How Bad Things Happen To Good Bills

Feb 26, 2012

Sisterhood's Marcia Olivo at S. B. 1440's high water mark, a committee vote in favor
Credit Rick Stone

TALLAHASSEE-- At the midpoint of the legislative session,  an organization of domestic violence opponents  drove hopefully to the state capital  from Miami for the first committee hearing on a bill they were supporting.  The legislation would allow domestic violence victims who are being stalked at work to quit their jobs and still qualify for unemployment.

That would change a fundamental rule of unemployment, that no one who leaves a job voluntarily can qualify for benefits. But Sisterhood of Survivors member Liz Turner told the Senate Commerce and Tourism committee no one should have to choose, as she did, between physical and financial survival.

"I lost my job," she testified. "Lost my home, my kids and myself, had to sleep in a car for days."

Senate Bill 1440 had a long list of sponsors. It came with a statement that it would cost the unemployment trust fund little  more than $400,000 a year. The Miami women were sympathetic witnesses, and the committee approved the bill unanimously.

As the members of the Sisterhood kissed, high-fived and prepared to return to Miami, there was no way for them to know they had just witnessed the high-water mark of S. B. 1440.

Getting a bill passed in Tallahassee is usually no problem for people with money to burn and lobbyists at their disposal. For anyone else, as the Sisterhood of Survivors would soon learn, the process is difficult, unpredictable and maddening.

Three weeks later, Sisterhood leader Marcia Olivo and a delegation of five members returned to the Capitol for a follow-up trip to line up sponsors for the House version of the bill. They had little money and few friends in Tallahassee, but each of the women came with a personal story.

"They're the ones who have suffered the abuse," Olivo said. "They're the ones who know what is needed to create the changes that they need."

Olivo buttonholed State Sen. Steve Oelrich
Credit Rick Stone / WLRN

Up staircases, down elevators, from office to office they go. They're cordially received everywhere -- Tallahassee is a very cordial place -- but it's already clear: they're getting nowhere. The unemployment bill is off the Legislative radar. No committee is hearing it. There is no path to passage. 

The Sisterhood's Niki Naseer can’t believe what's happening. "I will regret it if the bill would be delayed and another woman will be killed in Florida."

In one office, the women get a few minutes with a House member,  State. Rep. Peter Nehr (R-Tarpon Springs). He is friendly, supportive and even signs on as a co-sponsor. And he agrees, it’s a good bill that won’t cost much. But he tells the sisters most of the state budget is a list of good things that don’t cost much.

"Even though our budget is about $70 billion," Nehr explains apologetically, "we have requests for money for two or three hundred billion dollars, and we have to choose where to do that."

By now, it's apparent.  S. B. 1440 is no longer on the legislative radar or anybody's calendar or priority list. And opposition has now surfaced. The Florida Retail Federation, a powerful coalition of employers and campaign contributors, is now on the record opposing unemployment benefits for any voluntary departure from the job.

The Sisterhood's guide through the halls of the capitol is a community organizer named Marcus Ferrell. He has some Tallahassee background and knows what the sisters are up against.  "Because of the fights and tensions between the parties up here, even good bills have a hard time getting through," he says.  "Instead of it being an environment of, ok, lets do the best thing for Florida citizens, sometimes, it’s let's do the best thing for our party."

After one hopeful moment before one legislative committee, it appears that Senate Bill 1440 has died, like most bills, in private. All it takes is one powerful lawmaker, one committee chairman to decide not to allow a bill to go forward, and it's doomed.

And there's no way for the Sisterhood of Survivors to know for sure who killed it.