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House debate mirrors national GOP divide over abortion

Wednesday, April 3rd, 2013 by Dara Kam

A divided House committee sent to the House floor a measure that would make it a crime to perform an abortion based on the gender or race of the fetus after a debate supporters conceded was unwanted by members of both parties.

Two Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee voted against the bill, ignoring an impassioned plea for support from committee Chairman Dennis Baxley, a former head of the state Christian Coalition.

The bill (HB 845) would require physicians or health care professionals who perform abortions to swear in writing that the reason for the procedure is not based on the race or gender of the fetus. The measure also carries a $10,000 penalty for performing a race- or gender-based abortion, something bill sponsor Charles Van Zant, R-Keystone Heights, said is becoming a new industry in the U.S.

Both Democrats and Republicans agreed that having an abortion because of the fetus’s race or gender was “abhorrent.”

Rep. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, voted for the measure but echoed concerns expressed by many conservative women throughout the country on the divisive abortion issue. Passidomo said she considered leaving the room to avoid having to cast a vote.

“I don’t like the bill but I don’t like the concept even more,” Passidomo said. “But frankly as a conservative Republican who keeps saying let’s get out of your lives except when we want to stay in it, I’m concerned about that…These kind of issues are not the kind of issues that we should not be handling here in the Florida legislature.”

Rep. Ray Pilon, R-Sarasota, said he could not support the measure because he believes in “personal responsibility.” And Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen, R-Fort Myers, said she shared Passidomo’s concerns about enforceability and “the fact that we are getting into areas that perhaps we shouldn’t be delving in.”

Baxley acknowledged that some committee members did not want to have to vote on the bill.

But, he said, “We cannot give up on this discussion no matter how difficult it is.”

“I implore you to see this as one small area that we can at least say that if you say that’s the reason you’re doing abortion we can say that’s wrong,” Baxley, R-Ocala, said.

The committee approved the measure with a 10-7 vote with Rep. Daphne Campbell, D-Miami, the lone Democrat voting in favor. A similar Senate bill has not yet had a hearing.

The committee also approved another measure (HB 759) supported by abortion opponents. The “Unborn Victims of Violence” proposal would make the death of an “unborn child” at any stage of development a separate crime from any offense committed against the mother, even if the perpetrator was unaware that the woman was pregnant. And it would change the words “viable fetus” and “unborn quick child” in vehicular homicide law to “unborn child,” which Democrats said is akin to more controversial “personhood” proposals attempting to elevate the status of a fetus to that of an adult human being.

Current law now defines homicide as the intentional killing of another human being, said Rep. Dave Kerner, D-Lake Worth, a lawyer.

“This is a huge expansion of …the definition of homicide. And that’s very, very concerning to me,” Kerner said.

The committee approved the measure with a 12-4 vote, with only Democrats opposing it and Campbell voting in support.

Florida elections package passes first committee

Wednesday, February 13th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Elections supervisors would be able to hold early voting from eight to 14 days for up to 12 hours per day and have a broader array of early voting sites under a proposal unanimously approved by the House Ethics and Elections Committee this morning.

The plan also would impose a 75-word limit on the constitutional amendments placed on the ballot by the legislature but only for the first attempt. The full text of amendments struck down by the court and rewritten by the attorney general would be allowed.

The changes are the legislature’s attempt to do away with the long early voting and Election Day lines that once again cast an unwelcome national spotlight on Florida’s fall elections. The proposal mirrors the supervisors of elections’ legislative wish-list, also backed by Secretary of State Ken Detzner, and a yet-to-be-released proposal from the state Senate.

The GOP-controlled legislature shrank the number of early voting days from 14 to eight in a sweeping 2011 bill (HB 1355), signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott.

Rep. Dennis Baxley, the sponsor of HB 1355, said Wednesday morning the new plan should help fix some of the problems voters encountered in the 2012 elections but stopped short of saying his bill that shortened early voting was a mistake and that supervisors needed the full two weeks.

“They need something. And that’s what they asked for and said would help them. So we’re trying to be responsive. I think allowing them more discretion and more time is certainly part of the answer,” Baxley, R-Ocala, said after the vote.

Republicans have repeatedly pointed out that the long lines were isolated in just a handful of counties, including Palm Beach where some voters waited more than eight hours to cast their ballots.

Sonya Gibson, a West Palm Beach educator and activist with the left-leaning Florida New Majority, shared her voting experience with the committee Wednesday morning.

She said she waited about nine hours to vote at the Westgate Community Center before giving up and returning on Election Day with her three daughters, who also voted. She said they waited at the same location for nearly 10 hours on Election Day before casting their ballots.

