A Tampa Bay Republican's controversial evolution bill squeaked out of the Florida Senate Wednesday, overcoming the defection of five Republicans who say Sen. Ronda Storms' proposal ushers religion into public classrooms.
The vote was 21-17, with Republicans Jim King, Evelyn Lynn, Paula Dockery, Mike Bennett and Dennis Jones joining Democrats in voting against the "Evolution Academic Freedom Act" (SB 2692).
But Storms can't declare victory yet. The fate of her legislation now rests with the House, where lawmakers are pushing a different evolution proposal (HB 1483) that they say could better withstand a court challenge.
Storms' bill expressly states that it "does not promote any religious doctrine," but it provides that educators can't be "discriminated against for objectively presenting scientific information relevant to the full range of scientific views regarding biological or chemical evolution."
But the House version, sponsored by Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, amends the current law for public school instruction by requiring teachers to present students with "a thorough presentation and critical analysis of the scientific theory of evolution."
Storms tried to get that version passed in the Senate, but most lawmakers balked. The state Board of Education just passed new science standards that encourage critical thinking on evolution, they said, so the legislation is unnecessary.
Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler, Times Staff Writer
Land-buying program gets new lease on life
Florida Forever, the state's land-buying program, is poised to be extended another 10 years to 2020, following Senate passage Wednesday. The House is expected to concur.
But in a new twist, the program can spend money on conservation easements, not just land purchases. Under easements, private land owners keep their property but give up the right to develop it in exchange for payment.
The plan would also allocate 2.5 percent of the funding (or $7.5-million of the $300-million this year) to the "Stan Mayfield Working Waterfronts" program to purchase and preserve waterfront property, like historic fishing docks. Mayfield, R-Vero Beach, is leaving the Legislature this year due to term limits.
The same measure (SB 542) names the gopher tortoise the official state tortoise and it keeps a grant program that buys parks for local governments, called the Florida Communities Trust, within the Department of Communities Affairs.
Lawmakers had threatened to move the program to the Department of Environmental Protection. Critics contended the move was aimed at punishing DCA Secretary Tom Pelham, who has recently rejected some high-profile development projects.
Felons get tougher go to win compensation
The Florida Senate voted Wednesday to automatically compensate the wrongfully incarcerated, but only if they have not had a prior criminal history (SB 756). The House is expected to approve the measure before lawmakers adjourn May 2.
The legislation provides $50,000 per year of imprisonment plus allowances for education. People with prior felonies can still seek payment, but must go through a laborious claims process.
"This is a watershed moment in our history," said Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, who fought unsuccessfully against the "clean hands" provision barring access to people with prior felony convictions.
Florida's law would be the first in the country to preclude people with prior felonies. Twenty-two states and the District of Columbia have laws that have resulted in payments to nearly half of the 215 prisoners who have been exonerated since the first DNA case in 1989.
Hallucinatory herbs possession outlawed
Florida would join other states in restricting a hallucinogenic herb called Salvia divinorum under a plan headed to the governor (HB 1363). Possessing the herb would become a felony punishable by up to five years in prison.
Native to Mexico and still grown there, Salvia divinorum is a hallucinogen and generally smoked but can also be chewed or made into a tea and drunk. Unlike hallucinogens like LSD or PCP, however, its effects last for a shorter time, generally up to an hour.
Though there is little data on how widespread the herb's use is, lawmakers said they were increasingly worried about children buying it online.
Penalties for secret videotaping tougher
Some video voyeurs would face harsher criminal penalties under a bill (HB 537) headed to the governor after unanimous passage by the Senate Wednesday.
The legislation, prompted by the arrest of Tampa Prep swim coach Kimberly Brabson III, would make it a third-degree felony to secretly tape a victim younger than 16 if the perpetrator is 24 or older or if the perpetrator was in a position of authority or employed at a school. Under the plan, prosecutors would have up to five years to file charges for videos recorded, shared or sold.
Brabson was charged with misdemeanors after being accused of secretly taping schoolgirls trying on bathing suits in his office.
Times staff writers Alex Leary, Colleen Jenkins and Jennifer Liberto contributed to this report. Information from the Associated Press was also used.