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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — The Florida Senate on Wednesday passed legislation expanding aid for students with intellectual disabilities and named the program for Senate President Andy Gardiner, who has made what he calls "people with unique abilities" the signature issue of his tenure as president.
The bill (SB 672) increases funding from $55 million to $73 million for $10,000-per-year scholarships for children with autism, Down syndrome and other intellectual disabilities, starting as early as age 3.
The program was expanded last year to add categories of disabilities, increasing recipients to about 4,300. The new bill makes the expansion permanent, likely increasing recipients to 8,000.
Gardiner says he expects the House to pass a companion bill, HB 7011, by Friday, sending the legislation to Gov. Rick Scott.
Gardiner has a son with Down syndrome, and his wife has been active on the issue.
He initially rejected an amendment by sponsor Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, naming the program "Gardiner Scholarships" in honor of his family. Gardiner said he had promised House backers the Senate would pass a bill with no amendments, to match the House bill.
But he accepted the honor, and was overcome with emotion at the podium, when House Speaker Steve Crisafulli called during the deliberations to say the House would accept the amendment.
"I didn't see that coming. It's a moment I won't forget," Gardiner said afterward.
"This is a bill that people come up to us with tears in the eye and talk about how it's changed their lives," he said from the podium.
The bill passed despite objections by Democrats that it included $14 million for financial incentives for school districts that require students to wear uniforms. The districts would get an extra $10 per student per year.
Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, called the incentives "a giveaway to the school uniform industry," but withdrew an amendment to remove them.
Gardiner said the uniform measure was included because, "It was a priority of the House."
The Senate also passed bills creating employment incentives and a financial literacy program for persons with intellectual disabilities.
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