Hillsborough legislators talk protest bill, budget priorities with Tiger Bay

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Members of Hillsborough County’s legislative delegation seem to agree on a lot when it comes to what to tackle in Tallahassee this year, but not always on how to execute it. Republican and Democratic senators and house representatives met with Tampa’s Tiger Bay today and few priorities were as divisive as the HB1 protest bill.

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Senator Janet Cruz and Representative Fentrice Driskell were there for Democrats while, Sen. Danny Burgess and Rep. Lawrence McClure spoke for the GOP.

Securing Sadowski

For the most part, there was a good deal of bipartisanship. Especially when it came to the Sadowski Affordable Housing Trust Fund. Cruz, Burgess and Driskell were all on board.

“I have been a supporter of it and will continue to fight for it,” Cruz said.

“Protecting Sadowski’s trust fund is also a critical mission there,” Burgess said.

“I am all in favor of fully funding the Sadowski Affordable Housing Trust Fund,” Driskell added.

The Sadowski Fund was set up by the legislature in 1992 it uses a .07-percent stamp tax to raise money that’s supposed to support local and state housing programs across Florida. But it’s often poached in lean times, like the current $2.7 billion budget shortfall, and swept into the general fund.

This session, Clearwater Republican Senator Ed Hooper filed a bill to help keep the fund intact. Many have seen the move as crucial while Florida faces an affordable housing crisis exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

McClure was even willing to go further.

“Because of that bipartisan support I’ll back it out to higher level,” he said. “I think when we talk about trust funds of any sort we should be very, very guarded in sweeping them.”

Hooper’s bill would add the Sadowski Fund to a list of about 10 other trust funds that are mostly off-limits. Last year was the first time since 2007 Sadowski was left intact. McClure said any trust fund should be protected from sweeping, barring extremely dire circumstances.

Mail-in mastery

Legislators on both sides of the aisle even agreed that a much-talked-about Republican-sponsored bill to change Florida’s vote-by-mail system is entirely unnecessary. While other state’s played catch-up with absentee ballots, Florida had a system put in place years ago by Republicans in the statehouse.

Burgess said Florida’s system shouldn’t just be left alone, others should look to it for guidance.

“Florida did it right and other states need to be paying attention to how we fixed what we realized was a problem,” he said. “There was a reason we were out front.”

Where the road diverges

But the gloves started to come off when a controversial bill to crack down on violent demonstrations was brought up. Cruz pointed that out quickly.

“This is where the road diverges with my friends,” she said. “Philosophically, that’s okay.”

Burgess is actually a senate sponsor of the bill. The idea came following a summer of civil unrest across the nation sparked by police killings and abuses of Black Americans. Protests with property damage or violence were few and far between in Florida. But Gov. Ron DeSantis used viral videos of protests in St. Pete, filmed and shared with no context by a Tampa Bay Times reporter to justify legislation that would make it easier to punish people more harshly when protesting.

It’d also punish municipalities that reduce police budgets.

Driskell was quick to voice opposition.

“It also is disproportionately impacting Black and brown people because we know that these are the ones who were out protesting after the murder of George Floyd,” she said. “There are already laws on the books that could help if there were ever a situation where property was destroyed, where people were rioting, people where engaging in that type of criminal behavior. We already have this on the books so it’s unnecessary.”

The person in the car

Sean Quinn Guthrie and Ken Uhlmann engage with protesters before a viral confrontation while dining at Parkshore Grille on Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020. Video of the couple’s encounter with protesters taken after this photo was used as basis for HB1.

Driskell called the bill un-American and said it infringes on First Amendment rights. Burgess said he’s looking at the whole picture and once again referenced Times videos. One showed marchers in a confrontation with diners, but the original video didn’t show the diners had been harassing protesters beforehand. It was quickly picked up by right-wing news across the country and used to vilify even peaceful marches.  He also defended the actions of a driver seen crossing through a line of marchers passing through, but not blocking a St. Pete intersection.

“Nobody sees the vantage point of the person in the car, do they? They don’t,” he said. “What if there were kids in that car, what if my kids were in that car and I was driving that car? What would you do?”

Protesters commonly have one or more people stand in a crosswalk as the march passes through helping to keep aware of vehicles and push the march through the intersection quickly. Drivers on several occasions have plowed through protesters. HB1 would give drivers immunity if they injured or killed a protester moving through an intersection.

Cruz quickly called the bill what she thinks it is.

“You can’t pick and choose what part of the constitution you want to live and die by,” she said. “This bill in my opinion is simply a way to suppress minority voices and it’s one that I will stand firmly against.”

Florida’s next legislative session begins in March.