PHOTO BY TOM URBAN, NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA Gov. Ron DeSantis gave his State of the State address to start the 2022 legislative session.

Lawmakers didn’t finalize a budget in time for Friday’s scheduled end of the 2022 legislative Friday, but they did deliver on some of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ top legislative priorities this week.

The Republican-dominated Senate on Thursday signed off on a bill (HB 7) that would restrict how race-related issues can be taught in public schools and in workplace training sessions — an outgrowth of DeSantis’ fight against critical race theory.

An emotionally raw debate that played out over two days in the Senate centered on whether the bill lives up to its “Individual Freedom” title or whether it seeks to obscure the uglier parts of American history and stifle the speech of teachers and businesses.

Under the bill, instruction would constitute discrimination if it led a person to believe that they bear “responsibility for, or should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment because of, actions committed in the past” by people of the same race or sex.

But Democrats argued that the plan is part of an attempt by Republicans throughout the country to rewrite the nation’s past.

“This is a continuation of a national agenda to whitewash history, all because we don’t want white children to feel uncomfortable?” Sen. Shevrin Jones, a West Park Democrat who is Black, said.

The measure would similarly label a business’ training exercise discriminatory if it caused an employee to feel “psychological distress” over actions committed in the past in which the employee played no part.

The upper chamber also devoted hours of tense debate on a controversial education bill (HB 1557) that would restrict how sexual orientation and gender identity can be taught in schools.

The Senate on Tuesday approved the measure despite Democrats’ warnings that the bill’s approval sends “a message of hate” to Floridians.

The bill would require that instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity “may not occur” in kindergarten through third grade. For higher grades, the bill would prohibit such instruction if it is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate.

Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book, D-Plantation, described the “spirit” of the bill as discriminatory and disputed that teachers are “indoctrinating” young children.

“Members, before you vote today, consider for yourself what kind of message do you, do we, want to send to every single person in the state of Florida and around the world?” Book said. “Does this body want to send a message of inclusion, of acceptance and celebration of diversity? Or do we want to send a message of hate, intolerance, othering and discrimination?”

But Sen. Danny Burgess, R-Zephyrhills, argued that the proposal has been misrepresented by “rhetoric outside and on the news.”

“If I thought that this bill targeted a particular group of students, I’d press the red button. I’m voting in favor of this bill because I believe in our parents. This bill says parents have rights. It does not discriminate, and it does not silence anyone,” he said.

Both measures are in position to go to DeSantis, who is expected to sign them.

Headed into overtime

Overtime. Extra innings. Whatever it’s called, the legislative session is slated to finish a bit behind schedule.

The clock began ticking Thursday on a 72-hour “cooling off period” that is legally required before lawmakers can vote on the budget. The finished product agreed upon by negotiators is a record $112.1 billion spending plan for the 2022-2023 fiscal year, up 10.4 percent from a budget approved for the current year.

Lawmakers are scheduled to vote on the plan Monday.

Senate leaders this week touted the spending package, saying it will make “key investments” in public safety, education, the environment and provide pay raises for state workers.

“We build on the efforts that began last year to infuse a steady stream of funds into affordable housing programs, wastewater projects, including septic-to-sewer conversions, and to mitigate sea-level rise,” Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, said in a prepared statement.

House Appropriations Chairman Jay Trumbull, R-Panama City, and Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, provided some clarity on a high-profile part of the budget after a Thursday conference.

The budget chiefs reached an agreement on how to distribute a $200 million “School Recognition Program” fund, which is designed to reward schools that did not impose student mask requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic and kept in line with DeSantis’ pandemic directives.

To be eligible, school districts and charter schools must have followed the governor’s guidance on masks and performed well academically. School districts in Alachua, Brevard, Broward, Duval, Hillsborough, Indian River, Leon, Miami-Dade, Orange, Palm Beach, Sarasota and Volusia counties that enacted mask requirements can’t qualify for a share of the “recognition” money.

To be eligible for the bonuses, schools would have had to maintain an “A” school grade or improve at least one letter grade compared to the 2018-19 school year

“And what this fund is doing, is saying hey, you’ve followed the law and your school is doing well, you have the ability to draw down some of these resources. Should you have broken the law, then you don’t receive those resources,” Trumbull said.

But Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, pushed back on the plan Friday, calling it “not appropriate” and saying it would penalize schools in her South Florida district that were responding to parents’ wishes.

“We had, I think, under one percent of the student population ask to not wear masks,” Polsky said of schools in her district. “So you cannot say that the parents wanted no masks. A very loud minority of parents wanted no masks.”

An earlier House version of the plan, labeled the “Putting Parents First Adjustment,” had proposed shifting $200 million away from school districts that imposed mask requirements.

Return to private life

State Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, who has been an ally of DeSantis on controversial issues such as student mask requirements and critical race theory, will step down from the post at the end of April, he announced Thursday.

Corcoran, a Republican former speaker of the Florida House, was appointed commissioner in December 2018 as DeSantis prepared to take office.

He will “return to private life” to spend more time with his family, according to an announcement published on the state Department of Education website.


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