Bipartisan Guide to Ridiculous Legislation: Florida House passes offshore oil drilling bill

In my few years as a reporter, I’ve followed four different state legislatures — not necessarily reporting on them for the publications I worked for, but keeping an eye for my local readers. And in those years, I’ve never seen a politically-motivated “fuck you” like HB 1219.

Originally proposed by Republican Charles Van Zant and re-written by his colleague Rep. Dean Cannon, this bill would allow oil and gas drilling three miles or more from Florida’s coast. Taking advantage of President Bush’s relaxation of a federal law that prohibited such drilling, if this bill passes the Florida Senate, we could begin to see rigs right off our favorite beaches. Particulary insidious, the revamped version of this bill was released just 10 days before the session is to end.

I’m not going to get into the huge issue of drilling for oil domestically. But there are significant questions about how drilling so close to Florida’s shores would affect our tourist economy and it does neither side justice to bring up such an important bill so close to the end of session. (I think the term is “railroading” a bill through, right?) Obviously, these lawmakers are not responding to a crisis, but trying to send a (right wing talk show-inspired) political message to the nation. That’s irresponsible to Florida’s citizens.

In fact, a handful of Republicans — all from the Tampa Bay area — opposed the bill. Big shout-outs to Bill Galvano of Bradenton, Jim Frishe of St. Petersburg and Ed Hooper of Clearwater.

Unfortunately, their opposition wasn’t enough. Luckily, the Senate does not seemed poised to take up this cause:

“I’m not receptive to it,” said Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach. “That is a really significantly important issue and one that I think would, frankly at our end, would take some serious review.”

Rating: 5 bong hits bongbongbongbongbong

Bipartisan Guide to Ridiculous Legislation: Law would give campus police more power to arrest off-campus

First off, I want to make this clear: I am in no way demeaning campus police officers. God knows we could’ve used more of them at Virginia Tech. And I’m also not insinuating that campus cops are somehow less worthy than regular police officers. They just have different jobs and jurisdictions.

That said, SB 554 is completely out-of-bounds.

This bill, proposed by Republican Charlie Dean (who has some other questionable ideas this session), would give special powers to state university police officers to make arrests off-campus. And I’m not just talking about arresting some guy with a gun across the street from the school — which we could all agree makes sense — but also more simple offenses like traffic violations.

Already, some city and county law enforcement agencies have “mutual aid agreements” with campus police that give them some authority outside of campus. For example, I’ve seen USF police at DUI checkpoints along Fowler Avenue working alongside the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office and Tampa Police Department.

But this law would allow campus police to conduct speed trap operations by themselves off campus. The law would also give them the authority to, say, raid a party at an apartment complex near the campus. Critics of this law should ask: what happens when campus police are spread thin around a neighborhood and not patrolling the university?

Rating: 3 bong hits bongbongbong

(Read about my rating system here.)

Bipartisan Guide to Ridiculous Legislation: Lawmakers want the sun out of the sunshine laws

I’m a journalist and I love public records.

That’s my bias.

But even non-journalists should love public records, too. Without public records, you couldn’t find out how much your house sold for in the past. You wouldn’t know if there is a robber or rapist in your neighborhood. And you wouldn’t know if your child’s teacher had some unsavory past. Without public records, you would have no way of knowing if that nice mayoral candidate took money from developers or not. You wouldn’t know about the huge skyscraper or strip mall being planned for that vacant lot across the street. Without public records … you get the idea. Public records are not just the tools journalists use to get you important information — in many ways, public records are the tools for keeping this democracy, well, democratic.

So why is it that every year the lawmakers up in Tallahassee try to chip away at the Sunshine Laws little by little, hoping we won’t notice?

This session, several legislators from both sides of the aisle are attempting to gain several exemptions to public record laws. A few have decent, if wrong, arguments surrounding them; other bills are completely ridiculous.

