Black legislators push key initiatives, but face hurdles in GOP-controlled Legislature

By: - February 3, 2022 5:34 pm

State Rep. Ramon Alexander, a Black Caucus member in the FL Legislature, has faced tensions over legislation limiting how FL students learn about race in America. Credit: FL House of Representatives.

Black state lawmakers on Thursday unveiled key legislative initiatives aimed at improving health and safety and other conditions in communities of color, but most of the bills haven’t gained traction in the GOP-controlled Legislature.

The Florida Legislative Black Caucus, comprised almost exclusively of Democrats, released a report Thursday outlining priority legislation in the Florida House and Senate in the 2022 session, focusing on health, safety, prosperity and pride.

The Caucus wants to to tackle community violence, increase access to affordable health care and housing, recognize Juneteenth Day as a paid state holiday and boost scholarship funds for students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities –where some schools recently faced bomb threats.

But as Black Caucus members continue to push a variety of bills to advance in the legislative process, “not a single one has made it to the House or Senate floor for a full vote,” according to a press release from the Caucus. Overall, at least 59 bills related to issues affecting Black residents have been filed, according to the press release.

“As we mark the beginning of Black History Month, there is no better way to honor the achievements of Black Americans than to recognize the contributions of Black-sponsored legislation offering meaningful solutions to critical problems Floridians face,” state Sen. Bobby Powell, a Democrat representing part of Palm Beach County, said in a written statement.

Powell is also the Black Caucus chairman.

“Our legislation addresses everything from reforming criminal justice, like stopping the ease with which non-violent children are thrown into the adult prison system, to building more affordable housing. Our bills address the real-life struggles Floridians confront on a daily basis. They deserve a hearing and a vote,” Powell said.

For instance, members of the Black Caucus are promoting efforts to block citizen arrests in Florida. SB 1856 is a bill related to criminal justice that would prohibit a “private person who is not a law enforcement officer from arresting another person for any violation of state law,” according to the bill language. However, the legislation hasn’t been heard in any committees since it was filed the first day of the 2022 session.

State Sen. Randolph Bracy, an Orlando Democrat, has been pushing for the state to recognize holidays that commemorate Black history. He filed SB 1164 to designate Juneteenth Day as a paid holiday for employees working in state agencies, but that bill so far hasn’t moved in the legislative process. (Earlier this week, Bracy said he had tested positive for COVID-19, according to Florida Politics; he had been fully vaccinated and had gotten a booster shot.)

Still, a bill backed by the Black Caucus related to criminal justice for women in correctional institutions has been making progress in the session. That bill, outlined in the Caucus’ report, is SB 630, which “creates Ava’s Law, requiring that every female arrested and not released on bond within 72 hours after arrest be administered a pregnancy test within specified time frame upon her request.”

The bill sponsor, state Sen. Shevrin Jones, a Democrat representing parts of Broward and Miami-Dade counties, previously said that SB 630 was influenced following Erica Thompson losing her baby last year after giving birth in an Alachua County jail because “staff ignored her.”

Meanwhile, some Black legislators have expressed concerns about bills pushed by GOP members of the Legislature that would threaten voting rights and other issues, resulting in emotional debates at committee meetings. As previously reported by the Florida Phoenix, tensions have erupted from state Reps. Ramon Alexander and Kevin Chambliss over legislation that would limit how students learn about race in America.

“The majority of Floridians are not clamoring for more voting rights restrictions, or government dictating what they can say, what they can question, and what they can learn about their history,” Powell said in a press statement.

“Yet here we are. Legislation focused on ginning up the culture wars is moving full steam ahead while bills offering real help for real people are ignored. This has to change.”

The Florida Legislative Black Caucus represents about 16 percent of the state House and Senate chambers combined, slightly below Florida’s Black population, based on U.S. Census data. All members are Democrats except for one member who is the lone Black Republican.

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Issac Morgan
Issac Morgan

Issac Morgan is a 2009 graduate of Florida A&M University's School of Journalism, and a proud native of Tallahassee. He has covered city council and community events at the Gadsden County Times, worked as a sports news assistant at the Tallahassee Democrat, a communications specialist for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and as a proofreader at the Florida Law Weekly.