TAMPA — A coalition of many politically influential Florida businesses — some of whom typically back conservative or Republican causes — have announced their support for a law adding sex orientation and gender identity to state anti-discrimination laws.
Similar legislation has been filed in the state Legislature for at least eight years, but has never gone anywhere, said one sponsor of the bill, Rep. Holly Raschein, R-Key Largo.
She said the business support could make a difference.
“In my dozen years in this process, I’ve never seen a powerful coalition like that form,” Raschein said.
A prominent opponent, however, said the bill still faces an uphill climb in the Legislature, although he conceded support for gay rights has been growing.
“There’s no doubt that through the media and Hollywood they’ve made progress on swaying a lot of opinion on this ... I have no doubt they’re picking up more sympathizers,” said state Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, a leading Christian conservative legislator.
But, Baxley said, “Among the people that have to make the hiring and firing decisions in daily life, I think there’s still a broad discussion that has to be held.
“We’re feeling the pressure that we’re supposed to change our moral view and that’s quite a challenging dialog to have.”
The new coalition includes Disney World, railway giant CSX, health insurer Florida Blue, Wells Fargo, Florida Fortune 500 companies Tech Data and Darden Restaurants. The companies said they’ll have an easier time recruiting employees if Florida is known as a state that doesn’t allow discrimination.
“Recruiting and retaining talent is critical to our long-term business success,” said a statement from the coalition. “Florida employers must attract qualified and diverse applicants who reflect the diverse population of the state.”
The coalition said there is a “link between strong anti-discrimination laws and the ability to draw the best and the brightest,” and that most of the nation’s largest companies have adopted anti-discrimination policies that include sexual orientation and gender identity.
Florida gay rights advocates welcomed the support.
Companies considering relocation or expansion want to know their employees and their families will be treated fairly, said Nadine Smith, president of Equality Florida, the state’s most prominent gay rights group.
“The corporate culture understands that top talent look not only at a company’s internal policies, but also at the community they will call home,” Smith said.
The statement from the businesses, calling themselves the Florida Business Coalition for a Competitive Workforce, described the legislation they’re backing as bipartisan.
Along with Republican Raschein, main sponsors include three Democrats — Sen. Joe Abruzzo of Wellington and Reps. Raschein and Joe Saunders of Orlando.
CSX and Florida Blue are among the larger corporate political donors in Florida. Both companies give to both parties and their candidates, but give substantially more to Republicans. Florida Blue, for example, has given $85,000 to Gov. Rick Scott’s political committee, Let’s Get to Work.
“On this issue, this is the right thing to do – we don’t look at the politics of it. It’s not about whether the person has an R or D affiliated with their name,” said Jason Altmire, Florida Blue senior vice president.
“As a state we’re competing for talent from across the country and the world, so you want to be inclusive,” he said.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story reported the wrong party affiliation for Republican State Rep. Holly Raschein of Key Largo.