TALLAHASSEE — Florida Democrats are banking on the 50th anniversary of the federal Civil Rights Act to breathe new life into an array of roadblocked social issues in the Capitol, dealing with immigrant children, gays, felons and even pregnant women.
Florida Democrats are touting a half-dozen bills, two of which aim to extend job and benefit protections to gay and transgender men and women and to create a statewide domestic-partnership registry.
But the proposals go beyond issues affecting gays:
•SB 300 would allow nonresident immigrant children to qualify for in-state tuition if they've graduated from a Florida high school or received a GED and plan to file for legal residency when eligible.
•SB 234 would ban businesses from requiring job applicants to disclose whether they have a criminal record, except where the disclosure is required by law.
•SB 220, sponsored by Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, would prohibit employers from discriminating against pregnant women in hiring, wages or other benefits, along with barring hotels and restaurants from discriminating against pregnant women.
Although the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 was amended to protect pregnant women in 1978, Florida lawmakers never made the same change to the state law — a difference before the state Supreme Court now.
The gay-rights fights could become higher-profile next spring, even in the conservative Florida Legislature.
Supporters of the anti-discrimination bill point to last summer's U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding California's same-sex-marriage law as evidence of shifting public sentiment.
But they can also look closer to home: Just last week, the Pensacola City Council adopted a domestic-partner-benefit registry. Last week, state Rep. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando, filed the bill (HB 439) to create a statewide registry.
Orlando and Orange County are among the two dozen governments in Florida that have approved registries, which give unmarried couples living together the ability to make medical decisions, visit each other in hospitals or prisons or make educational decisions for children.
"The public's opinions on issues related to LGBT equality have been changing so fast, a lot of people have had trouble keeping up with it," said Rep. Joe Saunders, D-Orlando.
Saunders is one of a growing list of two dozen lawmakers pushing HB 239, which would prohibit discrimination in employment, housing and other public-services decisions on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Last year, Saunders became one of the first two openly gay members elected to the Florida House, but his LGBT anti-discrimination bill went nowhere.
Likewise, Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, got the first-ever hearing for a bill creating a state domestic-partnership registry — although it got no further in the Senate. She is carrying the Senate version of the bill again next spring.
This year, six Republicans have again signed on to Saunders' bill as co-sponsors, including Rep. Holly Raschein, R-Key Largo, who described the measure as "pro-business."
Opponents are predicting another year of futility.
"I don't think you're going to see any movement on these gay-rights bills in the House," said John Stemberger, president of the Orlando-based Florida Family Policy Council, which opposes both bills. "I laughed when I saw they said they had the votes in the House to pass [the workplace bill]. That's just pure wishing. It's not going to happen."
Democrats have been sponsoring it every year since 2007, but it's never received a hearing. And Republican legislative leaders are steering clear of the issues for now.
Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said through a spokeswoman that their progress would depend on the talents of their sponsors.
Likewise, House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said it would be up to committee chairs to decide whether to hear the bills.
"It's also too early to know the likelihood that they will make it to the floor," he said.
At the same time, Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, is pushing a bill again to allow some children of immigrants to obtain drivers licenses.
The measure (SB 96) would require the state to issue drivers licenses to children of unauthorized immigrants — known as "dreamers" because they arrived in the country as young children — who have received federal deferments under a 2012 executive order by President Barack Obama.
It passed overwhelmingly last year but was vetoed by Gov. Rick Scott, who said at the time he did so because Obama didn't have the authority to grant the deferment. The veto sparked protests in Orlando and other cities.
Soto said there were two schools of thought about the fate of his bill this try: It would sail through — or not see the light of day in order to keep Scott from being forced to veto it again in an election year.
Charlie Crist, one of Scott's opponents in the election this fall, has pledged to sign the bill and the others dealing with gay rights if he wins election.
"I think it's going to be an issue for the governor's race either way," Soto said.
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