tampabay.com

Equal Rights Amendment sinks in legislative tide

By REBECCA CATALANELLO
Published May 2, 2007


TALLAHASSEE - Thirty-five years after the women's rights movement reached a fever pitch with a constitutional amendment to guarantee women equal protection under the law, the Florida House won't give the notion the time of day.

Literally.

Every year since 2003, female Democrats on both sides of the Legislature have filed bills to support Florida's ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.

House Speaker Marco Rubio is the first leader in that period to decline to refer it to a committee - the first step toward helping a bill become law.

Out of 2, 520 bills filed this session, only 25 were not referred to a committee, not including ceremonial resolutions containing no substantive legislation. Of those not referred, only seven were in the House and the one titled "Equal Rights for Men and Women" was among them.

"If we can have a state pie, why can't you affirm your belief that we are all created equal?" said Sen. Alex Villalobos of Miami, one of the most vocal Republicans favoring the legislation.

The ERA passed Congress overwhelmingly in 1972 and was later ratified by 35 states, three short of the 38 needed to amend the Constitution. The key provision of the 52-word amendment states that, "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex."

Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, said the measure is unnecessary. "It's anachronistic, " she said. "It's circa 1970. You're talking to a Florida female senator who's here, who's equal, who's achieved parity with men."

But those pushing ratification say continued gender inequities like the pay gap call for the kind of accountability a constitutional amendment brings.

"The laws on books are good to a point, but when it becomes part of the Constitution, it raises these disparities to a new level of scrutiny, " said Nancy Hurlbert, past president of the Florida Women's Consortium.

Last week, a study by the American Association of University Women found that women working full time one year out of college earn 80 percent as much as their male colleagues, but the gap grows to 69 percent in 10 years.

Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, who sponsored the House legislation the past four years while she was a representative, said, "It's shameful that all of these men who have women and sisters and daughters don't see the need for addressing this important issue."

ERA ratification was one of the hundreds of ideas submitted and published in an early draft of Rubio's "100 Innovative Ideas for Florida's Future, " which has become the centerpiece of the Republican speaker's agenda. But the idea didn't make the final cut.

Rubio said Monday that he couldn't immediately recall why he hadn't referred the measure to committee. "I don't think it's an issue that in this day and age has been very timely, " he said.

Jill Chamberlin, Rubio's spokeswoman, said she doesn't know where the speaker stands on codification of equal rights for women. But the reason he didn't assign Rep. Joyce Cusack's equal rights bill (HB 8003) to a committee this year has nothing to do with ideology, she said.

"The fact is, there are so many issues that are really compelling right now that are not made moot by a statute of limitations, " she said, explaining Rubio's decision not to assign it to a committee.

But the significance of a deadline to ratify the ERA is unclear. ERA supporters believe there is precedence to ignore the deadline if three more states buy in. In 1992, the states ratified the so-called Madison Amendment involving congressional pay. Though originally passed by Congress in 1789, it became the 27th Amendment.

State Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Miami Beach, said that in a legislative career spanning 17 years, she can't remember a time a bill of hers wasn't sent to a committee, as happened with Cusack's bill.

Senate President Ken Pruitt did send Margolis' bill (SB 272) to Judiciary and Rules committees.

Villalobos, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he would have placed it on a committee agenda, but it was already dead in the House.

Gov. Charlie Crist said Monday he hasn't taken a stance on the ERA, but didn't know why.

"First time I've been asked, " he said. "I believe in equal rights, that's fairly obvious."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

By the numbers

28 Number of committees the ERA ratification bill has been referred to in both branches of the Legislature since 2003.

1 Number of committees in the Legislature that have actually heard the bill since 2003.

2, 520 Number of bills filed in the Legislature this year.

25 Number of substantive bills that haven't gotten any committee assignment this session.

1972 Year Congress approved the ERA, subject to ratification by the states.

35 Number of states that have ratified the ERA.

3 Number of states still needed for the Constitution to be amended to include the ERA.

77 cents What the U.S. Census says is the median figure representing what women made to every dollar men made in full-time employment in 2002.