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Activists push progressive agenda for 2016 Legislative Session

in Statewide/Top Headlines by

On the eve of this year’s Legislative Session, Tampa Bay area activists took to St. Pete City Hall to drum up support for a variety of legislative priorities. Backed by more than a dozen supporters waving signs, the most immediate push was the Fight for $15 movement to raise the minimum wage.

Putting a new face to the fight was St. Pete’s newest City Council member, Lisa Wheeler-Brown.

“I live in midtown where people work hard, and they deserve a living wage,” Wheeler-Brown said. “We are not asking Tallahassee anything; we are demanding.”

Wheeler-Brown grew emotional as she described the environment in which she lives in what is St. Pete’s poorest area. She said people come to her house to be fed all the time because they can’t afford to feed themselves. She reminded onlookers, that she doesn’t have much to give, but would never turn her back on those in need.

“Do the right thing so that we can live and work and play in St. Petersburg and with dignity,” Wheeler-Brown implored lawmakers.

But the issue isn’t likely to gain traction in Tallahassee where a majority of lawmakers are Republicans opposed to raising the minimum wage to even $10.10 as President Barack Obama has suggested – let alone $15.

But the fight is building.

“We are not going anywhere,” said activist and child care provider Demetra Atkins, who said she barely scrapes by. She said more than half of Florida’s workers earn below $15.

“It is the low wage workers that keep the corporations running,” Atkins said. “We have millions of people that can’t afford to pay rent.”

Many of those individuals are used as the face of poverty and the fight for $15. They mark the stories of families choosing between medication and food or electricity versus water.

But it’s not just lawmakers who are reluctant to cave on the issue. Many residents and voters view the issue not through the eyes of a struggling mother working two jobs to make ends meet, but instead of a lazy dropout flipping burgers at a fast food joint.

Case and point, as activists waved their signs in the air under the flag pole at City Hall, two men were stopped at the traffic light on motorcycles. The two shouted in disgust that those people should “get a job.”

To add insult to injury, they glared at the group as they passed through the light.

But Fight for $15 is not the only agenda this year. The Florida Immigrant Coalition handed out a list containing five proposed bills to oppose in 2016. Maria Jose Hayes, a first generation Mexican immigrant, said the bills would criminalize immigrants and separate families.

One, filed by Representative Carlos Trujillo, would make it a third-degree felony to re-enter Florida after having been deported. Another by Senator Travis Hutson would make it a first-degree felony to continue living in the state if a person had an outstanding deportation order.

Hutson also filed or co-sponsored legislation to enhance criminal penalties for undocumented immigrants and another that would require a primary member of a family who is undocumented, but not legally eligible to receive financial benefits from the state to report their income in determining assistance eligibility for the whole family.

That bill, the group says, would further hurt all Floridians by reducing the amount of time people can receive cash assistance from 48-months to 30.

Hayes lamented to the anti-immigrant lawmakers that “we are not your scapegoats.”

“We contribute in our communities,” she said. “And we are also business owners.”

Another issue laid out Tuesday morning was a fracking ban. Hydraulic Fracturing, more commonly referred to as fracking, injects chemicals deep into the earth to force natural gas back up toward the surface to be collected.

“It poses a huge threat,” said City Council member Darden Rice who supported a recent resolution approved by Council supporting a ban.

Jennifer Rubiello with the group Environment Florida pointed to the ongoing gas leak in California that has so far released more than 77,000 metric tons of methane since rupturing in October. She said the leak has caused residents nearby to suffer from headaches and nosebleeds, among other things.

She said a City Council member there compared the leak to the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, except this incident was on land where people live.

But Rice worried lawmakers aren’t hearing those concerns – or are ignoring them.

“The oil industry is busy keeping legislators from banning fracking,” Rice said.

And she reminded this isn’t the only issue the state preempts localities from banning. Local governments are not allowed, due to state law, to implement any gun ordinances. They also cannot ban smoking outdoors at a playground.

The 2016 Legislative Session begins Wednesday.

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email

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