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Gardiner's Agenda On Disabilities Mostly Dies With House Exit

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

The surprise early exit of the Florida House from the 2015 regular session likely means that most of a legislative package dear to Senate President Andy Gardiner is dead.

Gardiner, R-Orlando, made it a priority this year to pass bills to give greater educational and vocational opportunities to people with disabilities --- or, as Gardiner likes to call them, "unique abilities."

The bills he mapped out would have established a separate higher education track for such students, expanded scholarships for them, taught them financial literacy and recognized businesses that hired them.

But when the House adjourned "sine die" --- from the Latin phrase for "without day" --- on Tuesday, the chamber had taken up just two of the six Senate bills dealing with disabilities that Gardiner's colleagues had passed by April 1.

"Sadly, those expecting postsecondary options for children with unique abilities will not have that option," Gardiner said on the Senate floor Tuesday. "It died in the House."

Gardiner, whose son Andrew was born with Down syndrome, has long made it clear that his two-year term as Senate president would be incomplete without making significant strides for people with developmental disabilities. The legislative package was part of his "Work Plan 2015," a joint effort with House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, announced in January.

"If the House did this, I'm glad they did it today and not tomorrow, when Claire, who interns in my office, is here," Gardiner said Tuesday. "Because I still remember her interview with the Florida Channel, saying, 'I just want to go to college.' Unfortunately, she's going to have to wait another year."

Intern Claire Toman is a senior with Down syndrome at Leon High School in Tallahassee who works at a local pizza shop and hopes to study hospitality or the culinary arts at Florida State University, according to Gardiner spokeswoman Katie Betta.

Neither Gardiner nor his wife, Camille, is backing off.

"This isn't an issue we champion Monday through Friday, 8 to 5," Camille Gardiner said. "This is part of who we are and who our family is. ... It's something we will always be thinking about and looking to help families on the same journey."

And Crisafulli pointed out Tuesday that his chamber did pass two of the Senate's bills dealing with disabilities. One was SB 602, by Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, which would expand the pool of students eligible to apply for a Personal Learning Scholarship Account to include all students on the autism spectrum. Those accounts help parents of students with disabilities pay for educational services.

The other, a combination of SB 642, SB 644 and SB 646 by Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, would create the Florida Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act, aimed at providing a mechanism for some people with disabilities to save funds for future services without losing their eligibility for state and federal benefits.

"Ultimately, when it comes to the president's priorities, we passed out the ABLE Act last week, which was the big deal for disabilities," Crisafulli said after the House adjourned. "We also sent over the scholarship bill last week, the personal learning scholarship bill. So those are important issues that the Senate president had in the work plan, and we were able to come together and work on those, and we sent those over to them."

But Gardiner said that the most ambitious proposals in the package had passed the Senate but not the House.

For instance, SB 7030 by Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, would have created the Florida Center for Students with Unique Abilities to coordinate information on programs and services for students with disabilities and their parents, and to provide scholarship funds.

Another bill to die is SB 7022, which would have directed the Department of Management Services --- working with the Agency for Persons with Disabilities, the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, the Department of Economic Opportunity and the Executive Office of the Governor --- to create programs geared toward promoting job opportunities for disabled Floridians. It would have required DMS to develop mandatory training programs for state agencies' human-resources officials and managers who make hiring decisions.

Currently, the state's employment policy encourages the hiring of women and members of minority groups, but not people with disabilities.

SB 7022 was sponsored by Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, and also included measures by two other senators: SB 206 by Sen. Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange, creating a financial literacy program for people with developmental disabilities at the Department of Financial Services, and SB 1246 by Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, creating the Florida Unique Abilities Partner program to recognize businesses that provide job opportunities and other support for people with disabilities.

"Unfortunately, that's one of the things that I don't think is going to make it," said Rep. Gayle Harrell, a Stuart Republican who chairs the House Children, Families and Seniors Subcommittee, of the measure.

But Harrell noted that Benacquisto's ABLE Act is headed to Scott's desk, "which is very good news. It came through our committee and was a priority for me. So I would hope that next year we can come back and continue the good work we're doing on people with disabilities."