Lawmakers in Tallahassee too often lack the maturity and sense of history needed to make decisions that are independent of their political party or the lobbyists and special interests who too often dominate debates with money and promises of support.
Sen. Jack Latvala, a Republican from Clearwater who has served a combined 12 years in the Senate, demonstrated during this past legislative session the value of lawmakers who feel comfortable voting their convictions.
Latvala was behind several key measures this year, including one that will grant in-state college tuition to deserving immigrants and one that creates a fair process when funding stadium improvements for pro sports teams. He also proposed reasonable amendments to a dangerous bill supported by the National Rifle Association that led its sponsor to withdraw the bill.
Latvala served in the Senate from 1994 until term limits forced him out in 2002. He returned in 2010 after an eight-year absence and has shown how experience equates to effectiveness and can foster independence.
He was instrumental in the in-state tuition bill being passed this session after a decade of failed attempts by previous legislatures. Granted, the measure passed in an election year when Republicans are courting the Hispanic vote. But early on Latvala was making the case for giving undocumented students the same chance at a higher education given to their classmates.
It’s a compassionate measure that passed despite opposition from some powerful Republicans in the Senate. “I predict this will be one of the debates you remember,” Latvala said to his fellow senators, invoking the long view the issue deserved.
He also pushed for a stadium funding bill that will foster competition among professional teams asking for state money. It limits the total amount being awarded in any given year and establishes accountability measures to ensure the teams live up to their end of the deal. Florida is home to 10 major sports franchises, including the Rays, the Lightning and the Buccaneers, as well as dozens of minor league franchises, Arena Football League teams, NASCAR racing tracks and spring training facilities. Professional sports is big business in Florida that deserves state support, and there is now a process for evaluating and ranking the various funding requests.
Latvala also listened to Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and other law enforcement officials who questioned the need for a law that would allow gun owners without a concealed weapons permit to carry concealed weapons after disasters and other emergencies.
Derisively called the “bring your gun to a riot bill,” the NRA-backed measure passed in the House and seemed headed for passage in the Senate until Latvala introduced a common-sense amendment to put limits on how long a person could carry the weapon after a storm or other disaster had passed. That led to the bill being pulled before a final vote was taken.
No need for the law was ever demonstrated. People, regardless of whether they have a concealed weapon permit, can transport firearms during evacuations.
Latvala is a gun rights advocate who likely would have supported a more thoughtful measure, but he recognized that the sweeping proposal essentially would encourage people to carry firearms during times of enormous stress and confusion — and when families may be crammed into schools and other shelters. This made no sense.
Latvala showed in all these cases that the greater good is served by taking the long view and focusing on constituents’ welfare rather than blindly following party leadership or special interests, no matter how powerful.