Florida protests to face limits as bill gets boost from Senate president

Senate President Wilton Simpson, a supporter of the bill, used a procedural maneuver to ensure the Gov. Ron DeSantis’ legislative priority started moving in the Senate.
Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby.
Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published April 8, 2021|Updated April 8, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — The Republican majority in the Florida Legislature appears to be on the verge of passing an anti-rioting bill — a top legislative priority of Gov. Ron DeSantis as he positions himself for re-election in 2022.

But how the bill got to this point — in public view and behind the scenes — has been a bumpy ride.

The fight over the proposed legislation (HB 1), which enhances penalties for a host of crimes committed during protests that turn violent, has driven a good part of the behind-the-scenes jockeying during the first half of the legislative session.

With the full-throated support of the governor, the Florida House fast-tracked the proposal as opponents fiercely fought against what they call an unconstitutional bill. Meanwhile, the bill stalled in the Senate, a GOP-led chamber that has a long history of being the moderating force in the Legislature.

That’s until Senate President Wilton Simpson decided it shouldn’t be.

Simpson, a supporter of the bill, used a procedural maneuver to ensure the governor’s legislative priority started moving in the Senate. He circumvented the chamber’s criminal justice committees, where the bill did not have enough votes, and green-lighted a nine-hour Senate Appropriations Committee meeting on Friday that has the potential to spill over onto a rare Saturday meeting to complete work on the bill.

“It is our anticipation to send that bill to the governor’s desk” with little to no changes, Simpson told reporters on Wednesday.

But behind the scenes, the battle lines surrounding the bill are more splintered than what Simpson makes them out to be.

The Senate’s battle lines

All Senate Democrats are “very adamantly opposed,” Senate Democratic leader Gary Farmer said. But some Senate Republicans have indicated they are hesitant about parts of the bill or that they will vote against it. Other Republicans are not publicly saying how they will vote, and others plan to vote in favor because they agree with the “concept” even if they haven’t fully studied the proposal that is on the table.

“I am a no on HB 1,” Senate Judiciary Chairman Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, told the Times/Herald in a text message Wednesday.

Farmer said several Senate Republicans have “absolutely” expressed concerns to him about the bill. But, he says, “I don’t know if they will actually follow through” by voting against it.

Sen. Travis Hutson, R-St. Augustine, in an interview last week said he had not yet made a “definitive decision” on his vote. He said he was “good with the concept” but that “the House bill has a lot of things that I was hesitant [about].” But on Thursday, he said he would be “up on the bill.”

Huston did not respond when asked if his concerns about certain provisions had gone away. Specifically, he said he was hesitant about a provision that gives state attorneys in each judicial district the authority to appeal local police budget decisions.

Under the bill, when an appeal is filed over local cuts to a law enforcement budget, the governor — and later a state commission that includes the governor — would make the final decision on whether the local budget needs to be modified or not.

“I’ll have to take a strong look at that,” Hutson said at the time.

Sen. George Gainer, R-Panama City, was a yes on the bill before had fully studied it. He said he supports the “concept,” and noted that in 2017 he sponsored legislation that tried to crack down on protesters who blocked roadways. The bill died in the Senate that year.

Other Republicans have yet to publicly say whether they are for or against the bill.

Sen. Jennifer Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican who has spoken out against leadership-backed proposals and voted against overtly partisan bills, did not say whether she would support the bill when asked on Wednesday.

Bradley only said she would give HB 1 her “full attention” on Friday during its first hearing.

Behind-the-scenes negotiations

Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman Jason Pizzo, a Miami Democrat, refused to hear the proposal in his committee, seemingly putting the measure in danger of not passing. He said the governor’s office “never” reached out to him to have a conversation about hearing the bill.

He said he talked to the governor’s legislative director, Stephanie Kopelousos, about discussing it. But he “never heard back.” Kopelousos did not respond to requests seeking comment.

That didn’t stop the lawmaking-process from happening behind closed doors.

Simpson said Wednesday that senators worked with the House to craft the bill that is currently on the table. His spokeswoman, Katie Betta, added that Sen. Danny Burgess, the Senate sponsor of the bill, worked with “senators, staff, House colleagues, law enforcement as well as other stakeholders and constituents about the policy in the bill.”

“He is supportive of the amendments the House made on the floor, as is President Simpson,” Betta said. The Appropriations Committee, which is comprised of half of the Senate, will have all day Friday and all day Saturday to discuss these issues and determine how they want to proceed.”

Burgess did not immediately respond to request seeking comment.

DeSantis’ spokeswoman, Meredith Beatrice, said the governor was “engaged with members and staff of both chambers to ensure passage of HB 1.” When asked to name specific members and timelines, Beatrice did not respond.

The governor first proposed the idea after racial injustice protests broke out across the nation and as he tried to deliver Florida to Trump during the 2020 presidential election.

He talked up the idea in news conferences with Florida sheriffs and on Fox News. His office drafted language that set the blueprint for a legislative proposal. He doubled down on the need for such a bill after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

But what will the bill ultimately achieve?

The bill (HB 1) would, among other things, enhance criminal penalties for crimes committed during protests that become violent. It would turn many misdemeanor crimes into felonies, including property crimes, and would create new crimes against “mob intimidation” and “cyber-intimidation.”

Under the bill, a person convicted for crimes committed during a “violent public disturbance” involving three or more people would face a third-degree felony. The penalties for those crimes would vary depending on whether the offender has a criminal past, and would range from $5,000 fines to sentences of up to 10 years in prison.

The bill would also create a six-month mandatory-minimum sentence for battery on a police officer. It would also make it a felony to commit a burglary or grand theft when the crimes are “facilitated by conditions arising from a riot,” such as power outages or curfews.

Jonathan Diaz, a voting rights attorney, said House Bill 1 will disenfranchise more voters in Florida.

“Anytime that you have an expansion of criminal penalties, you are also necessarily expanding the universe of people who are going to lose their voting rights,” said Diaz. “If an offense is upgraded from a misdemeanor to a felony, then it becomes disqualifying, and that person loses their right to vote until they finish their sentence and they pay off all the financial costs.”

DeSantis, however, is pushing this as a law-and-order bill. That’s how he has sold the idea in late-night conservative network TV appearances.

“Are you for law enforcement and rule of law, or are you going to stand with the mob? I know where I stand,” DeSantis told Fox News’ Tucker Carlson last year.

But the proposal has drawn harsh criticism from Democrats, Black legislators and civil-rights groups, who maintain the proposal clashes with the nation’s foundation, tramples on Floridians’ First Amendment rights and has the potential to disproportionately impact people of color.

“This bill was written in response to peaceful protests this past summer that were focused on the support of those that believe Black lives matter,” said Rep. Angie Nixon, D-Jacksonville. “This bill is designed to keep us in check, to keep us fearful, to scare us from speaking out about the fact that Black lives matter.”

Times/Herald reporter Lawrence Mower contributed to this report.

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