Florida gun control debate could push aside unfinished business for special session

aside unfinished business

The Florida State Capitol in Tallahassee, Florida.

With two weeks remaining before its March 9 adjournment, the Florida State Legislature was already facing a crunch-time of joint conference meetings between House and Senate committees to iron out budget differences in education, affordable housing, Medicaid and Florida Forever funding, in addition to securing a new gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

But all that will take a back seat now as legislators scramble to respond to mounting pressure to address the state’s gun laws in the wake of the Feb. 14 Parkland school shooting.

Gov. Rick Scott has proposed a legislative package to address school safety and keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill. Meanwhile, House and Senate leaders have developed their own tentative six-point plan, spearheaded by incoming House Speaker Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Hialeah, and incoming Senate President Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, that proposes to allocate $100 million in funding for mental health screening, counseling and training programs.

In addition, the proposal would restrict access to firearms for those with mental illness, require a three-day waiting period for rifle purchases, impose a minimum age of 21 for rifle purchases, expand background checks and dedicate more money for school safety and “hardening.”

House Ranking Member Rep. Kionne L. McGhee, D-Cutler Bay, expressed frustration that the House tossed aside proposals to introduce gun control bills several times last week, opting instead to burn through slam-dunk bills, ostensibly to clear its calendar for discussion of the governor’s gun control proposals and the Legislature’s own gun-related package this week.

Whether that is the plan or not, McGhee said, he and others will “force a debate on gun control” even if it means unresolved issues will require the legislature to return for a special session. “We are not leaving here without a debate,” he said.

Special session whispers were already circulating about Tallahassee even before the school shooting created the need for an urgent review of gun-related proposals.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, in a Feb. 21 news conference accused the Senate of “stonewalling” attempts to begin negotiations that typically unfold after both chambers have passed their budgets.

The House and Senate both passed their budgets on Feb. 8, coming within $100 million of each other, but with significant differences in several key components. Among them is the proposed $25.8 billion budget bill that the House passed in one massive omnibus bill and the Senate is reviewing as individual bills. The Senate’s version earmarks a $187 million increase for universities and a $60 million reduction in college funding while the House wants to cut universities by $304 million while increasing spending for colleges by $86 million.

The joint conference committee process has not begun and, as of Monday morning, none had been scheduled.

Senate President Joe Negron, R-Palm City, dismissed Corcoran’s claim. The Senate is “close to agreement on many issues” with the House’s proposed budget, he said of Friday, noting variations in spending plans are “routine and expected” and conference committees will begin meeting shortly.

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