TALLAHASSEE – The Valentine’s Day slaying of 17 people at a Broward County high school became a sharp dividing line for the 2018 Florida Legislature.
Lawmakers acknowledged that every major issue or policy fight going on before that day was eclipsed by the tragedy at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Suddenly, there was a scramble to prepare a response, under the glare of the national spotlight, a charged political atmosphere and almost daily gun control demonstrations at the Florida Capitol.
“Everything this session was before Parkland, and after Parkland,” said Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples.
Early priorities – increasing state dollars to fight Florida’s opioid crisis and money for rebuilding after Hurricane Irma – receded.
Instead, the drive to approve a $400 million package of school security, mental health funding and impose some new gun restrictions dominated the session’s closing month.
Flanked by some of the parents of students slain, Gov. Rick Scott signed the measure into law Friday.
“Every student in Florida has a right to learn in a safe environment and every parent has a right to send their kids to school, knowing that they will return safely at the end of the day,” said Scott, calling the legislation “historic.”
Lawmakers were 37 days into the 60-day session when accused murderer Nikolas Cruz, 19, opened fire with an AR-15 military-style rifle, killing 14 students, two coaches and a teacher.
“That was a transforming part of this session,” said Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, in line to become Senate president after this fall’s elections, and one of the architects of the Legislature’s post-Parkland package.
“It put everything else that we were working on onto the back burner,” he said, adding, “It’s not often during session that you have to make a $400 million adjustment midstream … to do something meaningful.”
Within a week of the shooting, students who survived the slayings were at the Capitol, demanding a ban on assault-style weapons; a week later, parents of some of the victims tearfully pleaded with lawmakers for more gun-control and to not arm teachers.
The Republican-controlled Legislature refused the ban, but agreed to modify the teacher provision.
The $88.7 billion budget is set to be approved by lawmakers today, two days into an overtime forced by a standoff over a policy clash that endured the focus on Parkland — hospital funding, which was eventually resolved.
The Senate retreated from its plan to redistribute$318 million in extra payments that now go to hospitals treating large numbers of Medicaid patients, instead looking to spread it across all hospitals.
The proposed change would have sharply cut so-called safety net hospitals, with UF Health Shands Hospital in Gainesville poised to lose $26 million and UF Health Jacksonville in line to see $17.6 million disappear.
But once the Senate backed away, the state spending plan came together. Still, plenty of dollars had been moved around to make room for the school security and mental health response.
Lawmakers were able to add the money only after reducing by $200 million the state’s so-called “rainy day” fund reserve, leaving it at $1 billion.
Another $404.3 million was pulled for a host of state trust funds to also spend on other programs and projects – with cash taken from the affordable housing account amounting to almost half the sum.
Following the destruction of Hurricane Irma and the arrival of thousands of Puerto Rican residents after Hurricane Maria, lawmakers had vowed to increase money available for apartments and lower-cost housing.
But the Parkland response changed that and many other spending priorities.
For Florida’s 2.8 million school kids, lawmakers will increase per-pupil spending by $101, about half the amount Gov. Rick Scott proposed last fall. It’s just over a 1 percent increase, bringing per-pupil spending to $7,408.
Lawmakers, however, looked set to approve $168 million in tax breaks – an election-year package that earlier looked likely to be dramatically scaled back.
“It caused things to move,” said Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, about the focus on finding money for school security and mental health.
The fight over gun limits and a proposed school guardian program that could lead to some specially-trained teachers carrying weapons in schools also consumed days of debate in the House and Senate.
“Other issues became de minimus,” said Steube, who plans to leave the Legislature to run for the congressional seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Okeechobee.
In a Capitol where Scott has earned an A-plus rating from the National Rifle Association and most Republican lawmakers at least an A-minus, gun limits never advance.
But following Parkland, the package signed by Scott increases the age for buying a gun to 21, adds a three-day waiting period for all gun purchases, and bans bump stocks that are used to turn a semiautomatic weapon into a machine gun.
The state’s largest teachers union, the Democratic-allied Florida Education Association, urged Scott to veto funding for the guardian program. The National Rifle Association, a reliable supporter of Florida Republicans, also wanted Scott to veto the legislation.
The politics of the two-month session – pivoting around the demand for tougher gun-control – are expected to continue as lawmakers head toward the campaign trail.
Scott is likely to challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who is seeking a fourth term in the Senate.
Similarly, House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, is poised to announce plans to join the Republican field of candidates looking to succeed Scott, which already includes Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis of Palm Coast.
Democratic contenders for governor, including Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, Orlando businessman Chris King and former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham of Tallahassee have blistered Scott and the Republican-ruled Legislature for refusing to ban assault-style guns or limit high-capacity ammunition magazines.
That’s also been a focus of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students and the thousands of people who have demonstrated at the Capitol over the past month.
“This is different because of what you’ve already seen with the students, and because of what you’re going to see on March 24 in about 100 cities, with the lead city being Washington, D.C. It’s going to be massive,” Nelson said of the March for our Lives rally expected to draw 500,000 to Washington alone.
But while the political fight spawned by Parkland will continue, supporters of the hastily crafted legislation said it is a vital step.
While the session was divided by Parkland, the package represents a middle ground, said Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs, a 1999 graduate of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High.
“They voted for gun-control, which they didn’t want,” Moskowitz said of many Republican lawmakers. “I voted for the guardian program, which I didn’t want. That’s what compromise looks like.”