Last week, the students had the spotlight. This week, it was grieving parents who dominated the discussion.
Their focus, and the attention of lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott, was on a measure that began as a wide-ranging school-safety proposal but is now known inside the Capitol as a “gun bill” that’s alienated people on both ends of the Second Amendment spectrum.
Republican leaders last month hurriedly assembled a package dealing with mental health, school safety and stricter gun regulations in an effort to prevent another tragedy like the Feb. 14 massacre of 17 people — including 14 students — at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
Now they’re fighting against time — and bipartisan dissatisfaction — to get a bill passed in the week before the Legislative Session ends.
What began as a unified pledge by Scott and GOP legislative leaders to make schools safer and keep guns out of the hands of mentally ill people like Parkland gunman Nikolas Cruz has — in less than a week — morphed into a fiery debate over whether teachers should be allowed to bring guns to schools and whether more restrictions should be placed on buying guns.
National Rifle Association Florida lobbyist Marion Hammer sent out an alert to “members and friends” this week in advance of an expected Senate vote, warning that “senators are being bullied into voting for gratuitous gun control measures in order to be able to vote on school safety.”
Meanwhile, Rep. Jared Moskowitz, a Marjory Stoneman Douglas High alum, said the bill had been “hijacked” by Republicans who insist on keeping the controversial provision that would allow school districts to use specially trained teachers who are deputized by sheriffs to bring guns to class. The proposal has been dubbed the “school marshal” program.
“I just don’t get why they even came up with that,” Cameron McEachern, an 18-year-old Marjory Stoneman Douglas High senior, said after a press conference Friday in the Capitol. “It’s not what we want.”
Politics be damned
Accompanied by the father and brother of a student slain during the mass shooting in Parkland, Scott made a rare appearance before the House and Senate on Thursday to urge lawmakers to pass a school safety measure.
The governor’s direct message to the Legislature, with the aid of grieving parent Ryan Petty, came as the House earlier in the day put its plan on hold. Republican leaders acknowledged the plan — opposed by the powerful NRA, black lawmakers, some survivors of the massacre and others — needs more work.
Scott is touting an alternative plan that relies heavily on putting law enforcement officers in schools.
“If this devolves into a gun control debate, we are going to miss our opportunity to get something done. What’s different about the governor’s plan is that we are focusing on securing our schools,” Petty, whose 14-year-old daughter Alaina was among the 17 people killed, told reporters after pleading with lawmakers in both chambers to pass a bill.
The day after Petty and Scott, accompanied by Petty’s son, Patrick, addressed the House and Senate during floor sessions, the Senate postponed debate on its bill, scheduling a highly unusual Saturday floor session.
Senate President Joe Negron announced the Saturday session in a memo Friday morning, saying the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Bill Galvano, wanted “additional time to work on this important issue.”
Delaying consideration of the measure (SB 7026) until next week would affect the House’s ability to hear the Senate bill because of procedural reasons, Negron said.
Galvano said Friday he has the votes to pass the measure, but acknowledged it is problematic for many of his colleagues.
“We have some that think we’re going too far, some that think we’re not going far enough. Certain interest groups like some components, don’t like others. That means, in my experience, that we probably have a pretty good piece of legislation, that we’ve hit a balance between competing interests,” Galvano, a Bradenton Republican slated to take over as Senate president after the fall elections, said. “But at the end of the day, none of that matters. We had a tragedy just a couple of weeks back. What we should be concerned about is not what group likes what, but can we come together, put a meaningful safety package out there and pass it that’s going to save lives. And then the politics of it be damned.”
Scott on Thursday reiterated his rejection of the school marshal program.
“I want to make sure that there’s a law enforcement presence at our schools. I don’t believe in arming the teachers. I’ve been clear about that since I put out my proposal last week,” the governor told reporters.
House and Senate budget committees approved the two chambers’ similar proposals on Tuesday.
The bills would raise the age from 18 to 21 to purchase rifles or other long guns and create a commission to explore failures leading up to the massacre.
About 40 parents from Parkland, the affluent Broward County enclave where the nation’s second-worst school shooting occurred, traveled to the Capitol to share their stories and requests with key legislators and Scott.
Max Schachter, whose 14-year-old son Alex was among the victims at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, strained to choke back tears as he begged lawmakers to act.
“I’ve never been an outspoken person. I never wanted to be in this situation. But I’m pleading with you to put your differences aside. It’s time to learn to compromise and help make our schools safe again,” Schachter, comforted by his father, Steve, told the House Appropriations Committee. “We owe it to all these students. You owe it to me and you owe it to all those 16 other families.”
Budget talks on the side
The $400 million school-safety initiative is also playing a role in House and Senate negotiations about the state’s $87 billion budget.
After striking a deal on local property taxes, the House and Senate late Thursday agreed to spend $21.1 billion on public schools in the 2018-2019 academic year, which would represent about a $100 increase per student.
But they are still trying to allocate that funding while accommodating a $400 million school-safety package, prompted by the Broward County mass shooting.
The cost of the school-safety initiatives as well as other recent impacts on the state budget, including a decline in projected corporate income-tax collections and higher Medicaid costs, are impacting other areas of the proposed $87 billion-plus budget.
On Thursday, the Senate backed off a proposal that sought $345 million in state performance funding for the university system, agreeing with the House to leave it at $245 million, which is the current level. Negotiators also agreed on $30 million in state performance funding for the 28 state colleges, which is also the current level.
In the prison system, lawmakers find themselves forced to respond to legal settlements in cases alleging prisoners are not receiving adequate treatment for infectious diseases, mental health issues and disabilities.
Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican who is leading the Senate negotiations on civil and criminal justice issues, estimated the new budget will contain about $100 million in response to those legal mandates involving the Department of Corrections.
The issues include money for treating prisoners with hepatitis C, an infectious disease that may affect as many as one out of every five prisoners in the system. Treatment can cost as much as $37,000 for a 12-week regimen.
The House and Senate agreed Thursday to spend another $42.6 million on mental-health treatment, including hiring 289 people, in response to a separate lawsuit.
And lawmakers are in agreement on spending more than $6 million to care for disabled prisoners under a court settlement that came after advocates alleged the state was discriminating against prisoners who were deaf, blind or confined to wheelchairs.
Despite the overall challenges, Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican, said the budget negotiations remain on target for a final deal by Tuesday, which will allow lawmakers to vote on the spending plan on March 9, the last day of the 2018 Session.
“We’re having great communications. It’s been a very smooth process,” Bradley said.
Story of the week
With time running out in the Legislative Session, key House and Senate committees approved school-safety initiatives that include a controversial program allowing specially trained teachers to bring guns to schools.
Quote of the week
“What you’re asking Republicans to do, if you vote for this, you’re toast. If you want to move up, you’re toast.” — State Rep. Joe Gruters, a Sarasota Republican, who serves as Sarasota County Republican chairman, on a school-safety proposal (HB 7021) opposed by the NRA.