Protest bill expected to be heard in the Florida Senate

Senate President Wilton Simpson said Thursday he will use a procedural maneuver to ensure that a controversial law-and-order proposal pushed by Gov. Ron DeSantis starts moving in the Senate.

The House last week signed off on the measure (HB 1), which would, among other things, create a new crime of "mob intimidation" and stiffen penalties for injuring police officers during protests that become violent.

Midway through the 2021 legislative session, a Senate version (SB 484) has not been considered by a committee. The Senate Criminal Justice Committee was slated to give the measure an initial vetting, but Chairman Jason Pizzo, D-North Miami Beach, did not schedule it for a hearing.

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In an unusual move Thursday, Simpson said the House measure would be sent to the Republican-controlled Senate Appropriations Committee. Simpson told reporters "our intention will be to refer that bill to committee and we’ll be looking to take that up here in the very near future."

Under Senate rules, Simpson is required to refer bills that the House has passed to committees. In most cases, the full Senate strips those committee references and takes up the bills on the Senate floor.

It was unclear Thursday afternoon whether the protest measure, one of DeSantis’ top priorities for the session, will face more than a single committee in the Senate.

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The proposal has drawn harsh criticism from Democrats, Black legislators and civil-rights groups, who maintain the crackdown on protests is antithetical to the nation’s foundations.

DeSantis, a close ally of former President Donald Trump, rolled out a framework for legislation in late September, following protests throughout the country sparked by the death of George Floyd, a Minneapolis Black man who died after a white police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes.

Florida House and Senate Republican leaders released initial versions of the legislation on Jan. 6, the same day Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol in a violent siege intended to block Congress from certifying states’ election results.

Legislative leaders pointed to the U.S. Capitol unrest as a justification for the effort, but Democrats’ have rejected such arguments.

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The bill "exploits tensions versus actually addressing tensions," Rep. Angie Nixon, D-Jacksonville, said during a debate before the House passed the bill in a party-line vote on Friday.

"This bill was written in response to peaceful protests this past summer that were focused on the support of those that believe Black lives matter. … This bill is designed to keep us in check, to keep us fearful, to scare us from speaking out about the fact that Black lives matter," she added.

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

The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.