When Democrats vote Republican, Floridians always lose | Steve Bousquet

By Steve Bousquet

South Florida Sun-Sentinel • Feb 25, 2022 at 2:09 pm

TALLAHASSEE — Republicans have enough votes in Tallahassee to pass all the terrible laws they want. The last thing Florida needs is for Democrats to help them.

If they do, it had better be for a damn good reason, like protecting unsuspecting consumers in the midst of a housing crisis. But that’s not what happened this week.

Thirteen Democrats in the Florida House, many from South Florida, joined Republicans in passing a bill to allow landlords to charge new monthly fees to renters instead of a hefty upfront security deposit. It’s true that a deposit is a major burden for many struggling tenants, but this solution creates a new problem.

As the bill’s fine print says, the monthly fee will not cover repair or replacement costs that would have been covered by a security deposit. Under the guise of helping renters, this is a giveaway to landlords, and it actually weakens the few protections for renters in Chapter 83 of Florida laws.

The bill (HB 537) is being pushed by out-of-state companies that are marketing the “renter’s choice” fee across the country. One company, LeaseLock, hired Tallahassee lobbyists, who drafted a bill and provided talking points to a bill sponsor. Leaselock sent campaign checks to both bill sponsors, Sen. Jim Boyd of Bradenton and Rep. Jim Mooney of Islamorada, and the small investment is already paying big dividends.

Sadly for poor tenants, too many Democrats also bought the industry’s spin.

The bill passed the House Thursday, 88 to 27, and goes to the Senate for a vote in the Rules Committee. That quick action shows how this anti-consumer turkey is “greased” for passage.

The House roll call shows that Democrats who voted for this bill included Reps. Robin Bartleman of Weston, Joe Casello of Boynton Beach, Dan Daley of Coral Springs, Joe Geller of Aventura, Anika Omphroy of Lauderdale Lakes, Kelly Skidmore of Boca Raton and Matt Willhite of Wellington. They are conscientious legislators, which makes this vote even more inexplicable.

“I’m looking at the crisis that’s taking place now, and I see this as a way forward,” said Omphroy, whose central Broward district is filled with rental units. “I’m asking my colleagues not to look through this with their middle-class lenses, but from the vantage point of people who need to live in a house, an apartment.”

The Democrats’ own staff tried to get them to see the hidden risks, to no avail.

An analysis by the House Democratic office, which helps lawmakers understand the details of bills, included this: “These fees are not security deposits. They shift all of the financial risk to the tenant. If there is damage to the apartment, the landlord can collect these fees and still charge tenants for the full amount. … There are no restrictions on how much these fees can be.”

At least one Democrat who voted yes — I can’t predict who — could be challenged from the left in the August primary, where a progressive opponent will use this vote like a club to beat on the incumbent as pro-landlord and anti-tenant, anti-worker and anti-family.

If you’re a Democrat, voting for this bill was bad politics.

Here’s why: Republicans have the votes. The bill is going to pass anyway. The safe, smart vote for a Democrat who views this issue in purely political terms was to vote no. To make it simpler: As a Democrat, it’s better to be on the side of tenants than landlords.

Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, offered a slew of amendments to add consumer safeguards to the bill, such as capping fees. All failed.

Several opponents gave strong floor speeches. None was better than Rep. Angie Nixon of Jacksonville, who pointed out that the bill allows landlords to market the new fee as an unregulated form of phony insurance in a state notorious for consumer scams of all kinds.

“No consumer guardrails. No caps on fees,” Nixon said. “A poor tenant tax, plain and simple.”

Besides Nixon, Democrats who voted no included Reps. Mike Gottlieb of Davie, Christine Hunschofsky of Parkland, Evan Jenne of Dania Beach, Felicia Robinson of Miami Gardens, Patricia Williams of Pompano Beach and Marie Woodson of Hollywood. Also voting no were Reps. Kristen Arrington, D-Kissimmee; Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa; Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando; Dotie Joseph, D-North Miami; and Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando.

Bravo to them, and boo to the others.

“It’s a sad day for tenants,” said Ida Eskamani of Florida Rising, one of the bill’s toughest critics. “More lawmakers need to talk to more tenants.”

Democrats are desperate to become relevant again. They need to win elections. They can start by voting like Democrats — not Republicans.