Senate moves on bills to expand special needs students’ vouchers, hurricane recovery grants
TALLAHASSEE, FLA. 1/4/23-Sen. Corey Simon, R-Tallahassee, speaks during the Agriculture Committee, Wednesday at the Capitol in Tallahassee. COLIN HACKLEY PHOTO

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'If we wait, schools will surely close.'

Hours after convening a Special Session, a Senate panel approved two measures aimed at addressing a waitlist for private school vouchers for special needs students and to boost hurricane recovery programs in Panhandle areas affected by Hurricane Idalia.

The bills (SB 4C and SB 2C) were approved unanimously by the Senate Fiscal Policy Committee, but not completely without controversy.

SB 4C removes the cap on vouchers for special needs students in the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities program, which currently stands at 40,930. The move is an attempt to accommodate the 8,839 students on the waitlist who can’t access the vouchers.

But Mary Josephine Walsh, the founder and principal of Mountaineer’s School of Autism in West Palm Beach, urged lawmakers to ensure voucher payments to schools are disbursed in full. She said Step Up for Students, the group that administers the program, has only been giving out payments in small amounts, or not at all.

“If we wait, schools will surely close,” Walsh told the panel.

And Sen. Corey Simon, a Tallahassee Republican sponsoring SB 2C, sought to head off criticism that his measure providing tax relief to areas hit by Idalia would also apply to Georgia-Pacific, a conglomerate that last month said it would shut down a paper mill in Taylor County, eliminating hundreds of jobs.

“Please, with all that is in you, do not show up with our Property Appraiser looking for a handout,” Simon said, addressing Georgia-Pacific. “This bill is not for you. This bill is for the people who suffered from this storm.”

The rest of SB 2C will provide $417 million in hurricane recovery funds. That includes $176.2 million to address a backlog in the My Safe Florida Home program, which gives matching grants to homeowners who harden their homes to prevent or mitigate damage during a destructive storm. Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis said homeowners who benefited from the program averaged a $1,000 reduction in their premiums.

A House panel is poised to pass identical bills later on Monday. The House is scheduled to pass the bills off the floor Tuesday, and the Senate will give the final OK on Wednesday.

Gray Rohrer



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