Brandon Wolf says that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican, made him a promise when he visited Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, where Wolf survived a shooting that killed 49 and injured dozens of others.
“He looked me in the eyes and told me that he would always support those of us who had been impacted by the shooting,” Wolf told The Washington Post of their 2019 meeting.
So Wolf said he felt betrayed when DeSantis used a line-item veto this week to nix $150,000 that would have funded a program offering mental health services for Pulse survivors and their families at an Orlando LGBTQ+ center.
“I had hope that [meeting] was the beginning of a new kind of relationship with the governor’s mansion,” Wolf told The Post. “But it turns out two years later that it was a lie.”
LGBTQ+ activists and Democrats have taken aim this week at DeSantis over the cut, which came on the second day of Pride Month and days before the shooting’s fifth anniversary, despite a budget reserve of $9.5 million. Coupled with other cuts aimed at LGBTQ+ programs and DeSantis’s decision earlier this week to sign a bill barring transgender female athletes from participating in high school and college sports, critics described his moves as an “attack” on the community.
“VETOING funding for @pulseorlando survivors days before the 5 year remembrance is heartless. VETOING funds for LGBTQ homeless youth is indefensible,” tweeted state Representative Carlos G. Smith, a Democrat, the state’s first openly gay Latino legislator. “During #Pride2021 following your attack on trans youth? @GovRonDeSantis what did LGBTQ people do to you to earn your contempt?”
DeSantis’ office, though, has pushed back on the criticism by pointing out that the state’s budget increased overall funding to community mental health services by $212 million, calling claims that his vetoes would hurt Pulse survivors “patently false.”
“Governor DeSantis has been a champion on mental health since day one — and he absolutely supports each and every Floridian who has experienced such horrific trauma, which has a lifelong impact on survivors,” Christina Pushaw, DeSantis’s spokeswoman, told the Orlando Sentinel.
But staff at The LGBT+ Center Orlando, which lost the $150,000 in state funding, said the governor’s veto would definitively hurt Pulse survivors and other LGBTQ+ residents in the area.
Joél Morales, director of operations with the center, said that earlier this year, the center took over a counseling services program offered to Pulse survivors and the families of those killed. A federal grant had previously paid for similar services in the state, but it ended in 2019. Without state funding, the center can’t afford to keep running the program, which currently serves 68 families and survivors.
“We only requested $150,000, which is the bare minimum to just sustain the program as it is,” Morales told The Post. “It was a slap in the face. I bawled just because of all the hard work our community is doing and the healing that still needs to be done.”
In addition to vetoing the Center Orlando’s funding on Wednesday, DeSantis also cut $750,000 of state funding which would have gone to the Orlando-based Zebra Coalition, a group that plans to convert part of an unused hotel into housing for homeless LGBTQ+ youth.
The backlash to DeSantis’s vetoes was swift from Democrats in the state legislature.
“It’s 100 percent political and there was no shortage of money this legislative session — especially when all we asked for was $150,000 out of a $101 billion dollar budget,” tweeted Representative Anna V. Eskamani, Democrat of Florida.
Although DeSantis has pointed to the more than $200 million added to community mental health services statewide in his budget, Wolf and Morales said there’s no guarantee those programs will impact Pulse survivors the way the already existing program at the Center Orlando did.
“You have said that there’s other money,” Wolf told The Post. “How much of it is going to these survivors? They have not been able to answer that question. It’s shameful.”