Continue reading

Bipartisan Guide to Ridiculous Legislation: Denying financial aid to visa-carrying students

Most states, with the exception of maybe Vermont, revel in their diversity. It’s a quality that state leaders sell to the citizenry, prospective businesses and the federal government. Although many institutions strive for more diversity, none seek it out more than universities and colleges. Diversity in the student population is a major selling point for institutions of higher learning.

That’s why SB 1294 is such a surprising bill to propose.

This law would prohibit any university from using state funds (directly or indirectly) to provide financial assistance to students with a F-1 or M-1 visa. The legislation, introduced by Ronda Storms (of course!), is couched in saving money and providing more assistance to Florida residents seeking a higher education. The irony is the bill would also require universities and colleges to provide a detailed account of where their funds go every year, which would create another layer of bureaucracy and erode any money saved.

Rating: 2 bong hits bongbong

(Read about my rating system here.)

Bipartisan Guide to Ridiculous Legislation: Expansion of warrantless arrest laws

Next up on my running series about the absurd bills debated in the Florida Legislature is SB 1428. This bipartisan bill, sponsored by Republican Thad Altman in the Senate and Democrat Adam Fetterman in the House, would expand warrantless arrests in Florida.

What are warrantless arrests? The definition is self-explanatory: any arrest without a warrant. Obviously, officers arrest people every day without a warrant. The reason? Most state laws allow police to make a warrantless arrests if 1) the criminal act is a felony, 2) the officer sees the crime committed or, in some cases, if probable cause is obvious (like if an officer sees a huge stash of cocaine in the seat of your car).

Warrantless arrests aren’t necessarily bad. In cases of murder or armed robbery, for example, you need to get the suspect off the street immediately. A case can be argued for some misdemeanors, too, like domestic violence. But some states have gone a little overboard and given officers the right to conduct warrantless arrests on all misdemeanors without any requirements. For example, the testimony of a citizen could be enough to garner an arrest.

SB 1428 would expand warrantless arrest laws to include the unlawful public exhibition of sexual organs and DUI. The first part seems OK; just think of some perv in front of a school. Just because the perv might be clothed when officers arrive, you would like the police to have enough probable cause to haul him away just by the words of a few students who saw him do his dirty deed. But warrantless arrest laws and DUI could have larger implications.

I’ll let Frankie the Law Dog explain:

The current version of the warrentless arrest statute allows officers to arrest a person on misdemeanor DUI without a warrant in only three circumstances:  (1) when the officer witnesses each element of a prima facie case of DUI, (2) when the officer is investigating an accident and develops probable cause to charge DUI, or (3) under the so-called “fellow officer” rule – when one officer calls on another officer for assistance and the combined observations of the two officers together establish probable cause for the arrest.

Importantly, under the current version of the statute, the fellow officer rule does not impute the knowledge of citizen informants to law enforcement officers.  However, if HB 793 becomes law, any citizen could walk up to an officer and relate the commission of misdemeanor DUI by someone, and the officer would have probable cause to arrest.

I can think of a dozen instances where “citizens” could unfairly blame DUI on someone. DUI is a serious crime, no doubt. But just like sex offenses, a DUI arrest — even if the suspect is not ultimately convicted — can have major implications on someone’s professional and family life. Shouldn’t we keep the tough warrantless arrest safeguards we have now?

(P.S. I fully admit I don’t have a law degree and I’m open for debate on this one from someone who does.)

Rating: 1 bong hit bong

Bipartisan Guide to Ridiculous Legislation: Florida lawmakers want to ban novelty lighters

lighters

There are few bills that reach the absolute absurdity of SB 806, a proposed law banning lighters that resemble “a cartoon character, animal, toy, gun, watch, musical instrument, vehicle, food or beverage, that plays sound or musical notes, or that displays flashing lights or other visual effects.”

No, really — that’s a quote from the bill, which is sponsored by Republicans Senator Lee Constantine and House Rep. Scott Plakon.

But what’s really ludicrous is Florida isn’t the only state trying to enact novelty lighter bans. All across the country, state legislatures are lining up to snuff them out. Even at the national level, politicians are waging a war against lighters; this year, senators Ron Wyden, Susan Collins and Chris Dodd introduced the “Protect Children from Dangerous Lighters Act.”

