Gov. DeSantis criticized for LGBTQ vetoes

Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday slashed $900,000 in funding for programs that serve LGBTQ people in Central Florida, including a program that provides mental health services to survivors and family members of victims of the Pulse nightclub mass shooting.

DeSantis’s vetoes --- part of a long list of hometown projects the governor eliminated before approving a new $100 billion state budget --- came a day after the Republican governor signed into law a controversial measure that bans transgender females from participating on girls’ and women’s high-school and college sports teams.

The vetoes also came shortly before the fifth anniversary of the June 12, 2016, mass shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, that left 49 people dead.

"Timing matters. What message are LGBT people meant to receive from Gov. DeSantis other than that this is an insult to them?"  said state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, an Orlando Democrat who is gay. "The Orlando community right now is bracing for the five-year remembrance, and for Gov. DeSantis to veto funding for Pulse survivors and families is just cruel." 

DeSantis in 2019 visited the Pulse nightclub site. Along with First Lady Casey DeSantis, the governor attended a third-anniversary remembrance ceremony and pledged his support to secure $1 million for a memorial, which he subsequently helped accomplish.

Smith told The News Service of Florida that he remembers having "high hopes" that DeSantis would be progressive on LGBTQ issues. But Smith said he’s been disappointed in the governor ever since.

Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat who requested money for the vetoed projects, blasted DeSantis.

"The governor is a homophobe and a transphobe who doesn't actually care about Floridians who are different from him," said Eskamani, whose district includes the Pulse site.

But Christina Pushaw, a spokeswoman for DeSantis, said the budget includes an additional $212,274,073 in community-based mental health funding for next fiscal year, and services will continue to be provided.

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"Governor DeSantis has been a champion on mental health since day one --- and he absolutely supports every Floridian who has experienced such horrific trauma, which has a lifelong impact on survivors," Pushaw said in an email. "To this end, the new budget ensures that Floridians in need --- including LGBTQ Floridians --- will continue to have access to vital support and the mental health resources they need to survive and thrive."

The projects DeSantis vetoed included $150,000  for the Orlando United Assistance Center at LGBT+ Center Orlando. State budget documents show the program is a one-stop-shop for Pulse survivors and family members, offering everything from mental-health counseling services to employment assistance.

The program is supported financially, in part, by Orange, Osceola, and Seminole counties, the city of Orlando, and Heart of Florida United Way. Despite the broad local support, Smith said the program is at risk of closing.

"The Pulse memorial is a memorial. This is not. This is mental health for the survivors and family, which is a whole lot more important," Smith said.

It is the second year that DeSantis vetoed the mental health funding.

Pulse Nightclub survivor Brandon Wolf went on social media Wednesday after DeSantis’ veto and posted a picture of himself and the governor taken in 2019.

"Here’s @GovRonDeSantis in 2019, standing on hallowed ground, promising me that he would always support those of us impacted by the Pulse nightclub shooting. Today, he vetoed mental health services for us. I will never forget," Wolf posted on Twitter. 

DeSantis also vetoed $750,000 targeted to the Zebra Coalition to help renovate bridge housing for 35 homeless LGBTQ youths ages 13 to 24. The budget passed by lawmakers on April 30 included two appropriations for the  Zebra Coalition, one for $700,000 and another for $50,000, with the latter directed to operating costs, according to Zebra Coalition Executive Director  Heather Wilkie. 

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The  Zebra Coalition is a group of 52 organizations in Central Florida that work to reduce and prevent homelessness among young LGBTQ people. Budget documents show the coalition provides bridge housing to 11 people, but it’s in "scattered sites." 

The coalition wants to renovate a building it’s leasing long term to provide bridge housing to 35 people, according to Wilkie. 

Wilkie said the $750,000 amounted to about half of the budget.

"Now we are going to have to go back to square one and figure out how we are going to fund raise," she said. "I’m not giving up on the dream, but I’m certainly disappointed."

The LGBTQ projects were included in the health and human services portion of the budget. In all, DeSantis veteod $10,364,565 in health and human services projects, according to a News Service analysis. Lawmakers included more than $91.1 million for hometown projects in that part of the budget, a Senate document shows.

Tune in to FOX 35 Orlando for the latest Central Florida news.