Gun laws – and the proposed “arming of teachers” – dominated the conversation Thursday as six St. Petersburg members of the Florida legislature, speaking at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg campus, recapped the marathon session that ended on March 11.
In a panel discussion sponsored by the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, state senators Daryl Rouson and Jeff Brandes, along with representatives Larry Ahern, Wengay Newton, Kathleen Peters and Ben Diamond, talked about the pros and cons of their recent 60 day stretch in Tallahassee. Out of nearly 1,800 bills filed, only 196 were passed in both the Senate and the House. It has been called the least productive legislative session in 20 years.
Rouson recalled the emotional visit by a group of students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, just a few days after a gunman killed 17 of their classmates.
“The kids asked us to ban assault weapons,” he said. “That’s what they want. We could’ve done it. But it didn’t happen.”
The bill failed, but the legislature did pass the “school security” bill, which will allow trained employees – including private security personnel – to carry concealed weapons in school.
Said Rouson: “Some teachers said to me, ‘I have enough trouble keeping up with my cell phone in the classroom. And now you’re going to give me a gun?’ So for that reason – and several others – I couldn’t support the bill. Because we didn’t give the students what they truly asked for.
“Some legislator remarked: ‘Well, the students aren’t in the room making the decision.’ Yeah, but they’re impacted by it. And they came there out of their own individual passions.”
Each of the six visibly weary lawmakers was asked what they wish had gone differently, and nearly all circled back to the Parkland tragedy, and what might be done to prevent it happening again. “My whole issue is mental health,” explained Peters, whose work was recognized by the Florida Hospital Association Behavioral Health Council in 2016. “I’ve been pleading and pleading. We’ve already done the policy; what we need to do is fund it.”
For Ahern, the biggest disappointment was the legislature’s failure to award $2,000,000 in endowments, to be divided between Florida’s four historically black colleges and universities. “They’re so woefully under-recognized sometimes for the work that they do,” he said.
Diamond mentioned the $88 million budget, which was passed by both houses and signed by Governor Rick Scott. “We passed the largest budget in the history of the state,” he said, “but there were priorities I had which were not expressed in that budget. What I’d like to see is more support for public schools – and more support for the arts.
“The arts are at the heart of our community in terms of economic development. I was disappointed by that aspect of the budget, and I’m hoping that changes next year.”
Arts funding was gutted in the 2018 budget; just $2.65 million, down from $11.1 million last year, and $19 million in 2016.
Both Brandes and Wengay expressed frustration at the state’s sluggish attention to criminal justice reform. “Florida has one of the lowest felony thresholds in the country,” announced Brandes. “If you steal an item of $300 or more, you could go to jail with a felony. It’s essentially like you’re Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter – you will carry that with you the rest of your life.”
Added Newton: “We have these little things called iPhones. You probably have one yourself. These are $1,000. And if a juvenile takes one of these, that’s felony grand theft, plain and simple. And the only ones stealing phones are juveniles.”