BY DARA KAM
NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
TALLAHASSEE – From the mundane to the “transformational,” Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature didn’t shy away from controversy during the annual session that wrapped up on May 4.
To the contrary, GOP lawmakers seemed to embrace it.
Immigration, school vouchers and felons’ voting rights were just some of the provocative issues that drove thousands of Floridians to the state Capitol to make their voices heard.
And of course, what would a Florida legislative session be without a fierce debate about guns, with this year’s focus on arming teachers.
Light moments too
As illustrated by the red and green lights on House and Senate voting boards, if the contentious issues didn’t deepen a partisan chasm in the chambers, they did nothing to assuage it.
The past few weeks, however, had some lighter moments, too.
For example, Floridians will now be freer to grow their succotash, thanks to a powerful senator who came to the rescue of a South Florida couple forced by local officials to rip out a front-yard veggie patch.
A bill bans local governments from regulating homeowners’ vegetable gardens.
Victory for Oliva
The state’s Republican leadership troika – Gov. Ron DeSantis, House Speaker José Oliva and Senate President Bill Galvano – scored even bigger triumphs.
Oliva is doing a victory lap after nailing down his major priorities, such as a health-care overhaul that included tangling with what he calls the “hospital-industrial complex.”
Galvano walked away with a toll-road plan that prompted environmentalists to declare war. And DeSantis gained a ban on so-called “sanctuary” cities, allowing him to deliver on a campaign pledge.
Wins for DeSantis
The governor also emerged from his first legislative session with a program that would allow the state to begin importing drugs from Canada, if the federal government goes along with the idea.
DeSantis also won big on his education agenda, which includes boosting the workforce by helping students pursue vocational and technical training in high school, and on his drive to address Florida’s water woes.
“I’m pleased that we’ve really changed the conversation on a number of things,” the governor told reporters after the session concluded the afternoon of May 4. “I think there was just a lot of opportunities to lead, and I took ‘em, but then these guys in the Legislature took ‘em as well, and I think that’s a good thing.”
Educators, parents, students and proponents of stricter gun laws successfully beat back a plan last year that would have allowed specially trained teachers to bring guns to their classrooms, a proposal borne of the horrific massacre that left 17 students and faculty members dead at a Parkland school in February 2018.
But the November elections changed that. An infusion of new Republicans into the state Senate helped secure the passage last week of a measure that would allow armed teachers.
The House on May 1 gave final passage to a wide-ranging school safety bill that would expand the controversial school “guardian” program and carry out other recommendations of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission.
Five Republicans in the House and one in the Senate, which passed the bill earlier, voted against the bill.
The guardian program was created last year and allowed armed school staff members whose primary duties are outside the classroom.
Criticized by Dems
But the proposal on its way to DeSantis would expand the program and allow teachers to volunteer to become guardians in school districts that authorize it, a policy reversal that drew heavy criticism from Democrats, who spent hours railing against the plan.
“Here we are, one year later, and for some reason the carefully crafted compromise that agonized all of us has just been completely abandoned and tossed out the window,” Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, said.
But supporters of the proposal argued that allowing teachers to have guns could make a life-saving difference in the time it takes for law enforcement to arrive during active-shooter situations at schools.
“This is not about gun rights or anything like that. This is about keeping our children safe and, when all other things fail, that there is a last line of defense to save our children. And it’s nothing more than that,” Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, RFleming Island, said.
DeSantis indicated Saturday he will sign the bill (SB 7030) into law.
Sanctuary cities law
Exposing another sharp partisan divide, the Legislature approved one of the strictest laws in the nation against so-called sanctuary cities.
The House and Senate passed the bill (SB 168) Thursday after heavy debate in both chambers. DeSantis thanked Oliva and Galvano and the bill’s sponsors for “recognizing the importance of the issue,” which was one of the cornerstones of his campaign for governor last year.
“Local law enforcement agencies can and should work with the federal government to ensure that accountability and justice are one in our state,” DeSantis said in a prepared statement following the bill’s passage.
Intense immigration debate
The governor’s desire to force local and state officials to fully cooperate with federal immigration authorities sparked intense debate about how the state, which has about 800,000 undocumented immigrants, should enforce immigration laws.
The Legislature’s action came amid national battles about President Donald Trump’s attempts to curb illegal immigration.
The bill would require local law-enforcement agencies to share information with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement about undocumented immigrants who are in their custody. That would include campus police agencies and the Department of Children and Families.
During debate on May 2, Hispanic Democrats shared personal stories about the struggles their families have faced in the United States.
One of the most poignant testimonies came from Rep. Cindy Polo, a Miramar Democrat whose Colombian parents overstayed their visas and temporarily lived in the U.S. without documents.
