By Bill Cotterell
As Florida legislators work on hundreds of bills in the 2024 session, they ought to ask themselves some threshold questions every time they debate a bill.
Is this really a problem actually happening all over Florida?
Are we dealing with something worthy of a grown-up’s attention, or am I just posturing for the voters back home?
The 60-day lawmaking session that convened last week has plenty of serious business to discuss. There are matters of homeowners insurance, education, health care and public safety, to name just a few. These require varying degrees of hard work and expenditure of tax money, and they’re often not glamorous.
But there are also some feel-good bills and cheap shots that require no courage to vote for and bring the political bonus of being difficult for an opponent to argue against this summer, when most legislators will be back home running for re-election.
And no topic makes for easier demagoguery than sex, specifically any activity that makes strait-laced Republicans a little squeamish.
After the last two sessions — with passage of the “don’t say gay” law, tightened abortion restrictions, a crackdown on drag performances and the purge of school library shelves — you’d think Florida has little left to attract chanting demonstrators, rainbow banners and colorful picket signs to the Capitol.
But there’s a dozen or so proposals pending to provoke the LGBTQ activists and their Democratic allies who mainly speak out, offer doomed amendments and cast futile votes against bills being rushed to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk.
Consider, for instance, House Bill 1233, which says the sex listed on your driver’s license or state identification card has to be the same as the anatomy you were born with. The real-world effect of this is just to needlessly insult trans people. If a man decides to live as a woman, or the other way around, it’s a free country and he or she has a right to do so.
If a cop is puzzled by the information on a license, a couple of questions can straighten it out — “Yeah, that’s an old picture, and that was my name when I was a guy.”
Do we have thousands of drivers, or people showing identity cards for other reasons, who cause massive confusion all over Florida? Or is this just a cheap, easy way for lawmakers to cast a vote for traditional family values — and potentially to upstage an opponent with TV ads and mass mailings saying this guy might be soft on trans people.
Some transgender teachers are challenging the constitutionality of a law restricting use of personal pronouns in schools. A bill pending for this session expands that law, forbidding government agencies and contractors from using the “he” or “she” or “they” as desired by a trans or non-binary person.
That one also says non-profit organizations and companies receiving state payments may not require their employees to undergo training on sexual orientation, sexual identity or gender expression. Never mind if some of those companies, or individual employees, think such instruction is useful in creating a harmonious work environment.
In this regard, the conservative Republican Legislature will make an exception to its usual hands-off approach to private enterprise and tell employers how to deal with a small number of staffers.
But do we need a law?
If your official identification says “John Smith” and you live your life as “Jane Smith,” what harm is done? Anyone observant enough to be a traffic cop, or a school registrar or some other kind of official functionary can probably clear up any confusion pretty quickly. It’s hard to imagine some necessary government function, licensing requirement or official verification that requires retaining a person’s original genitalia.
The real purpose of these bills is not to meet any real needs of the state, or solve any pressing problems of the people. It doesn’t even matter much if the bills pass or fail.
Introducing them and advocating these ideas in the House and Senate gives their sponsors bragging rights. To tell voters back home they stood up to that very loud and highly visible LBGTQ crowd.
That’s a lot easier, and gets more TV publicity, than dealing with rising hurricane insurance rates on Florida’s coasts or sinking reading and math scores in our schools.
Bill Cotterell is a retired capitol reporter for United Press International and the Tallahassee Democrat. He can be reached at [email protected].