The Florida Legislature was in session at the Government Services Building in Bunnell this morning.
Sort of: 18 students from Flagler Palm Coast and Matanzas High School took their seats in places usually occupied by city and county commissioners, and school board members, and each in turn proposed a bill as if they were legislators in Tallahassee. They had one actual legislator among them: Rep. Travis Hutson, the freshman House member whose district includes all of Flagler County, and whose idea this was.
Students would then vote on the most compelling bill, and hand it to Hutson to take to Tallahassee, where Hutson plans to file it officially (after vetting it with all “interested parties,” he said).
“You have seen through your own committees how tough it is to choose your own legislation,” Hutson told the students, whose appearance this morning was the final step in a process that began weeks ago. Some 720 bills get filed in every annual session, but only 100 laws go into effect, he said. “You’re finding out it’s not that easy. You all had really, really good ideas,” but the winnowing process is tough.
The proposals were wide-ranging: stiffening animal abuse penalties, requiring veterinary clinics to report animal abuse just as social service agencies are required to report child abuse, requiring broader property disclosure statements at the time of sale, restricting candy-flavored tobacco, enhancing high school sports funding through a $1 surcharge to every ticket at every scholastic sports event, banning smoking in cars when a child is among the riders, more strictly regulating the prescribing of epilepsy drugs, prohibiting pick-up truck drivers from having a dog ride in the truck bed, and granting school boards the authority to advertise on the side of school buses.
Every student proposing a bill had to do so in front of the full legislative panel—and defend the proposal, as students asked questions or sought clarifications. And with every proposal, Hutson would add a brief bit of context, explaining why something is currently not allowed—as with the Michael Manning proposal to advertise on school buses, which drew innumerable questions from other students.
“Other school boards have tried to advertise and couldn’t,” Hutson said, because of Department of Transportation regulations. And in fact the Legislature recently considered one such bill, but it died. This bill would try again. “It doesn’t force them to advertise, it just gives them the option to advertise,” Manning said, “I really tried to make this bill simple, so it’s easy to understand.” Advertising on the front and back of buses would not be allowed. Money would be split between a district’s transportation department and its academics. Controversial ads would not be allowed. Then the questions started.
“You stated one example of what you would deem unfit for school bus advertising,” one student asked. “But could you give a few examples of what kind of businesses you’d look to bring into this kind of advertising?”
“Shopping centers, your Walmarts, Target, small businesses across the county,” Manning responded.
“Would you limit the size of the billboard on the side?”
“That would be up to the district,” Manning said.
“Would it be worth it to do it?” one student asked, wondering about the return on investment. If it’s not profitable, Manning responded, the district should not advertise. Another student asked whether fast-food restaurants would be allowed to advertise (not at the beginning).
When the proposals were concluded, the 18 students voted on their top three bills. The votes were tallied.
Two bills ended up garnering the most votes: Carrie Hartnett’s proposal to more strictly regulate anti-epileptic drug prescriptions, and Morgan Purtlebaugh’s proposal to require that veterinarians have the authority to report animal abuse (but not be required to) to authorities. Currently, Hutson said, that’s not an option. Hartnett and Purtlebaugh got a second go at defending their bills, and had to do so in the face of some probing questions that showed the potential weak points of the bills, and their chance of success. Why, for example, would vets want to report abuse and risk losing their clients’ trust? (The proposal would only add Florida to the 29 states where reporting abuse is optional, Purtlebaugh said.) Students were also curious about the definition of abuse, but Purtlebaugh was ready for that one too, reading a ready definition.
Hartnett defended her proposal again, citing the states that have have been adopting just such an approach recently.
The final vote–after an initial vote winnowed the proposals to two bills–ended in an unexpected tie between Hartnett’s and Purtlebaugh’s proposal. Each drew nine votes. Hutson figured any additional votes would yield the same result, so he took a recess to confer with his staff and reach a tie-breaking decision on his own.
In the end, he went with the proposal on animal abuse. Purtlebaugh will actually get to go to Tallahassee to propose her bill in person.
“Epilepsy has been filed before previously in Tallahassee and from what I understand did not get very far,” Hutson said.
“It’s been educational even listening from the audience’s standpoint as you argue and talk about the different standpoints of your legislation,” Andy Dance, chairman of the Flagler County School Board, said. “I look forward to following the process as it moves forward.” (School Board members Colleen Conklin and John Fischer were also in the audience, as was Tom Bexley, the deputy clerk of court.)
Matanzas Principal Chris Pryor and FPC Principal Lynett Shott were grateful to Hutson for spending the time he did with students as he did—as no legislator in recent memory has.
“When I got in to education, I remember the first time I got involved in going to Tallahassee and talking about a bill we wanted to get passed, it was daunting,” Janet Valentine, the superintendent, said. “It’s very important to go through this process and know how it works.”
“You have some wonderful students, they’ve done a very good job with this,” Hutson said.