Despite Fla. Business Community Push, Gay Discrimination Ban Fails Again

Apr 17, 2014

Raschein announces her co-sponsorship of the Competitive Workforce Act in November of 2013.
Credit Jessica Palombo / WFSU News

One Florida bill bars employers from discriminating against people who are gay or transgendered. But despite strong business community support, it never saw the light of debate this year.  

The chances of passing the Florida Competitive Workforce Act were promising by several measures. 

First, it has bi-partisan sponsorship.

Then there’s broad public support, according to a 2013 public opinion survey.

Emma Humphries at the University of Florida’s Bob Graham Center for Public Service says, “We were shocked, given that, if anything, the bias would be toward the older generation, that 73 percent of respondents support the Competitive Workforce Act, while only 24 percent oppose it.”

She says researchers expected lower support considering they called only landline telephones, which tend to have older respondents on the other end.

And finally, lobbyist-armed business heavyweights like Disney formed a coalition to endorse the measure. Health insurance giant Florida Blue was also a founding member. The company’s Vice President of Public Policy and Community Affairs, Jason Altmire, says state law should prohibit workplace harassment for any reason.

“We think that it’s holding back the state of Florida in recruiting people from not just all over the country but all over the world,” he says. “It’s disappointing.”

Back in November, Rep. Joe Saunders (D- Orlando) held a celebratory press conference saying a green light on the bill was guaranteed if it reached the House floor.

He said, “The simple truth in Florida today is that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people can be fired for who they are, despite having one of the largest, most visible and diverse LGBT communities in the country.”

It’s a community that includes Saunders himself—he’s one of the Legislature’s two openly gay lawmakers. In a February interview, he said his mere presence at the Capitol is a sign big strides are possible in the push for gay equality.

“I’ve noticed a shift in the way people are willing to talk about these issues,” he said. “I think it’s hard not to talk about them when there’s somebody like me who’s talking about it all the time and ready to make it a part of the conversations that happen up here.”

But the conversation never made it into a single committee room.

University of South Florida political scientist Susan MacManus says it could be a case of legislators wanting more information before voting.

“So on a complex issue like this, it’s probably the case that it’s caught up in committee where they’re doing to a lot more investigations and talking to different people and bringing in speakers and constituents and even lobbyists,” she says.

But Saunders’ House co-sponsor says it’s really quite simple. Republican lawmaker Holly Raschein represents Key West—and she knows what you’re thinking about why she’s backing the bill.

“A lot of people think because I represent Key West, which is of course a very openly gay community and very gay friendly, but that’s not the case,” she says.

Besides the business lobby’s pleas, Raschein says she’s moved by conversations with young Republicans, who view gay equality as a no-brainer.  

“That was kind of disheartening for me to hear how maybe people aren’t even joining the party over this issue,” Raschein says.

Despite her efforts to recruit more GOP support, the measure died in both chambers without a hearing for the seventh straight year.

Business leaders say they’re optimistic the Legislature will eventually make gay discrimination illegal. Someday.