The impetus for the bill is, of course, children — children who (somehow) grab a hold of these lighters and start setting people aflame. Of course, alternatives to this bill could be banning kids under 18 from buying any lighter, or — and I admit this one is a little crazy — calling on parents to take responsibility for their kids.

And I always heard Republicans were against larger government intrusions into our lives …

Rating: 5 bong hits bongbongbongbongbong

(Read about my rating system here.)

(Photo courtesy of New York state’s Department of State)

Bipartisan Guide to Ridiculous Legislation: Ronda Storms hates public art

stormsThat State Senator Ronda Storms is a very talented woman. I mean, what other Florida politician can create such disdain among large swaths of the state’s population? She’s pissed off gays, First Amendment champions, librarians, science teachers and now, art lovers.

SB 1104 seeks to repeal the 30-year-old Art in State Public Buildings Program, a state provision that requires a small percentage of money for public buildings go into artwork for said structures. In an interview with a Tampa Tribune reporter, Storms says the bill is only fair while the state deals with a tough budget crisis:

“While I certainly believe art and culture provide wonderful benefits to Florida, I do not believe that at this time most Floridians want to continue this luxury when people are losing their jobs and seniors and children are losing health services.”

But is the outlay of money for public art really harming the state’s coffers? The Tribune had some interesting findings:

Under the program, the cost of the art can’t be more than half of 1 percent of the total cost of the building or $100,000, whichever is less. The average the state paid for a work of art was $7,955. The state spent a total of $406,725 for public art in 2005; $294,069 in 2006; and $701,389 in 2007.

The statute applies only to buildings with public access. It excludes prisons, secure areas, maintenance sheds and other structures the public normally would not visit.

Under the statute, more than 1,000 works of art have been purchased and installed in state buildings, including universities, state parks, Department of Transportation district offices and state agency buildings.

Just like parks, recreational facilities and libraries, art adds a quality of life to a city. Considering public art money is a fraction of Florida’s budget, and may even generate money by impressing tourists and possible new businesses, this bill is positively ridiculous.

That must be why Storms recently added a sunset clause to the bill that would allow the public art program to return in 2011. A huge outcry among art lovers probably prompted that change of heart. Maybe repeated calls and e-mails to her office (and to your own state lawmaker) would nudge her away from the bill altogether.

(By the way, the House sponsor is Republican Rich Glorioso from Plant City. I don’t want him to get off the hook either. Contact his office here.)

Rating: 4 bong hits bongbongbongbong

Bipartisan Guide to Ridiculous Legislation: More bad drug laws

Remember George Orwell’s 1984? Great book with a grave message: Watch out for the thought police.

“Thoughtcrime” comes to mind when I read SB 236.

deanProposed by Democrat Dave Aronberg and Republicans Charles Dean and Carey Baker, this law would increase the penalties of stealing from utilities if the stolen power is used to grow marijuana. (Marijuana is specifically mentioned in the bill, though the proposed law could be used for other controlled substances.) Currently, anyone who steals from the utilities is guilty of a misdemeanor (depending on the amount stolen) and must pay back the power company. But if this bill passes, the intent to grow weed would increase punishment to a third-degree felony, a possible five-year prison sentence.

This bill comes as Florida deals with an ever-growing (ha!) amount of grow houses. In fact, as I’ve reported before, Florida is ranked No. 2 in the U.S. for marijuana cultivation, right behind California.

Without even getting into the debate over our wacked-out drug laws, and without pointing out that other states are loosening drug laws as Florida cracks down, I don’t see how stealing electricity for growing marijuana is any worse than, say, stealing electricity to create fake money, or stealing natural gas so you can cook the materials needed for explosives. Should we have subsets of the utility theft code for every stinkin’ intent for stealing power? Ridiculous.

Even if you don’t have the libertarian view on marijuana, why not up the utility theft penalties for everyone?

