Unexpected vetoes disappoint supporters of civics education, juvenile records bills

Supporters of two bills that sailed through the Legislature this year to bolster civics education and help expunge juvenile arrest records were left puzzled after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed the bipartisan measures Tuesday.

The bills did not receive a single "no" vote when heard in committees or on the House or Senate floor during the legislative session that ended April 30.

The "civic literacy education" bill (SB 146), sponsored by Sen. Jeff Brandes, (R-St. Petersburg), sought to instruct students in high-school government classes on how to participate in "society, government and the political system."

"Our goal was to create, essentially, the Eagle Scouts of civics. To allow people to take what they learned in theory and put it into practice," Brandes told The News Service of Florida on Wednesday.

The measure called for providing students "with an opportunity to be civically engaged," by participating in things like internships with government agencies or attending U.S. citizenship naturalization ceremonies. Students then would have been directed to write research papers reflecting their experiences in the "civic engagement activity."

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The measure also would have established a "Citizen Scholar Program" at the University of South Florida’s St. Petersburg campus and would have provided students participating in the YMCA’s Youth and Government program with college credit.

After signing other bills (HB 5 and SB 1108) related to civics instruction this month, DeSantis on Tuesday issued a veto letter that said Brandes’ bill  "seeks to further so-called ‘action civics’ but does so in a way that risks promoting the preferred orthodoxy of two particular institutions."

"The (veto) letter left me deeply confused of whether the governor’s team actually understood what this bill really did," Brandes said, adding the governor’s letter did not specify the institutions or explain their "preferred orthodoxy". 

"This bill has been around for three or four years, and we have met with the governor’s team multiple times on this legislation. It has been to the floor multiple times," Brandes said. "This is really the first we’ve ever heard of any opposition --- it passed unanimously."

DeSantis’ veto came nearly two weeks after The National Review, a conservative publication, ran an article headlined, "DeSantis Should Veto SB 146."

The article’s author, Stanley Kurtz, wrote that the measure "contains no protections against politicized ‘action civics’ and will easily be used as a wedge to import protest civics into Florida." Kurtz also  wrote that the bill "creates an opening for the insertion of (critical race theory) into Florida’s education system."

DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw echoed the sentiments of the National Review article in an email Wednesday to the News Service.

"The Governor vetoed SB 146 because the legislation did not contain protections against politicized ‘action civics’ — and therefore, there was a risk it could be used to bring political indoctrination and activism into public school classrooms," Pushaw wrote.

House bill sponsor Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, expressed confusion at the governor’s veto, describing it as an abrupt reversal by DeSantis. A news release from Diamond’s office said he was told several weeks ago by the governor’s staff that DeSantis intended to sign it.

Diamond said in a Twitter post it is "clear that the Governor made this decision based on manufactured controversies and opposition from conservative commentators."

Meanwhile, DeSantis’ veto of the bill (SB 274) dealing with expungement of juvenile records riled supporters of the measure who had waited years to see it come to fruition.

The bill would have allowed juveniles to have nonjudicial arrest records expunged for any offenses, rather than just first-time misdemeanors if the juveniles completed diversion programs.

"I have concerns that the unfettered ability to expunge serious felonies, including sexual battery, from a juvenile’s record may have negative impacts on public safety," DeSantis wrote in a veto letter.

Sen. Keith Perry, a Gainesville Republican who sponsored the measure, told the News Service the governor’s concerns, which were shared by law-enforcement groups, are "legitimate." But he said passing legislation such as his bill is "critically important."

"To have the opportunity or ability to have juveniles who commit serious crimes have their records automatically expunged, it’s a legitimate concern," Perry said.

"My goal was to, if we found that that was starting to happen, we could always file legislation to correct that," Perry continued. "We’re going to re-file it with (DeSantis’) concerns in place."

Christian Minor, a lobbyist who pushed for the measure during the legislative session, said it would have removed barriers to employment for thousands of Floridians who made mistakes as youths.

"Obviously, this is incredibly disappointing to see this veto, both disappointing and unexpected," Minor said. "I would say, outside of the fact that this is great second-chance legislation, this is perhaps one of the greatest pieces of workforce development legislation that we’ve seen in the last 10 years."

Minor said felonies on a young person’s record can also hold them back when, for instance, "they’re 17 and 18 and they’re applying to colleges, they’re applying to the military, they’re applying for student housing." 

The Southern Poverty Law Center issued a statement Wednesday saying the governor "chose to ignore the will of both parties" when he vetoed the bill.

"It serves no purpose to have children go into adulthood with criminal records if they can successfully complete diversion programs. We hope Governor DeSantis and future leaders come to recognize the mistake of this veto," wrote Carrie Boyd, policy director for the SPLC Action Fund.?? 

DeSantis also on Tuesday vetoed a companion measure (SB 166) to the juvenile justice bill that would have provided a public records exemption for the arrest records.