The Florida Legislature is a remarkable institutional setting for the great philosophical debates that occupy the time of our elected officials -- except when it isn’t.
I started lobbying in 1979 for the then-Florida Association of Private Investigators, coming from Orlando to Tallahassee for interim committee meetings and the session. So, I’ve been to a lot of committee meetings and sessions throughout the years.
Not until now have I seen a committee chairman take a substantive piece of legislation, and without affording proponents or opponents any opportunity to make their concerns known, try to push through a significant policy shift in just five minutes.
Literally, this happened last Monday afternoon when the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, chaired by Sen. Randolph Bracy, D-Oviedo, pushed to have his bill -- SB 1490 on “Determining Bail” -- heard in the last five minutes of the meeting.
Since it was his bill, he handed over the chairmanship of the committee to Vice Chairman Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Lady Lake, who then went about informing speakers that because there was only five minutes, everyone would need to “waive” in support or opposition.
Sen. Bracy’s bill is about nonviolent individuals awaiting trial in jail, who cannot afford a monetary bond, be allowed to be released without posting any bond -- a “get-out-of-jail” proposition.
As you can imagine, this concept is one that is controversial, to say the least and should have a healthy exchange of ideas on why it’s a good or bad policy decision.
Just two weeks prior, Sen. Bracy had invited two speakers to share with the Criminal Justice Committee their take on bail and “supervised bond” for a 90-minute workshop. The presentations were both informative and enlightening.
Yet, no one with a contrary viewpoint was allowed to testify, which in itself is unusual. Numerous speaking cards were submitted, but the chairman refused to allow any adverse viewpoints.
Frustrated, we all knew that eventually, when SB 1490 was calendared, there would be the chance to poke holes in this concept. That's how it's supposed to work. The Legislature is always careful to maintain an equilibrium of contrasting ideas.
Not so, for this particular Senate committee.
In the ensuing five minutes, as the clock ticked away, speaker after speaker waived in support or opposition.
I couldn’t in good conscience just waive and so I shared with the committee that this was unheard of and wrong for a bill of this great importance to be rammed through without any testimony from anyone.
When it came time for the chairman to close on his bill, instead of waiving his close, he made a few comments.
While he was making his remarks, the clock struck 6 p.m. and Chairman Baxley indicated that the bill would have to be "temporarily postponed," or “TP'd,” as time had run out.
Now the bill has been calendared again for Tuesday morning. Chairman Bracy has again loaded the agenda with 15 other bills, including the one he tried to sneak through his committee.
Interestingly, the chairman has the votes to get this bill out of his committee. He doesn’t have to play games to get a win.
The big question is, will the chairman play fair or will he try to keep opponents from having their fair chance to show why this legislation isn’t as good as it sounds?
The debate now isn’t about the merits of the bill, it’s about whether the chairman will provide the venue for a free-sharing of ideas and concerns from all interested stakeholders.
Believe me, there are more organizations supporting this George Soros concept than there are against it. So, why abuse the power that a chairman possesses to have a bill pass without the opposing side being heard? This isn’t Russia, or Iran or North Korea.
No one should ever be so frightened by the expression of ideas that he uses his power to deny a full debate on an issue, especially one concerning public safety.
Isn’t that what our democracy is really about? The willingness to hear contrary thinking and then deciding based on the evidence?
Mr. Chairman, please allow a full debate on your bill -- both sides without time restraints. If it’s good enough for every other bill on your agenda, it’s good enough for this bill as well.
Barney Bishop III is the president and CEO of Florida Smart Justice Alliance, a criminal justice reform organization that is law enforcement-centric, which supports common sense reform if it maintains public safety as Job No. 1.