Accordingly, I give this bill a rating of 3 bong hits.

bongbongbong

(Read about my rating system here.)

Bipartisan Guide to Ridiculous Legislation: Illegal alien or undocumented worker? Dictionary be damned, a Florida Senator decides

wilsonFrederica Wilson seems like a nice lady. I mean, come on: Who cannot like a state senator who wears a hat like that for her official photo?

Sen. Wilson has some admirable bills in this year’s session, too. She’s a former teacher and big champion of their causes. She’s compassionate about the woes of the homeless. Hell, she even wants to make sure inmates have condoms so they don’t contract HIV in the clink. Whether you are liberal or conservative, agree or disagree, you have to admit her heart seems in the right place with those type of bills.

But then there’s her repeated attempts to pass a bill like SB 74, a law that would prohibit the term “illegal alien” in any state documents.

Illegal immigration is definitely a hot topic in this country. Intelligent people have made strong arguments against and in defense of the issue. By the same token, ignorant people have used the controversy as a wedge issue. No matter your political persuasions, you cannot argue that the vast majority of people coming into this country illegally are good, hard-working individuals who just want a better life. It’s also hard to argue against how much strain they put on certain communities.

So with an issue so complex, so deserving of intelligent debate, Sen. Wilson wants to argue about the words we use to describe them? Illegal alien or undocumented worker — it may be semantics, but there’s a reason why it’s used officially both at the state and federal level. Exhibit A: The dictionary.

Illegal. adjective. 1. Forbidden by law or statute.

Alien. noun. 1. resident born in or belonging to another country who has not acquired citizenship by naturalization.

Undocumented worker sounds real nice, but it’s not entirely accurate. What if the person crossing over is the wife of a factory worker with a 2-month-old child who plans to become a stay-at-home mom? That woman could not be considered a worker, right? And what if they do have documents, but the papers are fake? Undocumented worker is a noun meant to elicit political support. But that’s hardly a reason to put it on official documents.

I understand Wilson’s argument: How can you call people illegal and children aliens? But with all the other woes in our state, politicians’ priorities should be on fixing these problems, not legislating political correctness.

Rating: 2 bong hitsbongbong

(Read about my rating system here.)

Bipartisan Guide to Ridiculous Legislation: The return of the saggy pants bill

1317976035_be76e6b4fa_mOh, Gary Siplin of Orlando: Did you not learn anything from last legislative session? Did you not realize that legislating underpants makes you, and the rest of us, look like reactionary fools with misplaced priorities?

Apparently not. Because Gary Siplin (D-Orlando) reintroduced the Saggy Pants Bill.

siplin*Slaps forehead*

Yes, our esteemed Democratic senator from Central Florida is at it again. SB 390 would prohibit students from exposing below the waist underwear while on the grounds of a public school.

I will give Siplin credit on one thing though — this year his penalties are a little more sane. Last year, he proposed arresting said youth rocking out with their drawers out. This year, small kids in big pants will receive a verbal warning for the first offense, suspension for three days on the second and a five-day suspension for a third offense.

But, as I noted last year, this law is not needed:

Besides the dubiousness of the state regulating local dress codes, Siplin fails to recognize that school districts already have dress code requirements that prohibit saggy pants.

Oh, Gary Siplin, what’s next for you? Short skirts? Stinky socks? Mandating clean underwear (in case of an accident)?!

Rating: 5 bong hits bongbongbongbongbong

(Read about my rating system here. Photo courtesy of Malingering/Flickr)

The Bipartisan Guide to Ridiculous Legislation is back!

552566043_3339b39c4f

The Florida Legislature is halfway through its annual session and, as the maxim goes, “no man’s life, liberty or property is safe while the (Florida) Legislature is in session.” (Thanks, Mark Twain!)

I would add “no man’s sanity is safe either.”

The main word this session is “deregulation.” From suspending impact fees to giving telephone and power companies carte blanche over our pocketbooks, Florida’s politicians are bending backwards to try and appease business interests in the hopes of turning around our desperate economic situation. At least that’s the party line; the real reason could be opportunism.

