because at the end of the day, it is that body that that carries this entire other body to term. But there is an additional life there,” said Oliva, who used the term “host body” five times during the interview.
Asked if the term was demeaning to women, Oliva said he was using a “technical” term to be accurate.
But the Republican leader’s comments quickly went viral, drawing rebukes from critics including Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo, who blasted out a statement calling his words “hurtful, dehumanizing, and misogynistic.”
“You’d expect to hear this offensive language in the Handmaid’s Tale --- not from the speaker of the Florida House of Representatives. With the start of the legislative session just days away, Speaker Oliva has insulted Florida women --- and made clear he will not be their champion in Tallahassee,” she said.
Friday morning, Oliva issued an apology elaborating on his parlance and acknowledging he made a mistake.
“It was an attempt to use terminology found in medical ethics writings with the purpose of keeping the discussion dispassionate. The reaction undoubtedly shows it had the exact opposite effect. I apologize for having caused offense, my aim was the contrary,” he said in a statement.
Abortion is society’s “greatest challenge,” he said, adding, “both mother and child have rights and the extent and balance of those rights remain in question.” Oliva again apologized and said he regretted that his words had become a distraction.
But the speaker’s concession wasn’t enough for abortion-rights supporters.
“Access to a popularly supported and constitutionally guaranteed form of health care is hardly our society’s greatest challenge; perhaps climate change or gun violence, but to characterize access to abortion as our greatest challenge is yet another reason why people don’t want politicians interfering in the first place," Amy Weintraub, reproductive rights program director for Progress Florida, said.
WELCOME TO THE FOLD
The kerfuffle over Oliva’s remarks came just days before the advent of the 60-day legislative session Tuesday.
The Sunshine State has undergone a lot of changes in the prolonged break since the last time House and Senate leaders dropped the white hanky signifying the end of the 2018 session.
At the top of the list is a new chief executive, Gov. Ron DeSantis, who will deliver his first State of the State address on opening day and who’s already set himself apart from his predecessor, former governor-turned-U.S. Sen. Rick Scott.
DeSantis is poised to test his influence with an extensive agenda heavily focused on the environment and expanding school choice.
Many people expected DeSantis to govern as the staunch conservative who parlayed his close ties to President Donald Trump into a November victory. But two months into his term, some of the governor’s proposals have drawn bipartisan praise.
The Republican governor has assembled an administration with former powerful lawmakers in key posts that could help some of his policy priorities.
Former House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who now serves as education commissioner, will advocate for the governor’s education agenda, which includes a $422 million teacher-bonus package, changes to a state scholarship program for bullied students and creating a new voucher program that would allow low-income students to use taxpayer-funded scholarships to go to private schools.
Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nunez, a former high-ranking House member, also will be a powerful voice in the administration, and DeSantis has appointed former Rep. Halsey Beshears to run the Department of Business and Professional Regulation and former Rep. Jared Moskowitz, a Democrat, to head the Division of Emergency Management.
“DeSantis seems to value legislators and our input more than his predecessor. ... There’s just a general good faith and good will,” Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said.
But don’t expect the Legislature to roll over for DeSantis, Galvano said.
“What the governor does is not going to be rubber-stamped here in the Senate, and vice versa,” he said. “It is a check and balance.”
CLOUDS CLEAR FOR POT PATIENTS
Florida policymakers readily admit they’ve taken baby steps when it comes to dealing with pot, both before and after voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment legalizing medical marijuana.
Even a new governor --- and with him, an administration that’s no longer hostile to the concept of cannabis as a cure --- might not change that, at least during the legislative session that begins next week.
The Republican-dominated Legislature, however, is on target to make one high-profile expansion to the state’s cannabis laws.
Responding to an ultimatum issued by DeSantis, lawmakers are almost certain to repeal Florida’s ban on smoking medical marijuana. If they don’t act by March 15, the Republican governor has threatened to drop the state’s appeal of a court ruling that said the ban runs afoul of the 2016 constitutional amendment.
Over the past month, House and Senate leaders have drawn closer to reaching consensus on a repeal, but two differences remain.
The House proposal (HB 7015) would allow dispensaries to sell pre-rolled marijuana cigarettes, but smoking would be off-limits to patients under age 18.
Unlike the House version, the Senate measure (SB 182) would require marijuana operators to sell at least one type of pre-rolled cigarette and would allow them to sell other whole-flower products. It would also let patients buy smoking equipment at other retail outlets, such as smoke shops. The Senate plan would let minors smoke medical marijuana if the patients get a second opinion from a pediatrician.
The House and Senate bills are headed to the chamber floors for votes after the session begins.
DeSantis told reporters he’s “talked about some broad strokes with folks” but hasn’t seen the legislation yet. He said he’s “willing to sign things if I can have good faith that it’s implementing the will of the voters” fairly.
“It may not mean I agree philosophically on every little nook and cranny, but we’ve got to meet the constitutional threshold. So if their bill does that, then I’ll look at it. So we’ll see how it shakes out, but both leaders know my position on that,” DeSantis, a Harvard Law School graduate, told reporters Tuesday.
Galvano and Oliva, whose fortune was made in the cigar business but who has been reluctant to repeal the ban, have deferred to DeSantis, setting aside objections about a paucity of research and concerns about the ill effects of smoking.
“I want to be able to say this is not going to be something that the courts are going to overturn. People voted. We’re going to implement. And then we’re going to move on,” DeSantis said.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Granting a request by Gov. Ron DeSantis, the Florida Supreme Court on Monday impaneled a statewide grand jury to investigate whether school districts are complying with mandatory safety requirements following last February’s mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “I regret my wording has distracted from the issue. My apologies to all." --- House Speaker José Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, apologizing for referring to pregnant women as “host bodies” during a discussion about abortion.