Bill to curb Chinese influence heads to final House panel
Image via Colin Hackley.

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At least one Democrat said he was initially a skeptic, but was largely sold on the proposal.

A Gov. Ron DeSantis-backed bill that would require groups to disclose funding from China and other adversarial countries when seeking large grants from Florida now heads to its final committee.

The House Education and Employment Committee voted unanimously to advance that measure (HB 7017), carried in the House by Vero Beach Republican Rep. Erin Grall, to its penultimate committee stop.

Besides China, the list of flagged countries includes Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Syria and Venezuela.

The legislation would force state agencies, local governments and colleges and universities to disclose donations and grants from those countries worth $50,000 or more. Applicants for grants from or those proposing contracts with state agencies and local governments would also have to disclose financial connections to any of the listed countries.

To continue the crackdown on influence in the state’s education institutions, the bill would require that research or education institutions with annual budgets of $10 million or more screen people who aren’t permanent residents of the United States when they apply for research positions in their institutions. The residency requirement would apply to graduate and undergraduate students as well.

That screening would also ask for a resume, applicants’ work and education history, and any published material they contributed to.

A separate provision would prohibit agencies, local governments, public schools and state colleges and universities from receiving funds from one of the countries or related entity to create a program promoting the language or culture of those countries.

Democrats asked for clarity on that provision.

“The bill really just forbids those foreign countries of concern from funding programs within our institutions and on the state level,” Grall said. “It would not prohibit anything with regard to academic freedom and with regard to pursuing those languages within our institutions or from doing a project.”

Aventura Democratic Rep. Joe Geller said he was initially skeptical of Republicans’ plans to crack down on foreign interference, but he called the language before the committee “measured” and “largely appropriate.” However, he was concerned about intensive verification and federal law enforcement screening.

“I want to be sure we’re not cutting off really good applicants who happen to come from foreign countries of concern,” Geller said. “Frequently, those people end up staying in the Untied States; they like what they find here and they contribute to the richness of our academic environment and of our cutting edge ability to try to lead the world in some of these.”

The answer to protecting the integrity of Florida’s research institutions is careful hiring, Grall responded. That was highlighted during the House’s investigation of Moffitt Cancer Center over individual researchers’ concealed ties to China.

“As we learned at Moffitt, one bad apple can spoil the whole barrel through the recruitment efforts that we saw in our committee. Bad apples are less likely to be hired if they are carefully screened.”

DeSantis announced the proposal earlier this month, the day before the Legislative Session began. Grall and House Speaker Chris Sprowls stood alongside DeSantis for that announcement.

“The long-term goals and interests of the Chinese Communist Party are antithetical to the basic tenets of the American republic,” DeSantis said during the announcement.

Grall’s bill next heads to the House State Affairs Committee, its final stop before it is ready for the House floor. It has sailed through its past committee stops unanimously.

Hialeah Republican Sen. Manny Díaz is carrying the Senate version of Grall’s bill (SB 2010). The Senate Education Committee will hear the bill on Tuesday.

The second portion of DeSantis’ foreign influence proposal (HB 1523), carried by Lithia Republican Rep. Mike Beltran, passed unanimously on Wednesday in the House Judiciary Committee. That bill moves next to the House floor.

Meanwhile, Fleming Island Republican Sen. Jennifer Bradley ‘s version (SB 1378) is also in its final committee stop, the Senate Rules Committee.

Beltran and Bradley’s proposal would increase penalties for corporate espionage, including creating a second-degree felony for trafficking in trade secrets. Knowingly selling intellectual property to foreign adversaries would carry increased penalties.

Typically, foreign affairs are handled at the federal level, but Sprowls credited U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio with helping to raise the issue after he video-conferenced into a Florida House Public Integrity and Elections Committee meeting to warn about China’s foreign interference effort.

DeSantis, who is currently a top-contender for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination if he chooses to run, denounced China, its trade policy and weakness in the face of its threat to the United States during his speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando.

Renzo Downey

Renzo Downey covers state government for Florida Politics. After graduating from Northwestern University in 2019, Renzo began his reporting career in the Lone Star State, covering state government for the Austin American-Statesman. Shoot Renzo an email at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @RenzoDowney.


One comment

  • Sonja Fitch

    March 23, 2021 at 9:16 am

    Trying to focus on the undercutting of our democracy ! Not the racism. Does this include money for PAC? Bipartisan May be the big winner for Floridians!

Comments are closed.


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