Luckily, several journalists are reporting on these important bills, including Howard Troxler for the St. Petersburg Times. WMNF’s Rob Lorei interviewed Troxler yesterday for his “Radioactivity” program and I highly recommend downloading the podcast (it’s not available yet, but keep looking). Even as reporters’ ranks dwindle, some good work is coming out of the state’s major papers on these topics.

But what I don’t hear a lot about are these little bills that may not affect all Floridians, but could make lives miserable for a certain few. These are bills filed by legislators who missed the boat on real reforms and instead throw out politically-charged manifestos intended to get them re-elected. Or in some cases, perhaps these politicians are just insane.

Last year, while working at Creative Loafing, I profiled a number of a bills that just defied logic. At the top of my list was the law banning Truck Nutz. In fact, I rated all the other pieces of ridiculous legislation with one to five “Truck Nutz.” The law requiring the right amount of TP in public restrooms earned two “Nutz,” while the saggy pants bill earned five.

This year’s list of bills does not look much better. So, I’m bringing back the “Bipartisan Guide to Ridiculous Legislation.” There’s no Truck Nutz bill this session, so I’m going with another absurd proposed law: Rep. Darryl Rouson’s “bong tax.” I won’t go into the specifics here — I reported on this bill right before my lay-off — but basically Rep. Rouson wants to put a heavy tax on all the headshops in the state. So, every bill I outline here will be rated from one “bong hit” to five, with five representing the most stoned bills coming out this session.

For the next week, I’ll post a few outrageous bills each day. This is an important time for citizens; next week, many legislators will go home for Easter and put many of these bills on hold until they return. This is your chance to send letters and e-mails letting your representative and tell them you don’t appreciate their precious (and paid-for) time wasted on stupid legislation. Yes, laws like the bong tax might get us on the Daily Show, but they don’t solve our state’s problems.

(Photo courtesy of whizchickenonabun/Flickr)

Proposed Florida law seeks drug testing for the unemployed …

statesenatorbennett. . . Because, obviously, everyone on unemployment in this bountiful economy are unmotivated, crack-smoking losers.

SB 2062 would require Floridians collecting unemployment benefits to undergo random drug testing. To top it off, they would have to pay for their own test.

This slap in the face comes courtesy of Florida State Senator Michael S. Bennett, a Republican from Bradenton. He’s 64, Baptist and hails from the Midwest. Besides finding ways to demean laid-off workers, Bennett enjoys long walks on Siesta Key, gutting smart growth initiatives, running retirees out of trailer parks for fun and profit, and — well, looky here — taking campaign donations from a company that sells drug testing kits (h/t to the Raw Story for pointing that out).

In addition to the obvious constitutional issues, Bennett’s law faces some problems of practicality. Even though workers would pay for their own drug tests, our cash-strapped state would need to invest in clinicians and a whole new bureaucracy inside the Agency for Workforce Innovation. But most of all, SB 2062 (HB 969 in the Florida House) furthers the humiliation many workers feel after losing their jobs.

In the words of Bill Piper, a director for the Drug Policy Alliance: “. . . to require someone to pass a drug test to get their unemployment insurance after they’ve been laid off is pretty cruel — and to require them to pay for the test themselves is even more cruel.”

The complete outrageousness of this bill leads me to wonder what Bennett and Co. are smoking up there in Tallahassee. In the interest of finding out what that substance may be, I propose a compromise:

Under only one circumstance should SB 2062 become law — if an amendment is added that requires the random drug testing of state lawmakers.

I nominate Bennett to take the first one.

Developers lobby to dispute county impact fees

There’s an oft-used addage in community activism thrown out by pessimistic folks of both political persuasions: “You can’t fight City Hall.” This nugget of civil wisdom comes from the belief that taking on your city government is cumbersome, complicated, tiring and, ultimately, expensive.

