During this year’s 60-day legislative session in Tallahassee, lawmakers reacted swiftly to several major public issues spotlighted by the media, desperate parents and grassroots groups.
“Much has gotten done that doesn’t necessarily get done in an election year,” said Mary Ellen Klas, the Miami Herald’s Tallahassee bureau chief. “They have even focused on issues that help those who don’t have a voice.”
One of the first votes by legislative leaders was to toughen laws against violent sexual predators. The bundle of bills were spurred by an investigation by our colleagues at the Sun Sentinel, which found that hundreds of sexual predators had been released only to be convicted of new sex offenses, including child molestation, rape and murder.
Then in the final hours of the session, lawmakers approved major reforms to the state Department of Children and Families, prompted by the Miami Herald’s Innocents Lost series. The Herald documented the deaths of 477 children over six years, exposing systematic flaws in child abuse investigations and the inadequate response to troubled families by the state’s safety net agency.
Gov. Rick Scott initially proposed increased funding to DCF after the Miami Herald revealed last summer that more than 40 children — known to DCF — had died because of abuse and neglect. But key portions were added in response to the gaps exposed by reporters Carol Marbin Miller and Audra D. S. Burch.
“The legislators have so many issues they could focus on,” Klas said. “There is a constant battle for their attention. When the media writes about something, it brings focus on an issue and it educates them. That is power here in Tallahassee.”
Grass-roots movements also had legislative impact.
Responding to a determined group of immigrant rights supporters, lawmakers approved a bill that allows undocumented immigrants — the “Dreamers” brought to this country by their parents — to pay in-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities. Herald reporter Kathleen McGrory chronicled the story from the beginning of session.
And what at first appeared an unlikely attempt to pass a medical marijuana bill was spurred by parents whose children suffer from chronic epileptic seizures. Legislators, many of them conservative, were moved by the stories of families seeking a last-chance remedy for their kids.
“It’s easy nowadays to be cynical about our elected leaders, but clearly lawmakers do listen when the public, whether through protest or the press, speaks out,” said Herald State/Politics Editor Sergio Bustos. “That is certainly what happened this year in Tallahassee.”