Legislative immunity bill dead for this year

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House leaders pulled the plug Monday on a controversial bill that would have spelled out legislators’ immunity from testifying in civil lawsuits moments after a key senator said he could not support the bill.

Under the measure (HB 7123), lawmakers would be immune from any civil action surrounding state business, though they could still be called to testify in criminal matters. Staff members would also be immune and could not waive their immunity without the permission of the lawmaker they were working for at the time or the presiding officer.

It followed attempts to force several lawmakers and staff members to testify in at least two lawsuits. Earlier this month, a federal judge swatted down attempts to compel testimony from four lawmakers and two staffers in a case over a new election law. An attempt in state court to force Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, and an aide to testify in a tax lawsuit involving Broward County and online travel firm Expedia is still pending.

But opponents said the measure was really aimed at lawsuits already filed or expected to be filed in response to the once-a-decade redistricting process. On Monday afternoon, Senate Reapportionment Chairman Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, issued a statement saying he would vote against the bill if it reached the Senate floor.

“My view is there is already sufficient and substantial legal protection against ‘intrusive deposition’ of legislators in matters of public policy,” said Gaetz, who is also slated to become Senate president later this year. “No additional legislation is needed and to attempt to enact a bill at this time allows it to be misconstrued by redistricting opponents.”

Gaetz added that he did not “want to chance even an appearance that the Legislature is not fully willing and able to explain our plans to any court of competent jurisdiction.”

Less than half an hour later, House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, issued a statement essentially killing the bill for the 2012 session.

“The hysterical reaction we’ve witnessed over the last few days has been ill-informed and politically-motivated,” Cannon said. “Unfortunately, a debate this year on this subject will never be free of partisan rancor, blatant political opportunism, and unrestrained hypocrisy on the part of those who wish to discredit the most open and transparent redistricting process in Florida’s history.”

House Rules Committee Chairman Gary Aubuchon, R-Cape Coral, said at the beginning of his committee’s meeting Monday afternoon that he didn’t intend to bring up the bill, but encouraged lawmakers who return to the Legislature next year to consider it — once the legal jostling over redistricting has largely passed.

Already, opponents of the Legislature’s maps were making an issue of the immunity bill.

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Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.