Parkland Tragedy Shifted Tone, Goals Of Florida's Session
When Florida lawmakers began their annual 60-day session, two priorities were protecting students from bullies and government workers from sexual harassment.
Then on Valentine's Day, the entire tone and focus of the session turned to protecting schools.
On Feb. 14, 17 people were fatally shot at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. The next day, lawmakers left the capital for four days. When they returned, dozens of Stoneman Douglas students were there to greet them, joined by thousands of protesters who demanded lawmakers address gun violence. Parents of the victims also made multiple trips to Tallahassee asking lawmakers to put aside political differences and do something to make schools safer.
"We had one of the worst tragedies in Florida history drop in our lap," said Democratic Rep. Jared Moskowitz, a Stoneman Douglas graduate and a lawmaker who was key in helping pass a school safety bill. "What happened in the first five weeks of session, I don't even remember."
Sure, lawmakers did much more than address the Parkland shooting. They passed an $89 billion budget, put limits on opioid prescriptions and voted to place a slavery memorial on the Capitol grounds. And as for public school bullies, their victims can now ask for vouchers to attend private school.
But of the 200 bills that passed this year, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act will be the one for which this session will be forever remembered.
"The involvement of these kids, the involvement of these parents — I don't remember a time when parents had to put their children in the ground and then immediately become lobbyists instead of being allowed to grieve," Moskowitz said.
Republican Gov. Rick Scott signed the bill into law two days after it passed, surrounded by parents of some of the students killed in the attack. The law raises the minimum age to by a rifle from 18 to 21 and sets a waiting period to buy the weapons. It also bans bump stocks and allows law enforcement to seek a court order to prevent access to guns for people who show signs of violence or mental illness. It sets up new mental health programs and in some cases would allow teachers to be armed in classrooms.
Some Republicans opposed it because it contains new restrictions on guns, and some Democrats voted no because it will allow guns in schools and didn't include an assault rifle ban. Still, the legislation passed when enough lawmakers were able to put aside what they didn't like in the bill for the good they believe was contained in it.
"What makes me most proud is the school safety bill," Scott said after the session wrapped on Sunday. "I believe it does the right thing. We have to recognize that we want to protect everybody's rights, but we want protect our kids and our grandkids in school."
In the weeks leading up to the session's January start, sexual misconduct was a top topic of discussion after two senators resigned over allegations of inappropriate behavior. House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron vowed to tackle the issue of sexual harassment. But bills to protect government workers and punish harassers died on the last day of session.
"The reason it did not pass — make no mistake about it — wasn't because of the absolute over the top, Herculean effort on behalf of the House to fix that problem," Corcoran said after the session ended.
Among other bills that died was a Corcoran priority to force cities and counties to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement efforts. Lawmakers also couldn't reach agreement on gambling bills, a ban on a second-trimester abortion procedure, a human trafficking bill that would let victims sue hotels who turn a blind eye to the illegal activity and a ban on texting and driving.
Lawmakers extended their annual 60-day session to complete work on the budget, wrapping up their final business Sunday. Among bills that passed during the first 60 days of session were measures to place tighter restrictions on opioid prescriptions, give consumers sales tax holidays for back-to-school items and hurricane supplies, ban marriage of anyone under age 17, replace a statue of Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith with one of educator Mary McLeod Bethune and expand first responder workers compensation benefits to include treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder.