Scott Maxwell: Florida scrub-jay loses, Elon Musk wins in legislative session

Gun Rights

Florida’s war on “woke” got the most attention during the last legislative session as GOP lawmakers took on drag queens and diversity initiatives. But several issues that received less attention are still worth noting — including favors lawmakers did for Elon Musk and other private-sector space entrepreneurs who wanted protection from lawsuits and for Major League Baseball owners who wanted the ability to skirt the state’s minimum-wage laws.

Meanwhile, a group of Seminole County high school students fighting for recognition of the Florida scrub-jay were rejected again.

SpaceX, Blue Origin protection

We already knew that Florida lawmakers like to protect companies and corporations from lawsuits. (If you didn’t know, just wait ’til the next time your homeowners’ insurance company tries to stiff you on a claim and you want to object.) Lawmakers have made it tougher for Floridians to sue everything from insurance companies to roller-skating rinks.

But this past session, lawmakers gave special, big-ticket protection to people with big bankrolls — the nation’s spaceflight entrepreneurs.

Guys like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos don’t want anyone suing them if things go wrong. And lawmakers were happy to help out with a new law that would that shield them from lawsuits from workers whose family members might be killed or injured in accidents associated with a launch or reentry.

This bill (SB 1318) had broad bipartisan support. In fact, only five lawmakers voted no, including two Central Florida House Democrats: Anna Eskamani and Rita Harris.

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the bill that would help Musk the day after Musk helped the governor announce his campaign for the White House.

Lower baseball wages

Space pioneers weren’t the only billionaires who got help from Tallahassee lawmakers. Major League Baseball team owners also successfully lobbied for the right to pay their minor-league players less than Florida’s minimum-wage law requires.

Yes, if DeSantis signs SB 892, team owners would have the right to pay their Florida players less than McDonald’s pays its drive-through workers.

Bill sponsors argued that minor-league players needn’t be paid more because the lawmakers equated time in the minor leagues to an “interview for a job.” A really, really long one.

This bill had a particularly bad look to it — not only because it was basically billionaire club owners fighting for the right to pay poverty wages, but also because it meant subverting the will of Florida voters who enshrined higher minimum wages in the state constitution three years ago.

Still, Senate Republicans were able to persuade Democrats to join them in unanimously supporting this bill in that chamber while most House Democrats voted no.

Scrub-jay dissed

And finally we have an update on the long-running effort to honor the Florida scrub-jay — a crusade that doesn’t have any billionaires backing it.

A Florida scrub-jay is perched with an acorn in its mouth next to a trail in Blue Spring State Park on Friday, June 17, 2022. (Patrick Connolly)
A Florida scrub-jay is perched with an acorn in its mouth next to a trail in Blue Spring State Park on Friday, June 17, 2022. (Patrick Connolly)

For more than two decades, high school students in Seminole County have led the charge to make the scrub-jay the state bird. The students say Florida made a mistake a century ago when it chose the mockingbird — a bird so common that its habitat stretches from Nova Scotia to El Salvador and is the state bird in four other states.

I agree with them. As I’ve said before: Having the mockingbird as your state bird is like telling the world that 7-11 is Florida’s favorite small business.

So, starting in 1999, students began asking legislators to replace the mockingbird with the friendly little blue scrub-jay, a uniquely Floridian bird that’s listed as threatened under the Federal Endangered Species Act.

NRA lobbyist battles Florida high schoolers … over state bird | Commentary

Most people seem to agree with the kids. But not retired NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer, who loathes the little scrub-jay with a bizarre passion. (Hammer once testified to legislators that the scrub-jay’s willingness to eat out of human hands proved the bird had a “welfare mentality.”)

Long-time gun lobbyist Marion Hammer started fighting to prevent the scrub jay from becoming the state bird of Florida more than two decades ago.

Phil Sears/AP

Long-time gun lobbyist Marion Hammer started fighting to prevent the scrub-jay from becoming the state bird of Florida more than two decades ago.

Hammer persuaded lawmakers to kill the scrub-jay bill in 1999, 2000, 2005 and 2016. But most every year, one graduating class in Seminole would turn to the classes behind them and urge them to keep trying.

This year, the kids got as far as ever with Seminole County commissioners voting to make the scrub-jay the county’s official bird. But state lawmakers once again refused.

Seminole High School environmental science teacher Kris Cole said this week that his students are still learning a lot and remain undeterred. “From my perspective, this is about teaching students the legislative process and empowering them to be heard,” he said. “The juniors informed me that they would like to continue advocating for their bird next year.”

This push certainly isn’t the most pressing issue facing Florida. What’s interesting, though, is that almost everyone who actually studies or considers the issue agrees that the scrub-jay is more worthy than the mockingbird.

But unlike the exploding-rocket-protection-act and the pay-baseball-players-like-they’re-teenage-babysitters act, there are no billionaires or deep-pocketed lobbyists backing this bill. The only people pushing for this are bird-lovers and high school students. So they’ve been ignored and rejected for more than two decades now — meaning the kids really are getting a good, first-hand lesson in how government works.

smaxwell@orlandosentinel.com

Seminole High students first row from left to right, Emily Cummings, Caitlyn Campbell, Caitlyn Nawrocki, Lucy Guo, Navya Sharma and second row from left to right Jane Flores, Hayden Emmans, Felipe Quiroz and Olyvia Collins show their Scrub Jay wing sign in this portrait as a group working to make Florida's official state bird to be the scrub jay in Sanford, Fla., Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022. (Willie J. Allen Jr./Orlando Sentinel)

Willie J. Allen Jr./Orlando Sentinel

Seminole High students first row from left to right, Emily Cummings, Caitlyn Campbell, Caitlyn Nawrocki, Lucy Guo, Navya Sharma and second row from left to right Jane Flores, Hayden Emmans, Felipe Quiroz and Olyvia Collins show their Scrub Jay wing sign in this portrait as a group working to make Florida’s official state bird to be the scrub jay in Sanford, Fla., Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022. (Willie J. Allen Jr./Orlando Sentinel)

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