Editorial Roundup: Florida

Palm Beach Post. May 11, 2022.

Editorial: Lawmakers must fix housing crisis in special session

Palm Beach County and many parts of Florida have become too expensive to live. It shouldn’t take skyrocketing housing and insurance costs to convince state leaders to get their heads out of the sand on these issues.

This month’s special session of the Florida Legislature provides the ideal forum for lawmakers and Gov. Ron DeSantis to address these parallel problems.

For starters they can make one fix that will ease the shortage of affordable housing: They can restore 100% funding from the Sadowski Housing Trust Fund, a source of money specified for affordable housing but which state leaders for years have instead raided as a piggy bank for pet projects, tax breaks and other expenses unrelated to housing.

The trust fund generates roughly $400 million annually, in doc stamp revenue from home sales. The fund is supposed to be used for housing initiatives. But, since 2002, governors and state lawmakers have diverted $2.3 billion from it. It didn’t help that, last year, lawmakers backed off diverting some 70 percent of it and agreed to use “only” use half of it for other things, in this case for climate change programs. Restoring full funding should be an easy fix in the upcoming special session.

Special session is appropriate venue

Just as challenging is the state’s property insurance crisis, the main focus of this month’s special session. Florida homeowners face skyrocketing insurance premiums as companies suspend accepting new business, restrict the types of homes they cover and cancel policies altogether.

Again, there are potential solutions: fighting fraud, quelling lawsuits, developing acceptable rate structures, helping undercapitalized insurers and stemming the flow of desperate companies to Citizens Property Insurance, Florida’s supposed insurer of last resort.

In 2021, the Legislature passed two bills that were signed into law — SB 76 and SB 1598. A federal judge imposed a temporary injunction against SB 76, which would have helped curb fraudulent roof repairs and thus eased upward pressure on insurance rates. SB 1598′s new regulations on public adjusters remain in effect.

This year, the House and Senate came up with SB 1728, which would have placed further restrictions on fraudulent roofers. But, at the last minute of the regular session, the two chambers couldn’t agree and the bill died. Close may count in horseshoes, but not when our insurance premiums come due.

“The citizens of Florida are (Gov. DeSantis’) priority and as insurance has become increasingly burdensome, he’s taken notice — and now — taken action by issuing the call for a special session,” Bryan Griffin, a spokesman for the governor, said. But just calling a meeting isn’t enough.

Typically, before the Legislature returns to the capitol for a special session, lawmakers either have or are close to an agreement on a bill that might address the problem at hand. At the moment, there’s no hint of any insurance deal, leaving property owners threatened by higher bills and cancellations. Homeowners should press their representatives not to delay.

Local projects need Sadowski money

The housing problem is dire. A recent study by Florida Atlantic University and Florida Gulf Coast University found renters in South Florida were paying 19% more than what they would under normal market conditions.

Local communities deserve credit for stepping up efforts to incentivize construction, even as help from the state lags.

Palm Beach County commissioners, for example, are considering asking voters to approve a $200 million bond to bolster affordable housing construction. County and Riviera Beach city officials recently broke ground on a $35 million apartment complex as an affordable housing alternative. The city of West Palm Beach is well on its way to meeting its three-year plan of building 600 affordable housing units, and two Delray Beach projects expected to be completed next year will see 80 workforce homes built.

The governor and lawmakers should be open to fully funding Sadowski only for its intended purpose, so more projects like these can move forward.

Drops in the bucket? Yes. It will take time and money to address Florida’s housing crisis, which makes this month’s special session even more urgent. We hope it’s not another missed opportunity.

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Orlando Sentinel. May 15, 2022.

Editorial: Save the seagrass, save the lagoon and save the manatees

Over the past 16 months, the people fighting to save Florida’s gentle, beloved manatees have done things they never thought they’d do — and last week’s decision to sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is just the latest example.

Among the unprecedented events, manatee experts, state workers and volunteers have rescued hundreds of emaciated, sick manatees whose main food source — seagrass — has been dying at a terrifying rate. Many will need months of labor-intensive rehabilitation and medical care before they can be released into the wild. Some manatees have been sent as far away as Ohio and Texas.

Advocates for manatees have experimented with feeding them lettuce in parts of Brevard County — going against decades of policy in a desperate attempt to keep more from starving. They’ve begged state and county officials to stop spraying manatee-accessible inland water bodies for water hyacinth and hydrilla, two aggressive, invasive water weeds that can make streams and lakes unnavigable and degrade water quality. They hope the vegetation will provide extra food for manatees that survived the winter but are underweight. Some manatee advocates even suggested trucking hydrilla and water hyacinth into the Indian River Lagoon, a notion that makes most naturalists shudder.

And they’ve pulled hundreds and hundreds of bodies from central and south Florida waterways. Last year was the worst on record for manatee deaths — 1,101 — and as of early May, 541 have died this year. The surge in deaths coincides with a recent state decision to cut down on the number of necropsies it performs, so about two-thirds of those deaths are officially determined to be of unknown causes.