After all, city governments seem to have a limitless supply of money to throw at any lawsuit. It’s money from taxpayers, and by extension, money from the person seeking justice. In short, they get you coming and going.

But I think there is an even better truism for 21st century community activism: “You can’t fight Big Business, not even City Hall.” My reasoning? For as much money as a city can throw at a lawsuit, Big Business seems to throw even more and it sticks better. In Florida, I’m specifically refering to developers. Any local community activist knows that developers and their lawyers not only spend big bucks on any challenge to their plans, but they buy politicians as well.

This is why House Bill 227 is a real problem for community activists. Sponsored by four House representatives (including local Rep. Ed Hooper from Clearwater), HB 227 (SB 580 in the Senate) seeks to allow developers to challenge impact fees imposed by local governments.

What are impact fees? They are imposed by local governments to hold developers partially responsible for the infrustructure needs brought on by the developer’s project. Impact fees typically go to building or widening roads, installing more traffic lights and sometimes building a school. Community activists and governments see the fees as promoting smart growth. Some developers see it as unnecessary taxation.

Most county governments have some sort of impact fee, though many times the amount has lagged behind present-day costs. So, during the nationwide housing boom, many counties raised their impact fees. Some developers have sued.

In these legal challenges, HB 227 would put more of a burden on city governments to prove their impact fee assessments are correct. It gets a little complicated, but the Florida League of Cities has a good overview:

SB 580 (Haridopolos), HB 227 (Aubuchon) change the burden of proof in a legal challenge to impact fees and remove any judicial deference to the local government’s decision. The bills were amended in committee to provide that the government has the burden of proof in an impact fee challenge.

An impact fee ordinance is a legislative decision that should be accorded the same level of deference given other legislative decisions – including decisions of the state legislature to impose fees and taxes. The change proposed by these bills means that even if reasonable minds could differ about the wisdom of the legislative decision, the city could lose the challenge. Neither bill proposes to change the burden of proof with respect to any fees or tax levied by the State of Florida, or any permit conditions imposed by the State of Florida or its agencies – all of which are legislative decisions.

But HB 227 isn’t the only bill involving impact fees moving through the Florida Legislature. SB 630 wants to put an outright moratorium on impact fees, something Hillsborough County is already looking at. For more on the complete idiocy of that move, read Mariella Smith’s recent blog post: “Your county’s solution to the housing glut: more houses.”

The South loses again (but this time Confederates sue)

FloridaConfederateFlagThis was a small story early in the year, but garnered few headlines. After all, with the huge Confederate flag at I-4 and I-75, Tampans are probably tired of hearing about the Civil War.

But, alas, the Sons of Confederate Veterans are angry again. This time over license plates.

Last year, the SCV petitioned the Florida Legislature to approve a license plate bearing the Confederate flag. They found a sponsor — Panhandle Rep. Donald Brown, who, by the way, looks like a 19th century throwback himself — and the race was on to join other Deep South states with similar license plates. The money would have funded “educational and historical programs” from the SCV.

The bill never made it out of committee. So, in January, the SCV sued the state of Florida.

Talk about sore losers!

But, what can you expect from a group still angry over the Civil War, right?

In a press release, the SCV says it “did everything that was required by Florida Statute to have the Confederate Heritage plate approved by the Legislature and we were not given the time of day by the Florida
Legislature.”

They are being represented by the Rutherford Institute, whose biggest claim to fame was representing Paula Jones in her suit against former President Bill Clinton. Big players, these guys.

But lest you think this was some crazy conspiracy on the part of intolerant legislators who HATE Confederate veterans, puppies, the Gandy beach, and all things sacred … the SCV wasn’t the only organization snubbed by lawmakers. Last year, a number of organizations petitioned for their own license plates: Tennis players, Christians, horse lovers. Choctaw Indians wanted free license plates, but they didn’t get their wish either. Considering the U.S. government committed genocide against them, I’d think they’d deserve a few free license plates. But no, and surprise, they aren’t suing over it.

Get the full text of the federal lawsuit here.