© 2023 WFSU Public Media
WFSU News · Tallahassee · Panama City · Thomasville
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Politics became personal for many during the recently completed legislative session

Shevrin Jones and Tina Scott Polsky sit together. Polsky's arm is around Jones' shoulders.
Wilfredo Lee/AP
Florida Sen. Shevrin Jones, left, is hugged by Sen. Tina Scott Polsky after Jones spoke about his proposed amendment to a bill, dubbed by opponents as the "Don't Say Gay" bill, to forbid discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools, during a legislative session at the Florida State Capitol, Monday, March 7, 2022, in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

By the conclusion of this year's annual lawmaking session emotions at the Capitol were raw. Many of the partisan clashes this year became personal as some residents and lawmakers poured out their hearts in an attempt to defeat legislation they say will impact Floridians.

High school junior Will Larkins spoke in a February Senate committee hearing against the parental rights in education bill. It’s called the "Don’t Say Gay” bill by critics like Larkins, who also led a student protest at the Capitol.

“If parents know what’s best for their kids, then why did my best friend get kicked out of his house and have to live with me," he asked. "Why is 40% of the homeless youth queer while only making up 5% of the general population? Why do so many kids get abused for their sexual orientation and gender identity?”

The bill prohibits teaching about gender identity or sexual orientation in grades Kindergarten through third. For older kids, such lessons must be age-appropriate as defined by state standards.

The measure also requires school districts to notify parents if there’s a change to a student’s mental or physical well-being.

Sen. Shevrin Jones (D-Miami Gardens), who is gay, was emotional as he fought unsuccessfully to add an amendment to the bill in the Senate. Critics say the language of the bill is vague and worry it could lead to discrimination.

“I’m proud to serve with each and every last one of you," he said."Whatever direction you decide to go on this bill doesn’t make you a bad person. But I ask that you open up your hearts just a tad bit and don’t think about whether you could get re-elected or not.”

The measure passed with two Republican no votes in the Senate and seven Republican no votes in the House. One of those no votes was Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg), who is term-limited this year. He opposed several measures pushed by his Republican colleagues.

Brandes said state Republicans are being forced to take on national red-meat issues. Yet he also blamed his Senate Democratic colleagues for not using all of the tools they had to block some of the bills Republicans pushed through the legislature this year.

“Whether they’re playing for corporations or whether they were playing for policy ... I think they were as fractured as I’ve seen them,” he said.

Senate Democrats are in the minority yet they had enough votes to block several new public record exemptions – like one that now keeps secret the drugs used in executions.

Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book disagreed with Brandes' assessment of Democrats’ efforts. She said getting Democratic amendments on any of the so-called “culture war” bills was a lost cause.

“At the end of the day, absolute power corrupts absolutely and elections have consequences," she said. "We all have a responsibility...to come back stronger in November and that’s what our responsibility is.”

Republicans also passed controversial legislation on abortion, immigration, the teaching of history in schools, and workplace diversity training.

Some critics say bills this session were mean-spirited toward certain groups of people, such as women, LGBTQ people, minorities, and immigrants, but outgoing Senate President Wilton Simpson doesn’t see it that way and dismissed those complaints.

“The reason we are so concerned about literacy is clearly they have not read these bills yet,” he said.

House Speaker Chris Sprowls and Gov. Ron DeSantis have said similar things of journalists and bill opponents and have accused both of misrepresenting the bills to the public.

Lawmakers did approve a $112 billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year but they left issues of property insurance, affordable housing, and condo reform unaddressed. They could take up some of those issues later this year in a special session.

Sarah Mueller is a journalist who has worked for media outlets in several states since 2010. She earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism in 2010 and worked as a print reporter covering local government and politics.