But state and federal officials know what is causing this horrific slaughter, blandly dubbed an “unusual mortality event” by environmental agencies. They’ve seen this coming for more than a decade, yet the only major action was to officially weaken manatees’ protection status in 2017, from endangered to threatened.

More importantly, they know that, while manatee deaths grab headlines, they are a small part of the ecological nightmare that’s blooming along Florida’s southeast coast. The Indian River Lagoon, which stretches 156 miles from Volusia to Palm Beach counties, is one of the most diverse estuaries in the world — a place known as the “cradle of the ocean,” where more than 2,000 species, from tiny crabs to juvenile sea turtles, are born and grow up.

The lagoon is home to nearly as many plant species, but a handful of them have special significance. Seagrasses provide shelter for spawning fish, keep lagoon waters healthy and provide manatees with nearly all of their food. But the seagrass beds have been dying as part of a noxious chain reaction triggered by human carelessness. Seepage from faulty septic tanks, runoff from coastal roads and chemicals from overfertilized lawns have thrown the lagoon out of balance. Past summers have seen massive blooms of stinking, toxic algae that turn once-clear waters into something resembling guacamole. In some places, as much as 90 percent of seagrass beds have disappeared. The filthy water is also directly affecting other endangered species; for example, juvenile sea turtles have been found with tumors often caused by pollution.

Humans have a lot at stake too. The lagoon provides stock for the state’s fisheries and sports anglers as well as recreational boating and ecotourism, Its value to Florida’s economy is upwards of $7 billion annually.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court in Orlando, demands swift action to reduce the contaminants pouring into the lagoon. A coalition of four environmental groups — Save the Manatee, Earthjustice, Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity — want the EPA to force Florida to upgrade its water quality standards for lagoon-adjacent counties. The dispute goes back to the EPA’s 2013 approval of state standards that, even at the time, were believed to be too weak. Federal law allows that approval to be revisited, but the EPA has steadfastly — and mysteriously, given the devastation seeping throughout the lagoon — refused.

On the same day the suit was filed, EPA officials said they were ready to work with Florida to enforce its current standards. It’s a laughably weak response: Those standards, as lax as they were, should have been enforced all along.

They weren’t, and now Florida has a crisis festering on its coastline. Federal officials should partner with the state and get to work: Taking out old septic tanks, stopping the flow of runoff, restricting the amount of fertilizers that can be used on lawns and looking for other ways to stop pollution, with clear benchmarks and enforcement agreements. Manatees’ status should also be quickly restored to endangered. These measures can be incorporated into a quick settlement of the Earthjustice lawsuit.

There’s no need to waste time litigating and negotiating. State and federal environmental agencies have repeatedly failed to do their jobs, and the evidence of that is manifesting ― in a dying lagoon, and in landfills full of dead manatees.

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Tampa Bay Times. May 12, 2022.

Editorial: ‘Intellectual freedom’ at Florida schools. Can you pass this quiz?

Only those with The (Far) Right Stuff stand a chance on this one.

Faculty and students at Florida’s public universities recently completed a voluntary survey to gauge the political climate on campus. The Republican-controlled Legislature mandated the annual survey to promote “intellectual freedom.” But few are buying what lawmakers are selling. Only 3 percent of the universities’ population took part, likely because they see this exercise for what it is: A joke.

In the same spirit, we offer some questions for consideration in next year’s survey:

1. How strongly do you agree with this statement? “Racial discrimination is no longer a problem in America.”

a. Very strongly.

b. Some of my best friends are Black.

2. What does “woke” mean to you?

a. Understanding the U.S. history of discriminating against marginalized communities and its impacts on social equity.

b. What I didn’t do until 2 p.m. because of last night’s kegger.

3. Does Florida State’s Seminole mascot instill guilt?

a. No. C’mon, dude gets to ride a horse to midfield and throw a flaming spear.

b. Well, yes, the real-life Seminoles were never defeated, but the FSU football team seems to lose nearly every weekend.

4. Do you believe that any Floridian who works hard can get ahead in this state?

a. Yes.

b. No. (If you answered “no,” that’s just fine, absolutely A-OK. Oh, but do check your email for your new mandatory assignment, “How to be a better patriot.”)

5. The best books(asterisk) …

a. Are those that tell you what you already know.

b. Confirm that war is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength.

c. Prove that 2+2=5.

d. Show that censorship is the child of fear and the father of ignorance. (Editor’s note: Apologies. That last bit of liberal propaganda just slipped in. The Thought Police have sent the offending party to the appropriate reeducation camp.)

6. Is it better to call the Democrat Party:

a. The Democrat Socialists Party.

b. Commies.

c. A and B can be used interchangeably.

d. Or just call them losers.

7. Do you believe a woman should retain autonomy over her body?

a. No.

b. With some exceptions.

c. Can you repeat the question?

8. Do you believe a man should retain autonomy over his body?

a. Yes.

