A gambling deal may or may not happen, but lawmakers are racing toward the finish line in the 2019 legislative session.
As in previous years, Republican leaders are horse-trading over their priorities in the lead-up to budget negotiations, expected to kick off when lawmakers return to Tallahassee following the holiday weekend.
Armed teachers, immigration and abortion were among the high-profile issues that prompted party-line schisms this week, as lawmakers took up issues considered GOP “red meat” while also setting the stage to finalize the leaders’ priorities.
The full Senate is poised next week to vote on a sweeping school-safety package that would allow classroom teachers to volunteer for the armed “guardian” program. The upper chamber is also slated to begin debate on a toll-road plan that’s at the top of Senate President Bill Galvano’s wish list. Strengthening the state’s ban on texting and driving, an idea pushed by future Senate President Wilton Simpson, will also be on the table, as will an insurance issue known as “assignment of benefits” that’s important to many Republican leaders. That’s just a taste of what’s in store during Tuesday’s Senate floor session.
The House is preparing to deliver on one of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ campaign pledges --- a ban on so-called “sanctuary” cities. Representatives will also start a debate on texting and driving. And expect fireworks over the House’s interpretation of the constitutional amendment that restores the right to vote for most felons. And that’s only a sample of Tuesday in the House chamber.
Meanwhile, it looks as if House Speaker José Oliva is about to score a series of notches on his belt, after the Senate moved closer to the Miami Lakes Republican’s health-care and higher-ed priorities.
On a lighter side, legislators are carrying on with two sartorial traditions this session, strutting their stuff in seersucker suits this week or sporting Palm Beach fashionista Lilly Pulitzer designs next week.
And Tuesday, freshman Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, is introducing a “wear your hoops” day in the Capitol. For those who aren’t in the know, more and more fly ladies are wearing hoop earrings, a trend that has its roots in Latina and African culture.
Eskamani told the News Service that #HoopsDay was inspired by an intern, who was told during orientation that hoop earrings are not professional.
“We disagree with that assessment. Hoop earrings have been around since 2500 BC and exist across many minority groups as symbols of resistance, strength and identity. On #HoopsDay (those that are able!) will wear hoop earrings as a symbol of those values,” she said in a Twitter message.
MAKING SCHOOLS SAFE
A little more than a year ago, the idea of allowing armed teachers in classrooms nearly scuttled school-safety legislation hurriedly crafted in the wake of the horrific mass shooting at a Parkland high school that left 17 students and staff members dead.
But now, a sharply divided state Senate is prepared to sign off on another far-reaching school safety bill that includes a provision to allow classroom teachers to serve as armed school “guardians.”
The measure (SB 7030), which is expected to come up for a vote Tuesday, incorporates many of the recommendations of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, which spent months digging into the Feb. 14, 2018, massacre at the Broward County school before finalizing a report in January.
Republicans and Democrats support nearly everything in the Senate bill, which addresses school hardening, student mental health and school safety assessments, among other things.
But senators are divided along party lines over the controversial concept of allowing full-time classroom teachers to volunteer for the school guardian program. Currently, trained school personnel who are not full-time instructional staff can serve as guardians if school districts decide to participate in the program, which was authorized last year.
During a Senate floor session Wednesday, Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, offered an amendment that would have stripped the armed-teachers provision from the bill, prompting a lengthy debate.
Speaking against Thurston’s proposal, Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, argued that attitudes toward having guns on campuses have evolved since the introduction of armed school resource officers years ago.
“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,” Bradley said.
But Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat whose district includes several rural counties that support the guardian program, said teachers shouldn’t be called on “to make a life and death choice” because lawmakers won’t provide adequate funding for school safety.
“Why in the world would we put ourselves in the position of saying the last line of defense is a classroom teacher picking up a gun?” said Montford, a former Leon County schools superintendent who is chief executive officer of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents.
The amendment failed on a party line 22-16 vote that could be a harbinger of a final vote on the bill.
MAKING FLORIDA GREEN AGAIN
DeSantis’ administration made some non-legislative news by settling drawn-out litigation and agreeing to award eight new medical marijuana licenses to applicants that lost out on the first round of licensing in 2015. That round was conducted under an initial state law that allowed non-euphoric cannabis.
Since then, Florida voters broadly legalized medical marijuana, but the state has not begun an application process for investors eager to enter the state’s cannabis market, which is expected to eventually become one of the largest in the nation. Florida has more than 200,000 patients qualified for medical marijuana, and that number continues to increase.
Tuesday’s joint settlement agreement between the Department of Health and what are known within the industry as “one-pointers” means that all of the original applicants that sought licenses in a highly competitive process have now been approved as medical marijuana “treatment centers.”
“Voters overwhelmingly supported medical marijuana as a means to alleviate the pain of those who are suffering. These settlements help move the process forward and will increase patient access as approved by their doctors,” Helen Ferre, DeSantis’ communications director, said in an email.
The settlements left three licenses up for grabs, with another four looming on the horizon. In an interview with the News Service, the governor’s office laid out its plans for granting another seven licenses by the end of the year.
The state Office of Medical Marijuana Use is expected to withdraw a series of proposed rules, which were never finalized, and restart the process with a new set of proposed regulations as early as May.
The start-from-scratch approach is another indication that DeSantis, a Republican who took office in January, is charting a markedly different medical-marijuana course than the much-maligned path adopted by his predecessor, former Gov. Rick Scott.
STORY OF THE WEEK: The House and Senate are closing the gaps on legislative leaders’ priorities, as they prepare to begin negotiations on the state budget next week.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Are we injecting a new professional component into the life of a teacher? Are we turning them from professional educators into professional gunslingers?” --- Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, speaking about a proposal that would allow teachers to volunteer for the armed school “guardian” program.