It’s Lawmaking Time—But Sometimes The Clock Runs Out Before Debate’s Over

Apr 15, 2014

Credit Zoute Drop via Flickr

Although Florida lawmakers filed more than 1,800 bills this year, most measures were not destined to become laws. Some were too controversial in an election year. Some died alone with no companion measure in the other chamber. And some bill sponsors simply lost the race against time.

When lawmakers return from the Passover-Easter break next week, they’ll jump into a fast-paced final two weeks of floor action. But the majority of legislative movement has already happened in committees meetings—meetings that were scheduled to last for an exact time period and not a second longer.

During a recent meeting of the House Regulatory Affairs Committee, public commenter Brenda Olsen began, “I appreciate the opportunity to raise some concerns about the bill as it’s been amended,” before committee Chairman Doug Holder cut her off.

“If you could please—if you could do that in about two minutes, I’d appreciate it,” Holder said.  

“I promise my comments are short,” Olsen replied.

That exchange between Olsen and Holder is not uncommon, especially in a room full of public speakers passionate about controversial legislation.

When the Senate Transportation Committee took up a bill preempting local limousine restrictions, it did so with 10 minutes left on the committee’s 90-minute clock.

Sen. Garrett Richter (R-Naples) said, “I know there’s going to be a lot of discussion. There has been a lot of discussion on this. I would move for a time-certain vote at 10:29.”

A time-certain vote means discussion will be cut off and a vote taken. Or, as former longtime state Sen. Bob McKnight puts it, “This simply says, ‘Even if there’s a fire in the building, we’re still gonna have this vote at X, Y, Z time.’”

The bill up for discussion had taxi cab companies up in arms—several of their operators had driven or flown in from across the state.  Then there was Christina Bichache. She co-owns a Miami limo service and came to support the bill, which was aimed at making it easier for smartphone app Uber to enter Florida’s cities.

“Out of six people that had presented a card to be able to be speakers on behalf of this new proposal, I was the only one that was allowed to speak, and halfway through my speech, I was cut off by Senator Margolis,” Bichache recalled the next day.

In the committee Bichache had begun testifying, “In addition to helping my husband run his business I am a nurse. When patients come to my hospital they have the choice of two other hospitals within six miles—“

Margolis cut in, “We’re not talking about hospitals now—“

But Bichache continued, “—so why can’t visitors and residents in Florida have a choice to their transportation needs? Thank you.”

In the same committee room, transportation company manager Roger Chapin was also waiting to speak after traveling from Orlando.  But before he could approach the lectern, the clock reached the meeting’s end time of 10:30. The time-certain motion had been withdrawn in the frantic final seconds to allow for quick vote on an amendment, but time ran out on the bill itself. Chapin says one hopeful speaker had paid more than $900 to make the trip.

“It’s just sad that they don’t have the time necessary to at least make people feel like they’re part of the process,” he says.

Sen. McKnight, who served in both Florida chambers during the 1970s and ‘80s, agrees. He’s an outspoken critic of term limits, which he says have led to an inexperienced Legislature less equipped to budget its time.

“There’s some that came before you that worked pretty hard to establish precedents, to try to contemplate some of the unforeseen circumstances,” he says. “Govern properly. That probably could be ruled out of order. It could possibly even be ruled illegal.”

McKnight says the Constitution guarantees the public a right to speak up on proposed laws.

“And it doesn’t limit it. It doesn’t say, ‘Well, you get three minutes in a subcommittee, you have five'—it doesn’t say that,” he says. “It says you have access to your government.”

In the limousine bill’s case, a hearing was scheduled for the following week. Bichache said she hoped to return from Miami to try and testify again, but it would be difficult with two jobs and three children at home.