National News

Broward shootings push state lawmakers to look again at mental health funding

Posted February 18, 2018 6:07 p.m. EST

TALLAHASSEE -- In the aftermath of the Parkland school shooting, Florida lawmakers vowed they would push harder on an issue they acknowledged they had failed: mental health in schools.

Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, filed a mental health pilot program in schools early this year, which sets aside $40 million to connect students to community programs for mental health treatment.

Yet when asked about her own bill in its current form, she was blunt: "It's not enough." Passidomo said she had originally asked for $180 million for mental health resources in schools, but settled on $40 million as a starting point.

Though Republican lawmakers hesitated to discuss restricting certain weapons or high-capacity magazines, many were more eager to advocate for beefing up mental health services.

High-ranking Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, suggested doubling Passidomo's $40 million mental health allowance and adding $60 million to boost school security and add more armed security.

"We need to pay more attention to mental health screening, training and treatment,'' Galvano told the Times/Herald as he boarded a charter flight to Parkland with other lawmakers.

Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said that he's spoken to other senators who are ready to put more money behind Passidomo's proposals.

He, along with other prominent Republicans including Gov. Rick Scott, also said there needs to be a way to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill.

State law currently calls for background checks to review if a buyer has been deemed "mentally defective" or committed to a mental institution. The Parkland shooter -- 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz -- received treatment from a mental health clinic for about a year until last fall but purchased his weapon legally, authorities said.

The state has struggled for years to fund mental health initiatives, said Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-Treasure Island. She sponsored a successful bill in 2016 that erected more centers for mental health and substance abuse treatment and restructured how patients can access them, though state funding was slashed last year by more than 40 percent.

"We're not even close on what we should do with mental health," Peters said.

Sen. René García, R-Hialeah, has focused on programs to address mental illnesses and substance abuse, but said Wednesday's shooting showed that the problem is bigger than mental health.

"It's just more than one issue," he said. "We have to take a holistic approach and we all have to give. It can't just be the NRA, just be anti-gun folks, it can't be the school-hardening folks where they want to put more (school security), we have to all have this conversation. However uncomfortable and hard it may be, we can't allow this to happen anymore."

Contact Emily L. Mahoney at emahoney@tampabay.com. Follow @mahoneysthename.