Big picture, a lot of things happen during legislative sessions that really aren’t important.
Special interests battle among themselves. Lawmakers give ponderous speeches. Press conferences come and go.
But this week, lawmakers dealt with perhaps the most-important issue they will face during their time in Tallahassee.
After the devastation of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, lawmakers spent days debating and ultimately passing a bill to try to improve school safety, boost mental-health services and impose new gun restrictions.
The debate, at times, was gut-wrenching. It also went beyond the Parkland shooting and reflected racial and cultural divides.
But the families of the 17 people killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High offered support for the bill and helped prompt Gov. Rick Scott to sign it. They knew something needed to be done.
Will the bill work? Will parents be able to drop their kids off at school in the morning and be assured they will be safe?
The truth is, nobody knows for sure.
But amid all the messiness and political maneuvering of the final week of the legislative session, it was a big deal.
‘Push the green button’
Rep. Jared Moskowitz, a Coral Springs Democrat, went to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High. He served on the Parkland City Commission. And after word came Feb. 14 of the massacre, he rushed home to Broward County.
So when Moskowitz took the microphone on the House floor Wednesday, the usual clamor in the chamber stopped and members listened. Moskowitz’s described the awful scene at the school after the shooting. Then he broke down while describing how his 4-year-old son was receiving writing lessons from a pre-school teacher when the teacher’s daughter was shot dead at the school.
Moskowitz chided House members who throughout the day called the vote on the bill a difficult decision.
“This isn’t hard. Putting your kid in the ground is hard. This is a button. … Push the green button,” Moskowitz concluded, referring to the button for “yes” votes.
The $400 million package includes $69 million for early mental health screening and services, $97 million for school resource officers, $98 million for school-hardening grants, and $25 million to raze and rebuild the freshman building where the shooting spree occurred.
But the debate focused mostly on gun issues. The National Rifle Association and its allies tried to rally opposition because of part of the bill that increased the minimum age to 21 and imposed a three-day waiting period for people purchasing rifles and other long guns.
As more evidence of the opposition, the NRA quickly filed a federal lawsuit challenging the restrictions after Scott signed the bill Friday.
“(Scott) put his hand on a bible and took an oath to support, protect and defend the Constitution,” NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer said in a telephone interview Friday with The News Service of Florida. “So Gov. Scott obviously has a hard time keeping his word.”
Scott, had objected to the three-day waiting period but said Friday he and others had to compromise, acknowledging that gun regulations in the bill went too far for some and not far enough for others.
“I know the debate on all these issues will continue, and that’s healthy in our democracy. People are passionate in their beliefs and they should be. But, we should not insult or disparage each other. We should work together to make our schools safe for our kids. We have a lot of work ahead of us in order to enact these reforms and make our schools safer. This is a time for all of us to come together, roll up our sleeves, and get it done,” he said.
The other major gun issue focused on part of the bill that would allow trained school employees, including some teachers, to be armed. The so-called school “guardian” program drew objections from many people who don’t want guns added to the daily mix in schools.
But the proposal also sparked debate with a decidedly racial aspect. Black lawmakers fear the program could endanger minority students, who are more likely to be punished at school. The lawmakers said they worry minority students could be unfairly targeted in emergencies, as could armed school personnel who are “black or brown.”
“I’m afraid that in an emergency situation, a black or brown student who may be running down the hall to get away like everyone else, who reaches for his or her cell phone to call their parent, may be seen not as a student, but as a shooter,” Rep. Cynthia Stafford, a Miami Democrat who is black, said.
But Rep. Elizabeth Porter, a Lake City Republican who supported the program, pushed back against such arguments.
“All of a sudden, the folks that have been proponents of teachers all these years are now saying that teachers are incompetent to have a concealed weapon permit, they’re racist, they’re bigoted, they’re going to target black boys and brown boys. I don’t think that of our teachers at all. I don’t believe that of them,” Porter said.
The end game
Lawmakers should have been celebrating Friday night and getting ready to head home. But instead, they faced the prospect of spending Sunday afternoon in the Capitol to pass a budget and a tax-cut package.
House and Senate leaders extended the 60-day Session after negotiators could not finalize a budget in time to end the Session on time Friday.
The $400 million package for school safety after the Broward County shooting caused unexpected budget changes late in the Session. Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican, said the shooting had “a real impact” on the budget process.
“We responded aggressively,” Bradley said. “If we don’t protect our kids, what are we here for? That’s job one.”
But the negotiations got hung up on other, more-typical issues, such as Medicaid funding for hospitals and nursing homes.
In the end, the Senate got one of its priorities, with an increase in Medicaid funding for nursing homes. Meanwhile, the House got part of what it wanted by continuing to funnel extra money to hospitals that serve large numbers of Medicaid patients.
When they return to the Capitol on Sunday, lawmakers will approve an $88.7 billion budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.
Story of the week
The House and Senate passed a wide-ranging plan designed to improve school safety after the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County. Gov. Rick Scott signed the bill Friday, and it quickly drew a legal challenge from the National Rifle Association.
Quote of the week
“My precious daughter Meadow’s life was taken, and there’s nothing I can do to change that. But make no mistake, I’m a father and I’m on a mission. I’m on a mission to ensure that I’m the last dad to ever read a statement of this kind.” — Andrew Pollack, reading a statement after the House passed the school-safety package Wednesday. Pollack’s 18-year-old daughter, Meadow, was among the 14 students slain at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last month.