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Gardiner, Crisafulli Put Focus On People With Disabilities

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

Senate President Andy Gardiner and House Speaker Steve Crisafulli said Wednesday they hope to pass a series of bills early in the 2016 legislative session that would expand educational and economic options for Floridians with disabilities.

It's a return to a legislative package that was high on their joint agenda for the 2015 session but largely went by the wayside when the House and Senate had a falling-out in April.

Speaking to reporters and editors gathered at the Capitol for an annual Associated Press event, Gardiner began his list of legislative priorities with disabilities-related proposals that quickly passed the Senate in 2015 but died when the House adjourned the annual session three days early.

The Orlando Republican, who has a son with Down syndrome, will try to put into state law an expansion of a program known as "personal learning scholarship accounts."

"It's time for a family to know that if they have the opportunity to receive this scholarship, they don't have to worry every legislative session about, is this going to go away," he said.

The Florida Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts Program was created in 2014 as an option for K-12 students with disabilities. They can use the money for tuition, instructional materials, contract services by public schools or school districts or contributions to the Florida Prepaid College Program.

Demand has grown quickly, with 1,500 scholarships awarded in the first year and 3,000 in the second.

The scholarships program was expanded through the 2015-16 budget to include all students on the autism spectrum. But the expansion exists only in budget fine print called proviso language --- not in state law.

Senate Education Appropriations Chairman Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said his panel will propose putting the expansion of the scholarship accounts into law in the upcoming session, which starts in January.

Crisafulli, meanwhile, said he's committed to passing Gardiner's disabilities-related agenda early in 2016.

"My first goal will be to help President Gardiner accomplish the goal of strengthening pathways to economic independence for the disabled in this state," the Merritt Island Republican said.

Gardiner has made it his mission as Senate president to obtain greater educational and vocational opportunities for people with disabilities --- or, as he calls them, "unique abilities."

He also wants the state to recognize businesses that hire disabled people and to coordinate information on programs and services for students with disabilities and their parents. Those, too, were 2015 proposals that will return in 2016.

For instance, next week the Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee will take up SB 388, which would direct the Department of Economic Opportunity to create the Florida Unique Abilities Partner Program. The designation would honor businesses that "demonstrate commitment, through employment or support, to the independence of individuals who have a disability."

"All of our state agencies should submit to the state Legislature once a year what are their plans for hiring individuals with unique abilities," Gardiner said. "What are their plans? It's not a mandate. It's not a quota. They just need to know the Legislature is very interested in that.”

Gardiner also supports a "one-stop shop" that would coordinate information on programs and services for students and parents.

"My vision is that when you get that diagnosis, we give you --- here's all your information. If your child stays on track, they'll have the opportunity to go do x, y and z," he said.

One of the six disabilities-related bills that Gardiner backed in 2015 became law.

The measure created the Florida Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act, a mechanism for some people with disabilities to save funds for future services without losing their eligibility for state and federal benefits.