By Yaël Ossowski | Florida Watchdog
TALLAHASSEE — The state’s capital city is bustling this week, as another semester begins and piles of paperwork are handed out on the first day.
After spending time with family and members of the community during Christmas break, the young and amateur do-gooders are back together with their buddies to start with a clean slate, make a good impression and keep their parents and supporters proud.
And those are just the lawmakers.
By crafting the agenda a full three months before the official legislative session begins, state representatives and senators are hoping to make their part-time job as lawmakers as part-time as possible.
According to Florida’s state constitution, each session can only last 60 days, leaving elected officials limited time to propose, debate and pass their favorite new law of the day.
That being so, lawmakers make an early trip to Tallahassee in January to participate in legislative committees, where the majority of bills to be heard during the session first see the light of day.
The various committee meetings this week have been cordial and formal, rounded out by chosen experts in health care, policing, science and law.
Public participation in the committee meetings is incredibly rare, expected in the city of barely 180,000 that decides laws and norms for a state of 19 million people.
The loudest and most active public participant is Brian Pitts of Justice2Jesus, a nonprofit church group formed to “hold government to account.”
A favorite of legislators, Pitts often takes to the microphone to underscore the strength of God in dealing with issues, rather than the blunt enforcement of laws and regulations adopted by the Legislature.
“The devil knows you can’t legislate moral issues,” he told the House Criminial Justice Subcommittee on Wednesday.
Though Pitts takes the cake for public involvement, the most glaring presence in committee meetings are the industry lobbyists who follow the presentations and nod along with testimony from the carefully selected expert witnesses.
After the committee debates the bills and informally adopts them for consideration in March, lobbyists regroup to push their point home.
The Capitol press corps, on the other hand, brush past the lobbyists while cluthing printed media releases in hand, hoping to catch a smile and laugh with the legislators who will be the face for their story printed the next day.
Once issues are patched up and settled, the meeting ends and the professionals file out for a breath of fresh air.
That’s when the rubbing of the elbows begins.
The handful of restaurants that serve the area surrounding the Capitol overflow at lunch time and become the informal debating scene for the bills du jour. Conversations are kept hushed and quiet, and mindful eyes keep tabs on those within earshot.
Once informal business is settled, the afternoon committee meetings start again, freshened with a new topic and new agenda that needs the attention of state resources and state attention.
The elected officials begin their speaking time with tales of their home district, where the real people will feel the real effect of the not-yet real legislation on the docket.
The journalists sit back and record business as usual, asking the same questions and following up with their favorite lawmakers who will be the stars of their reports.
All the while, the lobbyists check their notes and keep tabs on the discussion, visually content with the committee’s proceedings.
It’s just another political season in the capital city.
“Sometimes the devil is working all throughout this town,” said Pitts in Wednesday’s closing speech in the Criminal Justice subcommittee, repraising his role as the moral conscience of Tallahassee. “And you’ve got to be careful just how you go about trying to shoo him away.”