Former GOP officials and consultants, including former Gov. Charlie Crist, said the 2011 law was designed to curb Democratic turnout after Obama’s Florida victory in 2008.

Gibson called the House measure a “face-saving” measure for Republican lawmakers but a good start.

“At this point, it is time to move forward,” she said. “It’s not anymore about who did what, who didn’t say what or who did say what. It’s about moving forward so you can get the best results for our fellow Floridians, so that we can be an example.”

House Democrats, who withdrew nine amendments to the bill, vowed to push to broaden the bill, including doing away with a requirement in 1355 that forced more voters to cast provisional ballots if they moved outside of the county. Provisional ballots have a greater chance of not being counted and take longer to process at the polls. But they, too, agreed the bill was a good starting point.

“The reality is that this bill ggoes a long way towards repairing the damage that 1355 caused. Democrats spoke extensively against 1355 because we anticipated the problems that actually occurred. This bill starts to remedy that situation,” said Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek, who does not serve on the committee but is one of House Democratic Leader Perry Thurston’s top lieutenants.

Gov. Rick Scott appoints ‘Stand Your Ground’ task force, sets first meeting May 1

Thursday, April 19th, 2012 by Dara Kam

The sponsor of Florida’s first-in-the-nation “Stand Your Ground” law, state Rep. Dennis Baxley, is among the 17 members of Gov. Rick Scott’s “Citizen Safety and Protection” task force that will begin meeting May 1, Scott announced Thursday.

Palm Beach County Judge Krista Marx will also sit on the panel, scheduled to hold meetings around the state and which also includes four state lawmakers from the Sanford area, a retired Florida Supreme Court judge, attorneys and a neighborhood watch volunteer.

Scott announced the formation of the task force in the aftermath of the Feb. 26 shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager, by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Sanford. Sanford claimed he shot the 17-year-old in self-defense. The killing sparked a national outcry over Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law that allows people to use deadly force when they feel threatened and provides immunity from prosecution.

“We are a nation and we are a state of laws. And I’m committing to letting our legal system work to ensure the people in our state are safe and protected,” Scott told reporters at a press conference this morning. “I’m a firm supporter of the Second Amendment. I also want to make sure that we do not rush to conclusions about the ‘Stand Your Ground’ law or any other laws in our state.”

Scott waited to get the task force up-and-running until special prosecutor Angela Corey, tapped by Scott to take over the investigation into Martin’s killing, arrested Zimmerman on second-degree murder charges earlier this month.

Task force chairwoman, Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, a black former state House member who voted in favor of the 2005 law, and vice-chairman Rev. R. B. Holmes Jr., pastor of the Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in Tallahassee joined Scott at a press conference this morning announcing the launch of the task force, which will hold its first meeting in Tallahassee. The panel is made up of “racially, regionally and professionally” diverse members from Pensacola to Miami, Carroll said.

“The brilliance of this is you have the governor’s office saying let’s look at this, versus hot air maybe elsewhere. This committee has the opportunity to listen to the public at large, take their testimony and say these are our suggestions,” Holmes said.

All of Florida’s “justifiable use of force” statute, which includes the controversial “Stand Your Ground” law, will be included within the task force’s scope of work, Carroll said. No one representing the National Rifle Association, which pushed Florida’s law and helped spread it to more than two dozen other states, will be on the panel because no one from the organization applied, Carroll said.

The task force will take public testimony, gather data with the help of the University of Florida law school and make recommendations to the governor and legislative leaders before the legislature meets again in March, Carroll said.

Scott’s office has also set up a website for the panel – – an e-mail account – – and a Twitter handle – @FLCitizenSafety – where the public can review the task force’s work and provide input.

Although the task force’s main focus will be on the justifiable use of force section of Florida law, Chapter 776, the group may also look into some of the state’s many other gun laws, Scott said.

“This task force is going to take input from people about public safety. ‘Stand your ground’ is part of it. But thank goodness we live in a state where the crime rate is at a 40-year low. I want to keep it that way. We all want to keep it that way. If there’s laws that are impacting that, where people don’t feel comfortable, I want to know about it. We all want to know about it,” Scott said.

See the full list of Scott’s task force after the jump.

Al Sharpton rips Rep. Baxley over Florida election law

Wednesday, December 7th, 2011 by Dara Kam

Al Sharpton took state Rep. Dennis Baxley to task over Florida’s new election law on Sharpton’s Politics Nation show on MSNBC tonight.

