It’s not every day that the Senate’s top Democrat has to clarify, “I am not anti-Semitic.”
But that is what happened this week.
It all started Monday, when Senate Minority Leader Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, voted “no” on a bill (SB 1272) that is designed to treat discrimination against Jewish students in public schools and colleges like the way acts of racial discrimination are treated.
Gibson said she opposed the bill because she felt the proposal was intentionally drafted to divide and that it went after the “wrong enemy.” Two days later, after her stance drew furor from within her Senate Democratic caucus, she walked back her opposition to the bill and blamed the “no” vote on a “very confusing” presentation.
“First and foremost, I am not anti-Semitic. Period,” Gibson said in a news conference Wednesday. “And I rebuke anti-Semitism and all religious discrimination. Period.”
On Thursday, the House passed its version of the bill unanimously. But not before the controversy surrounding Gibson’s stance came up in debate.
Without naming names, House sponsor Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, said the bill was important because even in the state Capitol there are legislators who can say such a measure is going after the “wrong enemy” without suffering consequences.
The Senate bill has to clear two more committees before it can be heard on the Senate floor.
ARMING TEACHERS ON THE MOVE
Wide-ranging school safety bills that would allow classroom teachers to be armed and expand mental health services in schools are ready to be considered by the full House and Senate.
The Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday made some last-minute changes to the Senate version (SB 7030), while the House bill (HB 7093) has been ready to go to the floor since last week.
Some of the changes approved Thursday by the Senate committee included giving more flexibility to school districts that want to participate in the controversial “guardian” program and expanding mental-health services in schools to assist students with suicidal intentions, trauma and violence.
Other tweaks made to the Senate bill adopted some House provisions, including about the transfer of student records. Those records could deal with issues such as psychological evaluations and serious or recurrent behavior patterns.
But the Senate debate, like other school-safety debates during this year’s session, focused primarily on the proposed expansion of the guardian program. Lawmakers created the program last year after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
It has allowed schools to have armed personnel whose primary duties are outside the classroom. This year’s bills also would allow teachers to serve as armed guardians, spurring controversy.
CHANGING CONSTITUTION COULD GET HARDER
Lawmakers this week approved proposals that would make it harder to amend Florida’s founding document --- or at least avoid a repeat of what happened in the November election.
In the Senate, a proposal (SJR 362) to abolish the Constitution Revision Commission moved forward. In the House, a bill (HJR 57) advanced that would require a higher percentage of votes to approve constitutional amendments.
In addition, a Senate panel approved a measure (SB 7096) that would place additional restrictions on constitutional amendment petition-gatherers, including requiring that they be Florida residents and register with the state. That proposal was met with accusations that it is intended to prevent popular citizens’ initiatives from reaching the ballot.
The legislative proposals were filed after voters approved 11 constitutional amendments, including two citizen initiatives, in the November election. Issues placed in the Constitution ranged from restoring felons’ voting rights to banning greyhound racing.
Lawmakers also were angered by the Constitution Revision Commission, a panel that meets every 20 years and placed seven of the amendments on the ballot. The commission has particularly drawn criticism for “bundling” unrelated issues into single ballot proposals --- such as a proposal that combined a ban on offshore oil drilling with a ban on vaping in workplaces.
SENATE NOT LETTING GO OF VISIT FLORIDA
With three weeks before the legislative session ends, the fight about keeping Visit Florida alive is in full force.
The Senate is set to approve a measure that would keep Visit Florida in business for at least eight more years, even as the House continues to support closing the embattled tourism-marketing agency this fall. Visit Florida will automatically go away Oct. 1 unless it is reauthorized.
The reauthorization battle comes as the Senate has proposed setting aside $50 million for Visit Florida in the state budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1. That would include funding for the period beyond Oct. 1.
Gov. Ron DeSantis has requested $76 million for Visit Florida, the same as in the current year. But the House has proposed spending $19 million, which would cover Visit Florida’s operations only until Oct. 1. House Republican leaders have long been critical of Visit Florida.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Senate Minority Leader Audrey Gibson’s vote against a bill to combat anti-Semitism sparked furor within her Democratic caucus and from Republicans.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “It would be my greatest hope in life that we can live in a world where there were no guns in classrooms. But Nikolas Cruz shattered that hope when he brought a gun into a classroom and killed our precious children,” --- Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, referring to the confessed gunman who killed 17 students and faculty members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Bradley made the comment as he voted for a Senate bill that would allow armed classroom teachers.