Senators on Monday breathed life into a proposal that bans discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Floridians, just minutes after the bill appeared to be dead.
Supporters will have one more shot Tuesday to pass SB 120, dubbed the Competitive Workforce Act, which would ban discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations based on gender identity or sexual orientation.
The fact a conservative Legislature is considering the measure at all is a testament to the political pressure of businesses across the state who this year signed onto the bill, saying it would help them attract top talent.
The bill failed on a rare tie vote by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday after five Republicans voiced concerns about banning discrimination in public accommodations. Lawmakers resuscitated it and scheduled it for a vote in the same committee at 4 p.m. Tuesday. Sen. Joe Abruzzo, D-Lake Worth, the bill’s sponsor, said he will work overnight to clear up those worries.
“At the end of the day, I do not believe that the senators on this committee want on their permanent record that they voted against civil rights … that they said to every gay person in the state of Florida and across America that you are not accepted here in Florida,” he said.
Senators who opposed the bill focused much of their attention on whether it would allow men who are sexual predators to pose as transgender women and use restrooms or locker rooms intended for women.
But supporters say that concern — which echoed debate in the Legislature last year on forcing transgender people to use the restrooms of the sex indicated on their driver’s license — is moot.
Its goal, in addition to ensuring Floridians aren’t fired from their jobs or denied housing because they are LGBT, is to make the state more appealing to technology businesses and other large companies that want to relocate to the state.
Companies, including Tech Data in Clearwater, signed on with the effort to pass the bill.
“We thrive and rely on being able to attract, retain and develop tech talent in a state where tech talent is a rare commodity and needs all the help it can get,” John Tonnison, Tech Data’s chief information officer, told lawmakers. “Signaling Florida is an open and equality-focused state is an important part, we believe, of developing talent.
Similar bills have been filed repeatedly over the past 10 years, but lawmakers have never even given the issue an open hearing until now.
“I think those are all signs that attitudes are changing, that understandings are changing, that people may be coming around to having a different perspective to what they had 10 or 20 years ago,” Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, said.
Although same-sex marriage was legalized in Florida last January and nationwide last June, LGBT rights continue to be a hot-button topic, particularly for religious reasons. It makes legislation like this controversial, not just among lawmakers but also among the voters whose endorsement they will seek this November.
“This bill does not pass muster. This bill legalizes discrimination based on conscience against people of faith,” said Anthony Verdugo of the Christian Family Coalition of Florida.
The issue has as strong an emotional pull on the other side, as well.
“When (my employer) found out I was transgender, I was fired on the spot, the owner citing his personal belief against transgender people,” said Denise Brogan-Kator, who used to work for a Pinellas County company that she would not name.
Even if it wins approval Tuesday, the bill faces a tough path to make it through, with less than five weeks left in the session.
Already, it has been left for dead in the Judiciary Committee after an initial hearing was postponed two weeks ago because of long-running debate over a bill protecting churches from lawsuits if they refuse to marry gay couples. Attempts by some senators to force a vote that day failed, but Diaz de la Portilla promised to give the anti-discrimination bill a full vetting.
If the bill passes Tuesday, it still needs approval of three more Senate committees, and a similar bill by Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation, has not yet been scheduled for a hearing in the House.
Contact Michael Auslen at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @MichaelAuslen.