Just because their days of setting the legislative agenda are a fading memory — a condition that seems unlikely to change anytime soon — doesn't mean Florida's Democrats have lost their spunk, or their flair for the grand, if futile, gesture. It doesn't matter which side of the aisle you sit on, you have to admire gamesmanship in the minority. I mean, when he announced it 20 years ago, what was Newt Gingrich's “Contract with America” if not a ploy by the entrenched Republican minority to gain attention for the 1994 congressional campaign? Until the returns came in that November, nobody expected he'd actually get a chance to implement the thing. So here came state Democratic lawmakers last week, grabbing the baton with spirit and bravado, hoping, like their partners in Washington, to change the subject. Never mind all that talk in Tallahassee about job growth, tax cuts, expanding K-12 vouchers, corralling college tuition and remaking public employees' pension plans favored by the Republican majority. Echoing President Obama, Florida Democrats want attention paid to the state minimum wage and gender-based wage inequities.
Count House Speaker Will Weatherford of Wesley Chapel among the unimpressed. “This is the magical time in session,” he told a reporter, “when people who cannot pass their bills resort to political stunts.” He called such hijinks “a sad but predictable pastime” with the May 2 deadline looming. Ah, but what stunts these are. At a press conference pushing a moribund bill that would require the state to collect data on women's pay and act on behalf of those who sense they're targets of discrimination, Rep. Janet Cruz of Tampa played the how-dare-they card: “By not acting, Republicans are telling their daughters that no matter how much they work, they are not worth as much as their brothers.” That's one way of looking at it. On the other hand, perhaps Republicans are aware of studies by the Labor Department and private-sector economists during the past five years that indicate when such variables as education, experience, career choice and time on the job are factored in, the wage gap essentially vanishes. Perhaps, too, Republicans are wary of laying a fresh paper-pushing mandate on employers already crowded by the ceaseless demands of bureaucrats. Nah. It's probably that daughter- brother thing. Meanwhile, demonstrating a quixotic commitment to hiking Florida's minimum wage to the national target advocated by the president ($10.10), a handful of Democrats accepted the challenge of Miami Sen. Dwight Bullard to live for a week on the state's minimum wage of $7.93 an hour (or $317 before taxes for a 40-hour worker). Never mind what independent surveys and the Congressional Budget Office say about how employers would absorb such a boost. (Here's a hint: It wouldn't be by creating more jobs.) Or which demographic dominates minimum-wage jobs. (The Bureau of Labor Statistics says it's young people living in middle-class households.) Or how federal programs enhance the purchasing power of minimum-wage-earning adults rearing families. What needs keeping in mind is, according to polls, about 70 percent of Floridians favor raising the minimum wage. And also that legislators going grocery shopping with $45 to spend makes great television. The Gainesville representative who lamented having to forgo his usual steak purchase was local news gold. But, as Weatherford notes, those bills are headed nowhere. Except into campaign advertisements we'll start seeing on the other side of Labor Day. The influence they exercise over November's outcomes will reveal much about Floridians' preference for sentiment over economic literacy.