“To my parents, thank you for not following the law, thank you for fighting a broken procedure,” Polo said. “And I am sorry we could not do more.”
Democrats argued the Senate proposal is an “un-American” and “mean-spirited” approach to ensuring public safety.
“This is a proactive bill that panders to fear,” said Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg. “It panders to the specter of what is not.”
‘We are human beings’
But Sen. Joe Gruters, a Sarasota Republican who doubles as chairman of the Republican Party of Florida and who sponsored the measure, argued that the bill will only target “criminal illegal aliens” who break the law and will force county jails to honor federal immigration detainers that would hold undocumented immigrants for up to 48 hours.
“As long as they are not arrested, there should be zero fear about being impacted by this bill,” Gruters, R-Sarasota, said.
But Sen. Victor Torres took umbrage at Gruters’ repeated use of the words “illegal aliens” during Senate debate.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are not aliens. We are human beings,” Torres said.
Felons and voting rights
The partisan battle lines again were drawn on a proposal intended to carry out a constitutional amendment restoring felons’ voting rights.
The House passed the measure on May 3, the last full day of the legislative session, with Republicans saying the proposal reflects the wording of what appeared as Amendment 4 on the November ballot and Democrats arguing the legislation is too restrictive and would block people from being able to vote.
The amendment granted restoration of voting rights to felons “who have completed all terms of their sentence, including parole or probation” and excluded people “convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense.”
Desmond Meade and Neil Volz, who work for a political committee that propelled the amendment to victory in November and who watched from the public gallery during floor debate this week, called the bill on its way to DeSantis “disheartening” and “disappointing.” DeSantis told reporters Saturday he supports the bill (SB 7066).
One of the most controversial provisions in the bill deals with financial obligations that felons would be required to fulfill before their voting rights are restored. The proposal would require felons to repay all restitution and fees and fines ordered by courts, not including “any fines, fees, or costs that accrue after the date the obligation is ordered as part of the sentence.”
Black lawmakers balk
The financial obligations would be considered completed if they are paid in full, if a victim or the court “forgives” the restitution, or if a judge allows felons to serve community service in lieu of payment.
But Black lawmakers have taken umbrage at the linkage between money, voting and a person’s felony status, saying it is a reminder of Florida’s ugly Jim Crow-era policies aimed at keeping Blacks from the ballot box.
Florida’s law requiring felons to get clemency in order to vote “was created to make sure that Black men couldn’t vote,” an emotional Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, told his colleagues during a Democratic caucus meeting last week.
“(I’m) keeping it real…. To me, I don’t think this law should be around, just like I don’t think slavery should be around,” he said.
The final plan contained harsher provisions than earlier versions proposed by Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican who has long been an advocate for criminal justice reform. Throughout a Senate debate, Brandes defended the measure.
“I think we’re constitutionally bound to include all terms of sentence … and I think via this legislation, we are doing our constitutional obligation to define those undefined terms in the amendment,” he said.
But in closing remarks, Brandes appeared almost apologetic.
“Obviously, you know my heart is in a different place and would love to go farther,” the soft-spoken Republican said. “I have gone as far as I can, as far as this bicameral process will let us go, to seek mercy over sacrifice.”
Jeb Bush attendance
Two decades after then-Gov. Jeb Bush started a broad push for school choice, the Legislature approved a closely watched expansion that will provide vouchers to thousands of children to attend private schools.
As a sign of the significance of the bill (SB 7070), Bush made a rare appearance in the Capitol and was seated on the House floor on April 30 for the final vote. He was flanked by Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, another longtime voucher supporter, and Galvano, R-Bradenton.
DeSantis is expected to sign the bill, which features the creation of the “Family Empowerment Scholarship Program.” Under that voucher program, state money will be used next year to pay for as many as 18,000 students to attend private schools, with the number of students slowly increasing in future years.
‘Waste of money’
Supporters argued the bill would give parents the ability to choose the best schools for their children.
“Frankly, the time for political posturing is coming to an end, and now it’s time to do what is right for our middle-income and low-income families in the state of Florida,” House PreK-12 Appropriations Chairman Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, said.
But critics warned of taking money out of the public school system and sending it to private schools.
“As a taxpayer, I think this is a waste of money,” Rep. John Cortes, D-Kissimmee, said. “We should be fixing our public schools with solutions, instead of making more problems.”
Story of the session
Lawmakers passed a $91.1 billion state spending plan and nearly 200 other bills during the annual legislative session that concluded on May 4.
Quote of the session
“We’re not legislative sociopaths here. We have the ability to care, to reach out to affected parties that we know are impacted by these bills and do what we can to (put) words on paper that say what we mean. And in this case, doing so would blunt some of the vulnerabilities that this bill has.” – Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, during debate on the “sanctuary” cities ban.