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New GOP Leaders Propose Changes To Florida House Rules; Dems Say It Aims To 'Silence' Minority Party

Republican State Rep. Chris Sprowls, 35, addresses the Florida House of Representatives, Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019, in Tallahassee, Fla. Sprowls will serve as House Speaker for the coming term. (AP Photo/Bobby Caina Calvan)
Bobby Caina Calvan/AP
Republican State Rep. Chris Sprowls, 35, addresses the Florida House of Representatives, Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019, in Tallahassee, Fla. Sprowls will serve as House Speaker for the coming term. (AP Photo/Bobby Caina Calvan)

When the Florida House of Representatives meets on Tuesday for the first time since March, new leadership will take the helm. This week, incoming House speaker Chris Sprowls published a list of proposed rule changes for the chamber during his two-year term.

During the organizational session Tuesday, the House will vote on those rule changes. Among them are provisions increasing the number of bills House members can file from 6 to 7, and reducing the number of proposed committee bills allowed.

Flagler County Republican Representative Paul Renner will assume the role of Rules Chair, and will play a key role in some of the new leadership’s rules, should they clear a vote.

“Well, the idea typically behind a PCB is it’s something important to the House and the committee. The Speaker has spoken about trying to get away from having agency bills, or even bills that are supported by a particular lobbyist to come out as a PCB,” Renner said Thursday. “So, the idea is quality over quantity. And of course, having that additional bill slot for the members means we won’t necessarily see fewer bills, but we’ll see more member bills and become a more member-driven process.”

Another proposed change, Renner says, is giving bills more time in committee.

“Keep in mind that every bill typically sees a few stops in committee where it can be amended. What we’ve already talked about is to open that up so that there’s more time spent in committee,” Renner told WFSU. “The speaker is also expanding out our subcommittees’ duration from 3 to 4 weeks, to a full 6 weeks. So there’s going to be a lot more time spent on bills, more time for debate, more time for engagement.”

If approved the rule changes will also allow the Republican House leadership to deem certain amendments “frivolous,” if they don’t relate directly to the bill at hand.

“By the time we get to the floor, doesn’t mean you still can’t have amendments, but there shouldn’t be efforts simply to file amendments that are non-substantive just for dilatory purposes or grandstanding purposes. But if there’s an amendment that – whether we agree with the amendment or not – if its substantive, it’s by definition not frivolous and will be permitted,” Renner said.

Renner, as the new rules chair, is who ultimately would make recommendations to the House Speaker on whether an amendment is frivolous. The speaker, which starting Tuesday will be Chris Sprowls, will make a ruling on whether there was a violation, Renner explained:

“Where there is an amendment whose only purpose is to delay deliberation or be, again, dilatory in purpose, it can be deemed frivolous.”

Also proposed is allowing the Rules Committee, helmed by Renner, to recommend time allotments for questions and debate on legislation. The rules revisions relating to debate and amendments are something Republican leadership say will drive “efficiency in the process.” But some Democrats aren’t buying it, and say it’s a deal breaker.

One of them is Orlando Democratic Representative Carlos Guillermo Smith.

“The process of setting rules in the Florida House and the Florida Senate happens every couple years after the elections. It’s typically a non-event, not very controversial,” Smith, who has served in the House since 2016, said.

But that’s not the case this year, Smith says.

“Florida House Republican leaders have proposed a series of new House rules meant to silence the voices of Democrats who are in the minority. It dramatically limits the amount of questions on the House floor on legislation … it limits the amount of time for debate, and they’ve also made a declaration that they will rule any amendment as out of order that they regard as frivolous,” Smith said Thursday.

Smith is wary of what he sees as a lack of definition when it comes to amendments being deemed “frivolous,” especially when that determination is made by the opposing party.

“They don’t define what ‘frivolous’ means, but we Democrats in the minority know exactly what it means. Any floor amendment that is filed by a Democratic member, they will decide it’s frivolous, they will rule it out of order, and they will not give us a fair opportunity to participate in the legislative process,” Smith said.

To Smith, who represents one of Florida’s most populous areas in Orlando, the ability to debate and ask questions of legislation is key to the process.

“It’s really important as part of the legislative process that all elected members of the legislature, regardless of which party they are from, have an opportunity to ask questions on legislation that is going to impact the lives of everyday Floridians,” he explained.

Smith sees the potential limiting of debate as silencing his constituents:

“Silencing the voices of elected democrats is essentially silencing the voices of millions of Floridians who elected us to be their voice in Tallahassee. It’s an unacceptable attack.”

That’s why Smith and other Democrats are pushing back on the proposed changes.

“Democrats really had no idea that these attacks are coming. Without changes, I won’t be voting for them,” Smith told WFSU. “And I know that a number of other Democratic colleagues won’t be voting for them either.”

Smith says other than the rule changes he opposes; he doesn’t see much difference from the previous year in how bills are put on the agenda. He would have liked to see changes to what he describes as a “top-down” leadership structure he says “stymies” the ability for some legislation to have a chance.

“I would have liked to have seen that change. Where if a simple majority of members of a committee co-sponsored legislation, that that bill would automatically be put on the agenda for a hearing, a debate and a vote,” Smith said.

The House’s organizational session kicks off at 11 a.m. Tuesday.

Copyright 2020 WFSU

Ryan Dailey is a reporter/producer for WFSU/Florida Public Radio. After graduating from Florida State University, Ryan went into print journalism working for the Tallahassee Democrat for five years. At the Democrat, he worked as a copy editor, general assignment and K-12 education reporter.