Lots of chances wasted during the 2014 legislative session

May 28, 2014 

As dust settles on the 2014 Florida Legislative Session, the verdict seems to be: Well, it could have been worse.

Compared to recent years, which saw a nearly unprecedented assault on the rights of state workers, poor people, women, doctors and voters, this session seemed downright tame.

Whether humbled by court defeats striking down laws they enacted or by recognition that eroding Floridians' Constitutional rights isn't good election-year politics, this year the Legislature seems to have taken on a different tone.

That's not to say it was all good. "Do no harm" is not enough when there are urgent problems that need correction and opportunities to make things better. Unfortunately, the Legislature let many of those opportunities slip by.

The most discussed missed opportunity -- a deliberately ignored opportunity, really -- was the refusal to even consider any strategy, including using federal funds to expand Medicaid, to provide affordable access to the basic health-care insurance that many of us take for granted.

But there were many missed opportunities to directly address pressing civil liberties problems, including bills that would have reformed Florida's broken juvenile-justice system. For too long, leaders in our cities and schools have relied on criminal-justice solutions as a response to the behavioral problems of children. These "solutions" have funneled young people out of classrooms and into jail cells.

But young people aren't adults, and caging them for behavior problems as if they are denies them future opportunities and increases the likelihood they'll offend again. Sometimes looking at the criminal-justice system for a solution only makes a problem worse.

During the legislative session, lawmakers had an opportunity to make it easier for all Floridians to register to vote and participate in our democracy. But a bill that would have brought Florida into the 21st Century by joining other states that allow online voter registration went nowhere because legislative leaders decided not to tackle reform.

And speaking of bringing Florida into the 21st Century, a bill that would have provided basic civil-rights protection in employment, education and housing by prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity or expression never got a hearing. That bill was sponsored by state Rep. Holly Raschein, Republican from Key Largo.

Legislators should have passed the bill ensuring that all Florida drivers, including immigrant students who need to drive to college classes or adults who need to get to work to provide for their families, can obtain a driver's license. This year, like with so many other opportunities, the bill was not even considered.

If legislators are returning to their districts trying to make the case that the Legislature has turned over a new leaf, they'll have to address the many missed opportunities to protect Floridians' individual liberties while they were in Tallahassee.

Howard Simon is executive director and Baylor Johnson is media relations manager of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

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