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Sen. Lauren Book revives human trafficking bill in dramatic fashion

SCOTT KEELER | TAMPA BAY TIMES Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, watches as Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, decides that Book's human trafficking bill could be ruled out of order on Thursday, March 8, 2018. State Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, in the background, made the motion to rule it out of order. It passed anyway.

Sen. Lauren Book's human trafficking bill was brought back to life on Thursday, after she used a clever bit of legislative maneuvering to bring it before the Senate for a vote.

It was a dramatic turnaround for a piece of legislation that had sailed through both chambers of the Legislature, but appeared dead last week, after Book, D-Plantation, mysteriously postponed her own bill.

The bill would allow victims to sue the hotels and motels that turn a blind eye to human trafficking.

Her decision last week left trafficking victims furious and fellow lawmakers scratching their heads, wondering if Senate leadership and the powerful hotel lobby, including Disney, was working behind the scenes to kill the bill.

But on Thursday, with two trafficking survivors looking on, Book revived it in dramatic fashion. 

She used an amendment to sneak the bill's language onto a different bill, a tactic that violates Senate rules.

And Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, was quick to point out that it went against the rules. The decision about whether Lee was right went to the Rules committee chair, Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers.

After a few minutes to look it over, Benacquisto came back and told her colleagues that Book's amendment did violate the rules.

But then, Lee, surprisingly, alerted Book that she had a way to veto the rules: she could call for a 2/3rds vote from her colleagues.

Lee later said in a text message that he wasn't sure if Book was aware that she could override the rule.

"I felt it was important that we follow our rules, but it's a very sensitive issue," Lee said. "I didn't want it to die without giving Sen. Book a fighting chance to pass it."

Book did ask for the 2/3rds vote, and it prevailed. Her new bill - the unrelated one with the human trafficking bill attached to it - then passed overall.

It still faces an uphill battle, however. It needs to pass the Senate again today and then pass the House.

But Book's move gave new hope to the two human trafficking survivors watching from the gallery, who had made multiple trips to Tallahassee to tell lawmakers, in public and on television, their stories.

"Two-thirds of the Senate was on our side, so it's good to know they're standing with us," said Savannah Parvu, 31.

Former Seminole County prosecutor Lisa Haba, who traveled to Tallahassee multiple times to talk about how motels and hotels turned a blind eye to human trafficking, praised Book afterward.

"She has been a tremendous advocate for survivors of human trafficking," Haba said.

Linsey Ruth, who told lawmakers this session how she was trafficked by her ex-husband, also praised the senator who has sponsored the bill in the House, Rep. Ross Spano, R-Dover.

"There are a lot of really good people behind it, and we're happy to see that," Ruth said. "In our past lives, it's just been us. We've been all on our own."