TALLAHASSEE (FBW)—The recently concluded 60-day, regular legislative session was a mixed success, according to Florida Baptist lobbyist Bill Bunkley, both with “high points” of stopping casinos and passing religious liberty legislation, as well as “disappointments” of failing to ban Internet gambling cafés and to pass pro-life legislation.
The 2012 legislative session concluded March 9, although a special session convened March 14 to address a Florida Supreme Court ruling invalidating reapportionment maps for the Florida Senate.
Bunkley, president of the newly created Florida Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, once again closely tracked dozens of bills on a wide array of issues during the session, which began in January—two months earlier than normal due to reapportionment duties. The 2012 session was Bunkley’s 17th year advocating on behalf of Florida Baptists before legislators and other state government officials in Tallahassee.
“The high points of the session included holding off a huge gambling expansion plan, securing an important religious liberty victory, combating human trafficking, and [establishing] an important drug abuse task force,” Bunkley told Florida Baptist Witness in summarizing the 2012 legislative session from the standpoint of moral concerns.
“Disappointments during the session included the failure to stop illegal local gambling activities and failure to move forward on some key abortion issues,” Bunkley said.
While legislation seeking to expand gambling through “destination resort” casinos was stymied, so was a measure that sought to shut down Internet cafés—sometimes called “strip mall casinos”—which have proliferated in the state in recent years.
The failure to pass destination casinos (SB 710/HB 487) is “only a temporary reprieve in the battle,” Bunkley told the Witness, noting its advocates have pledged to return in 2013.
“We will work hard to keep them at bay next year,” he said.
“Pastors and lay people should be communicating with their local legislators their opposition to big gambling money in the form of campaign contributions and charitable contributions,” he said. “Only a grassroots effort will keep the battle close.”
Concerning Internet gambling cafés, Bunkley said the Senate behaved “irresponsibly” by failing to act on legislation passed by the House (HB 3), which he congratulated for the bill’s passage.
“Clearly, these establishments are houses for predatory gambling activities,” he said, and not addressing this proliferation of illegal businesses was wrong.
“If the Seminole Indians move before next session to claim this activity voids their state compact, only the Florida Senate can be blamed,” Bunkley added.
The Seminoles have suggested the Internet cafés are a violation of certain exclusivity rights granted to the tribe under a 2010 compact negotiated with the state. If the tribe successfully pressed that claim, payments required under the compact would be voided.
Another gambling-related bill tracked by Bunkley would have “de-coupled” dog track racing requirements for certain pari-mutuels, permitting the facilities to continue to operate under original licenses while operating other forms of gambling.
Legislation (SB 382/HB 641) to eliminate greyhound-racing requirements “triggered a wave of activity” among the state’s pari-mutuel facilities seeking slot machines from certain municipalities, Bunkley said.
“Once this was a matter of public discussion it shut down any consideration of the measure in the House,” he said, while warning advocates will return next year.
Promising to fight the legislation, Bunkley said the end result of passing such a measure would make the dog tracks “launching pads for more future casino-style gambling.”
Unlike the 2011 session that saw the passage of five pro-life measures—a “record-setting year,” Bunkley said last year—the 2012 session failed to advance the pro-life cause, he said.
Pro-life bills (SB 290/HB 277) in the House and Senate sought to stiffen regulations on abortion clinics, provide protections for infants born alive after abortions, and create a 24-hour waiting period before abortions can be performed.
While the legislation passed the House and there was clearly a majority of support in the Senate, the upper chamber’s “liberals and moderates teamed together to kill the bill on a procedural vote” that required a two-thirds majority.
“Achieving a 24-hour reflection period will be an important milestone, especially in light of modern technology that can assist a women in making this important life changing decision,” Bunkley said, promising the measure will be a priority for earlier action in next year’s session.
A measure (SB 1702/HB 1327) to ban sex- and race-based abortions only passed one House committee and received no consideration in the Senate, Bunkley noted.
He also said pro-abortion organizations “fiercely” opposed a bill (SB 234/HB 137) that would have changed references to “viable fetus” to “unborn child” in statutes related to vehicular homicides.
Bunkley hailed the passage of a religious liberty bill (SB 98/HB 317) that will permit student-led, student-initiated “inspirational messages” in schools. Gov. Rick Scott is expected to sign the legislation, which overwhelmingly passed both bodies.
“This is a significant wake-up call that our religious liberty will be aggressively attacked right here in Florida as secular humanism marches on,” Bunkley said. “Those opposed to public religious expression will, I predict, become more emboldened to challenge our First Amendment rights.”
He added, “We must be ready to respond to these threats in the near future. In the meantime, let the students conduct their inspirational messages, including prayer, at any and all appropriate times during their school activities.”
Two bills seeking to crackdown on the trafficking of human beings for sex and labor passed both chambers, and are expected to be signed by Gov. Scott.
Bunkley said the measures are important because Florida has become a leading location for such illegal activity.
“The legislation will increase penalties for those destroying the lives of vulnerable children and others to a first-degree felony and will give law enforcement newly authorized enhanced surveillance tools,” Bunkley said of SB 1880/HB 7049.
Meanwhile, the Florida Safe Harbor Act (SB 202/HB 99) will give children “an important refuge from the despicable acts” of sex crimes, he said.
“I believe there can be an opportunity for churches to work with the Department of Children and Family Services in the future” on these matters, Bunkley added.
Bunkley praised passage of legislation (SB 402/HB 227) creating a statewide task for on prescription drug abuse and newborns.
Pointing to the seriousness of what he said is an oxycodone epidemic in Florida, Bunkley said, “I hope that crises pregnancy centers and pastors will take an active role in educating and speaking out about the potential lifetime effects these drugs pose when taken during a pregnancy.”
Bunkley expressed disappointment that a bill (SB 1618/HB 1385) relating to child pornography “did not get traction this session.”
“It is frustrating to deal with First Amendment claims of protection for pornographic material to such an extent that passing a common sense bill to protect our children is second-guessed and not embraced,” he said.
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