Another setback for the LGBTQ community: Anti-discrimination bills stall in the FL Legislature

By: - February 11, 2020 7:00 am

Rainbow flags with crowd In background during LGBTQ+ Pride Parade. Credit: Getty Images.

Forty percent of Florida lawmakers in the House and Senate are sponsoring legislation to make it illegal for an employer to fire a worker because they are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

But as the 2020 Florida Legislature hits its halfway mark on Wednesday, prospects for the measure remain dim.

In fact, chances are good the measures will not even be heard in a single legislative committee for the fourth year in a row. And it will mark another setback for supporters who have been pushing versions of the bill for more than a decade.

The legislation, known as the “Florida Competitive Workforce Act,” would expand the 1992 state civil rights act to include LGBTQ protections in the workplace, public housing and accommodations.

More than 60 percent of Floridians already have LGBTQ protections as the result of local human rights ordinances passed by 12 counties and 31 cities. But supporters say the protections should be extended statewide.

Many major Florida businesses support the proposal, including Walt Disney World, CSX (transportation company), Darden Restaurants, Florida Blue (health insurance) and Wells Fargo.

“Protecting LGBT people from discrimination is a bipartisan issue,” Tampa Republican Rep. Jackie Toledo said when she filed the House bill in the fall. “This commonsense legislation is pro-business and would boost Florida’s economy.”

Toledo is one of 46 sponsors of the House bill (HB 161). And she is one of 10 Republicans supporting the measure.

In the Senate, all 17 Democratic members are sponsoring the legislation (SB 206). Sen. Anitere Flores of Miami-Dade County is the only Republican sponsor.

But the primary roadblock is in the House, where most subcommittees held their final meetings of the 2020 session last week.

The anti-discrimination bill was never heard by the Civil Justice subcommittee, chaired by Naples Republican Rep. Bob Rommel.

“We just didn’t really have the bandwidth this year to do it,” Rommel told the Florida Phoenix.

But Rommel, a restaurant owner, also said he opposes the legislation.

“I’m not sure that it is really needed, because we have a tremendous amount of anti-discrimination statutes already, federal and state,” he said.

If an LGBTQ employee felt he or she was discriminated against, Rommel said: “I think there are enough attorneys all over the state that are willing to take up that case.”

Rommel’s opposition to the bill reflects the position of the House’s conservative Republican leadership.

“This is not a major problem throughout Florida,” said Republican House Speaker Jose Oliva of Miami-Dade County. “Florida is a tremendously inclusive, immensely diverse state.”

Oliva said it would not be appropriate for an employer to ask workers about their sexual preferences or identities.

“It is very possible that an employer does not know of a person’s sexual orientation,” Oliva said. “Then you could get in an event where somebody could lose their job and then they might claim it is based on something that somebody did not know to begin with.”

Sen. Darryl Rouson, the St. Petersburg Democrat who is sponsoring the Senate version of the bill, said he will continue to press forward with the legislation, despite the House’s resistance.

“I’m still hopeful that something can get worked out where we at least get a hearing in the Senate. And once the bill is heard, we may be able to amend it on to something else,” Rouson told the Florida Phoenix.

“But I can’t control the House. I can only encourage the House, and hopefully a miracle will happen.”

Asked why a bill — which has sponsorship from 64 of the 160 members of the Legislature — can’t even get a hearing, much less win approval, Rouson said: “I’m not sure, because I know there are people in this chamber of goodwill and good heart and they don’t want to see someone discriminated against in the workplace on the basis of race, gender or creed.”

Sen. Ed Hooper, the Pinellas County Republican who heads the Senate Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee, said his committee may still hear Rouson’s anti-discrimination bill. But he also said the fact that the measure appears to be stalled in the House is “a consideration.”

Hooper said he has not taken a position on the bill.

“I would say that I’m not sure that I have been convinced that there’s a problem to solve. There may be. So far, I have not had anyone articulate to me that this is an issue that is occurring in Florida,” Hooper said. “What are we trying to fix?”

LGBTQ advocates said the most significant opposition to the legislation is coming from the House leaders.

“It’s very disappointing that Speaker Oliva holds such deep misconceptions about the importance of and impact of the Competitive Workforce Act,” said Joe Saunders, the senior political director for Equality Florida, an LGBTQ advocacy group.

“Discrimination in Florida for LGBTQ residents and visitors is a real and daily reality — a reality that statewide legislation could and should address,” he said.

“As we enter the final half of session, we hope that the Senate will bring a critical analysis and courage that the House has not,” Saunders said. It’s time to pass the Florida Competitive Workforce Act.”

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Lloyd Dunkelberger
Lloyd Dunkelberger

Lloyd Dunkelberger has been covering Florida government for over three decades. He’s reported and edited in Tallahassee for the New York Times Regional Newspapers group, Florida Politics, and the News Service of Florida. He grew up in Jacksonville and Palm Beach County and got his journalism degree at the University of Florida.