The sharp-tongued Sharpton, a Democrat, lambasted Baxley, the former head of the state’s Christian Coalition, over changes to the election laws, similar to changes GOP-dominated legislatures approved in more than a dozen states this year. Critics, including Sharpton, say the new laws make it more difficult for minorities and college students – who helped President Obama move into the White House three years ago – to cast their votes. At the urging of U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and some of fellow Democrats, a Congressional hearing in Florida on the election law is in the works.

Baxley and others contend the new laws are aimed at preventing voter fraud. But Sharpton challenged Baxley over the fraud issue, saying Florida had only 31 cases of election fraud since the 2008 election.

“You didn’t have laws after hanging chads and other means disrupted this country in 2000…Is it really because young people and minorities started voting and registering in big numbers and this is the new way that you’re going to try and restrict people’s voting rights?” an incensed Sharpton demanded.

“I don’t see why you have to impugn other people’s motives. You may not like some of the content…but I think it makes…people more secure,” a relaxed Baxley, R-Ocala, said. (Baxley later corrected Sharpton – Florida lawmakers enacted a slew of new voting laws in the aftermath of the protracted 2000 election.)

“If it wasn’t broke why are you fixing it other than this is some political game?” Sharpton persisted.

Baxley said the new laws will protect elections from “from mishap and mischief” and pointed out that “Mickey Mouse” had registered to vote in Florida.

That only provoked Sharpton.

“If you’ve got to get Mickey Mouse to make your case…then believe me you’re trying to take all of us to Disney World for a ride,” he said.

Watch the the two tangle over the League of Women Voters, which stopped registering voters in Florida because of the new law, before the clip ends. Sharpton interviewed Florida LOWV president Deidre MacNab before Baxley came on.

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The most controversial portions of Florida’s elections law are now under review by a three-judge panel in Washington, D.C. The League and other groups are asking that the court reject the changes.

Religious groups rally against Florida brand-changing casino proposal

Tuesday, November 1st, 2011 by Dara Kam

A coalition of religious and anti-gambling groups are uniting to put pressure on lawmakers in the hopes of killing a proposal that would allow up to three Las Vegas-style casinos in South Florida.

The Florida Catholic Conference, the Florida Baptist Convention, Florida Family Action and Florida Casino Watch held a press conference Tuesday morning to declare war on the casino proposal, sponsored by Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, a Fort Lauderdale Republican whose district is dominated by Palm Beach County, and Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami.

Representatives of the religious groups objected to the “destination resorts” in part because, they said, gambling victimizes the poor and is accompanied by social costs such as addiction, prostitution, bankruptcy and suicide.

“This is the big Kahuna that’s been brought to the table to us. And we’ve shown up to say, ‘no thanks,’” said Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, a former head of the state Christian Coalition. He called the casino plan “the biggest brand change” in Florida.

Florida Family Action head John Stemberger, who also heads FFA’s parent group Florida Family Policy Council, named defeating the proposal his organization’s chief objective during the legislative session that ends early in March.

Stemberger plans to use the Internet to expose lawmakers’ votes on the issue with a “Wall of Fame” and “Wall of Shame” and is asking legislators to sign an anti-gambling pledge. Stemberger achieved success with a similar campaign in 2008 when he shepherded a ballot initiative onto the ballot and into the state constitution prohibiting same-sex marriage.


UPDATE: Former Fla Christian Coalition leader to run again for House

Wednesday, January 6th, 2010 by Dara Kam

baxleyFormer Florida Christian Coalition leader Dennis Baxley confirmed he is running for re-election to the state House.

Baxley, a conservative Republican from Ocala, served in the state House from 2000-2008 and as the executive director of the Christian Coalition until May.

The funeral director raised eyebrows prior to the presidential election when he told The Miami Herald how he and other Christians perceived then-candidate Barack Obama: “He’s pretty scary to us.”

Baxley is running for his old District 24 seat because incumbent Rep. Kurt Kelly has jumped into the race against incumbent U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, a liberal Democrat who defeated a four-term incumbent Republican in his election to Congress last year.

Grayson catapulted to national fame with his tongue-in-cheek characterization of the GOP health care reform as “Don’t get sick, and if you do get sick, die quickly.”

Republicans are hoping to win Grayson’s seat back and the race for Congressional District 8 seat is likely to be one of the most closely watched in 2010.

“It’s a big challenge. Congressman Grayson’s become very visible and very positionable. I’m very proud that Kurt’s willing to take on that challenge to try to win that seat back for the Republicans,” Baxley said in a telephone interview this afternoon. “If he can go and accomplish something that difficult I ought to go back to work and try to help our economy again.”

Baxley said his main priority will be job creation to help the state’s out-of-work residents like the 18,000 in his district.

“We really need a primary focus on making an economic climate change for Florida,” he said.

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