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Get the latest coverage of the 2022 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and WUSF.

Politics became personal for many during the recently completed legislative session

Florida Sen. Shevrin Jones, left, is hugged by Sen. Tina Scott Polsky
Wilfredo Lee
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.

The legislature controversial legislation on abortion, immigration and a measure opponents say is intended to whitewash the teaching of history in schools and stifle workplace diversity training.

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 percent of the homeless youth queer while only making up 5 percent of the general population? Why do so many kids get abused for their sexual orientation and gender identity?”

The bill prohibits the teaching about gender identity or sexual orientation in grades K-through-3. 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.

“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 it picked up 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 says state Republicans are being forced to take on national red-meat issues. Yet he also blames 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 disagrees with Brandes' assessment of Democrats’ efforts. And she says trying to get 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, as Sen. Torres says, to come back stronger in November and that’s what our responsibility is.”

Republicans also passed controversial legislation on abortion, immigration and a measure opponents say is intended to whitewash the teaching of history in schools and stifle 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 dismisses 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.
Copyright 2022 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

Sarah Mueller is the first recipient of the WFSU Media Capitol Reporting Fellowship. She’ll be covering the 2017 Florida legislative session and recently earned her master’s degree in Public Affairs Reporting at the University of Illinois Springfield. Sarah was part of the Illinois Statehouse press corps as an intern for NPR Illinois in 2016. When not working, she enjoys playing her yellow lab, watching documentaries and reading memoirs.