With the Florida Legislature convening next week, regular citizens trying to participate in the legislative process will face tough hurdles under COVID-19 protocols set by the House and Senate chambers.
For Floridians who want to engage in the process of creating laws and providing testimony, access in general will be limited and residents with disabilities will face even more difficulties during the pandemic.
What’s more, the two chambers in the Legislature are inconsistent in their COVID protocols.
In a Thursday briefing, a frustrated group of Florida advocates found little help in expanding public access, following a letter to several lawmakers.
Common Cause Florida, a pro-democracy advocacy group, along with more than 30 other Florida-based organizations, sent a letter to the lawmakers at the start of the month that outlined ways Floridians could more easily participate in the legislative process.
Some of the suggestions included remote participation from areas outside of Tallahassee, written testimonies, and providing closed captioning services and/or American Sign Language interpreters to improve accessibility.
But there has been little effort to address those concerns, the advocates said on Thursday.
“Despite our collective effort requesting our legislators revisit and revise their unilateral decision to obfuscate government from Floridians, no substantive changes have occurred — despite us being just a few short days away from starting our regular session,” said Anjenys Gonzalez-Eilert, executive director for Common Cause Florida.
The coalition wants more access to the legislative process that could make impact the lives of Florida citizens.
Right now, Floridians can give public testimony from the Civic Center in Leon County to be live-streamed into the Senate meetings at the Capitol building.
But, down the street at the Capitol, the House allows in-person public testimony.
This means that if a Floridian has business in both the House and Senate, they would have to walk about a mile in between meetings. And for some Floridians, that’s a long hike.
Olivia Babis, senior public policy analyst with Disability Rights Florida, argued that very point in the Thursday press briefing. Disability Rights Florida is one of the advocacy groups that joined Common Cause Florida in the initiative to expand access to the legislative process.
Babis expressed that participating in the legislative process has “always been a difficult process for people with disabilities,” but the new COVID precautions have their own setbacks regarding voices of people with disabilities.
“To have the Senate and the House have different processes is problematic for people with disabilities,” Babis said. “Somebody that has mobility impairment may not be able to make that trek back and forth, especially to have to do it repeatedly, multiple times a day – if this is someone who is following multiple pieces of legislation they want to provide testimony on.”
Even if someone wants to provide Senate testimony only at the Civic Center, there are accessibility issues there as well.
“The Civic Center, where people have to give testimonies, doesn’t have an adjustable podium. There isn’t a lower table with a lower mic — so for someone who uses a wheelchair, they are not able to easily give testimony,” Babis said.
Meanwhile, State Sen. Gary Farmer, a Democrat who represents part of Broward County and serves as the Democratic Leader in the Senate, filed legislation Wednesday in the form of a joint resolution to allow meetings to be conducted remotely under certain circumstances. The measure would involve a Constitutional amendment.
The remote proceedings could include legislative committee and subcommittee meetings and sessions of each chamber. A quorum may be established without the physical presence of members in the event of a declared state of emergency, according to the measure. In addition, “any such remote proceedings must remain open and noticed to the public to the greatest extent possible.”
Right now, Floridians can watch Senate and House meetings through the Florida Channel, but remote access for public testimony and engagement are not available outside of the Leon County Civic Center.
Overall, current COVID protocols for the upcoming session are not likely to change, despite efforts by Common Cause and other groups.
Senate spokeswoman Katie Betta said that President Wilton Simpson is looking to create a group that will assess how to facilitate public participation, though not for the session that starts Tuesday.
The means public testimonies will still be conducted at the Civic Center for the time being, Betta told the Phoenix.
The Phoenix also reached out to the House of Representatives, but officials there have not responded.