Controversial bills on flags and monuments appear to die in the Florida Senate

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The LGBTQ Pride Flag flies above the Gulfport Public Library. By Seán Kinane/WMNF News (June 1, 2023).

Weekly Roundup: Recap and analysis of the week in state government and politics
By Ryan Dailey ©2024 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — An effort to restrict what flags can be flown at schools and other public buildings flailed in the Florida Senate this week, after a key committee adjourned before members voted on the proposal.

The measure (SB 1120) would prohibit government agencies, public schools, colleges and universities from flying any flag that “represents a political viewpoint” including any “politically partisan, racial, sexual orientation and gender, or political ideology viewpoint.”

Debate surrounding the bill has focused heavily on the potential that it could bar LGBTQ pride flags at public buildings. Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, argued during Tuesday’s meeting of the Governmental Oversight Committee that prohibitions listed in the bill involve groups of people, not inherently political viewpoints.

“Race, gender, sexual orientation, religion are not political unto themselves. So, we should be as inclusive as possible. Not exclusive,” Polsky said.

Polsky’s comments, and those of numerous members of the public who opposed the bill, came hours after Gov. Ron DeSantis backed the measure.

DeSantis said he had not seen the bill but signaled that he would support it.

“If you take a position that, we’re going to fly the American flag and the state of Florida flag, and that’s it, it’s not targeting anybody. It’s basically saying that we’re not going to get into this business of doing this. So I think that’s totally fine,” the governor told reporters during an appearance in Orange City.

“I don’t think you could say, you can fly any flag you want except one or two. Then I think that would be maybe content-based discrimination,” DeSantis added.

A Senate staff analysis of the measure questioned prohibiting flags that represent a “political viewpoint.” The analysis appeared to point to potential confusion about what would actually be prohibited.

“While the bill provides examples of what represents a ‘political viewpoint’ for purposes of the bill, it does not define the term. Similarly, while the bill clearly regulates governmental speech, which is not limited by First Amendment regulations, it is unclear where government speech (or that undertaken by a ‘governmental entity’) ends and private speech begins for purposes of this regulation,” the analysis said.

The bill is in jeopardy in the Senate midway through the legislative session after it stalled in the Governmental Oversight Committee for the second time.

“The committee is not scheduled to meet again,” Katie Betta, a spokeswoman for Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, said in an email. “If a bill remains in a committee that is no longer meeting, it is procedurally very difficult for the issue to advance.”

DOUBLE JEOPARDY?

Another Senate measure that has been among the most controversial of the 2024 session might be in trouble.

Passidomo on Wednesday raised questions about the fate of a proposal to protect historic monuments and memorials after several lawmakers voiced outrage over comments Tuesday by supporters of the bill.

Under the proposal (SB 1122), monuments and memorials on public property would be protected and people and groups would have legal standing to file civil lawsuits over their removal or destruction by local officials. The measure also would direct courts to invalidate local ordinances on displacing memorials.

Passidomo said members of the Republican-controlled Senate Community Affairs Committee were still “upset” Wednesday morning because speakers supporting the bill cited a need to protect “white culture” and “white supremacy.”

The comments came as the committee passed the bill.

“There are problems with the bill,” Passidomo said. “More than that, there are problems in perceptions among our caucus, on all sides. So, I’m going to take that into consideration. I’m not going to bring a bill to the floor that is so abhorrent to everybody.”

Democrats on the committee walked out before Tuesday’s vote. Passidomo said that was because of the public comments, not the bill.

Sen. Jennifer Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican who serves on the committee, called the public comments “vile” and “bigoted” and said they were almost enough to cause her to flip her vote and oppose the bill.

“You are the reason I’m vacillating on whether or not to even vote yes, because it looks like I endorse your hatred,” Bradley told the speakers. “And I do not.”

During an appearance last week in Jacksonville, DeSantis said he was “100 percent against removing monuments.”

Both of the Senate bills that appear to be on the rocks — the measure restricting flags and the proposal about monuments — are sponsored by Fort Myers Republican Jonathan Martin. Martin argued during Tuesday’s hearing on the monuments bill that his proposal and intentions have been mischaracterized as protecting the Confederacy.

STEPPING DOWN

As Florida Atlantic University prepares to restart a search for a new president, the chairman of the school’s Board of Trustees stepped down from the leadership post on Thursday.

As chairman, Brad Levine had been involved in various parts of a long-stalled presidential search, including aspects that were the focus of an investigation by the inspector general of the state university system’s Board of Governors. During a Jan. 24 meeting, the Board of Governors issued a vote of “no confidence” in Levine.

In announcing that he would step down as chairman, Levine said he wanted to avoid distracting from the revamped search. He will stay on the board as a trustee.

“The university is now poised to select a permanent president. A search that has been arduous and must now commence anew. Unfortunately, I have personally become part of this narrative. The selection of an experienced and visionary leader deserves no such distraction,” Levine said during a trustees meeting.

The trustees also approved extending Interim President Stacy Volnick’s contract through the end of the year, or until the school selects a new leader, and increasing Volnick’s salary by 5 percent to $525,000.

STORY OF THE WEEK

A key Senate committee failed to advance a proposal that would restrict what flags can be flown at schools and other buildings, putting the bill in jeopardy hours after Gov. Ron DeSantis voiced support for it.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

“People in Florida aren’t stupid. I mean, they can figure this out.” — Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Carlos Muniz, during oral arguments Wednesday about a proposed constitutional amendment that would protect abortion rights

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