9. How strongly do you agree with this statement: “Undocumented immigrants should be denied access to public education.”

a. Very strongly.

b. They already know too much about the Constitution compared to citizens.

c. Aren’t they called “illegals”?

10. What disturbs you most about the Walt Disney Co.?

a. Standing up for civil rights.

b. Admission prices.

c. Long lines.

d. Lyrics to “It’s a Small World.”

11. Do the University of Florida mascots — Albert and Alberta Gator — make you:

a. Feel guilty about our treatment of the environment?

b. Wonder why gators are walking on two feet?

c. Admire how Alberta applies lipstick with such short arms?

d. All of the above.

12. Now for some Economics 101. How much should Floridians pay in taxes overall?

a. Nothing.

b. All of the above.

13. When Florida switches to a new accrediting organization to recognize the obvious quality of a state university education, should it:

a. Weigh the football rankings more than classroom performance?

b. Make sure that political interference by Tallahassee is recognized as a clear public good?

c. Penalize universities whose pesky professors keep speaking truth to power?

14. The point of your college education is:

a. To punch a meal ticket to make as much money as possible?

b. To make lifelong connections that will ensure you never fail even if you don’t try that hard?

c. A and B.

d. To learn to think critically to become a responsible, informed citizen? (If you answered D, really, what are you, a philosophy major?)

15. True or false, philosophy majors actually make plenty of money, on average?

a. You’re kidding, right?

b. Believe it or not, they do. (This part is no joke. They actually do. According to a Wall Street Journal analysis, they’re like the stealth STEM degree, in the top five of mid-career earnings.)

16. Rate Gov. Ron DeSantis’ leadership over the past three years:

a. Fabulous.

b. Really fabulous.

c. He’s a cross between Clark Cable and Winston Churchill, in all the right ways.

d. He’d look good on Mount Rushmore.

e. Why isn’t this great man already in the White House?

(asterisk) With apologies to Eric Arthur Blair, aka George Orwell.

Answer key:

1. B; 2. B; 3. A; 4. A; 5. A; 6. C or D; 7. A; 8. A; 9. A; 10. A; 11. B; 12. B; 13. B; 14. C; 15. A; 16. E.

How many did you get right?

14-16 – You’re married to Ron DeSantis.

11-13– Congrats! You’re a card-carrying #FloridaMan.

8-10 – Not bad, but you need to brush up on your Newspeak.

3-7 – What are you, woke?

0-2 – Watch it, Commie!

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South Florida Sun Sentinel. May 17, 2022.

Editorial: Don’t let legislators rip away your voice

Who’s in charge in a democracy? The people or the politicians?

The answer to that eternal question is going badly in Florida.

Voters accustomed to a longer ballot will face only three constitutional amendments on Nov. 8, all put there by the Legislature, none by initiative petitions.

The Legislature and the lobbies that jerk its chains are effectively repealing the people’s right to propose and ratify their own constitutional reforms.

The voter initiative form of people power has succeeded 31 times to adopt what the Florida Legislature would not, including such significant measures as setting a state minimum wage and raising it, banning smoking in workplaces, curbing gerrymandering, banning commercial net fishing, establishing term limits on the Legislature and the Cabinet, limiting tax increases, forbidding the Legislature to authorize casino gambling without a statewide referendum, legalizing medical marijuana, limiting class sizes in public schools, and requiring public officials to disclose their assets, debts and income. Eleven initiatives failed at the polls.

Currently, a circuit judge has invoked the “Fair Districts” initiatives, adopted in 2010, to block the racist gerrymander by Gov. Ron DeSantis that would eliminate Democratic Rep. Al Lawson’s district and leave 345,000 Black voters across North Florida with no voice in Washington.

That decision will be reviewed by a state Supreme Court made fiercely right-wing by DeSantis appointments. Florida needs an initiative to restore the independence of the appellate bench, which most former governors respected.

It’s problematic, however, whether there can ever be another successful initiative. In what democracy advocates liken to “a death of a thousand cuts,” the Legislature has repeatedly acted to cripple the process. The most telling obstacle so far requires sponsors to pay professional solicitors by the hour rather than by how many petition signatures they gather. Only two initiatives, at most, have ever succeeded by depending on volunteers.

A law enacted last year to further cripple the process set a $3,000 ceiling on contributions during the signature-gathering phase of an initiative campaign, by far the more expensive part. After a federal judge ruled it unconstitutional, the Legislature this year passed another applying the ceiling only to donations from out of state. It’s just as unconstitutional, and hypocritical as well for not applying to the political committees fronting for DeSantis and other Florida politicians. But it hasn’t been overturned yet.

The Legislature has also limited the validity of signatures to the next scheduled general election, rather than to the next two as it once was. This will compel determined sponsors to restart the process from scratch, including a second Supreme Court review.

Few of the politicians making this relentless assault are old enough to know why this form of people power needs to exist.

For several generations, an archaic constitutional formula gave control of the Legislature to an ever-shrinking rural constituency. Eventually, fewer than 20% of Floridians could elect majorities in both houses.

Gov. LeRoy Collins (1955-61) fought six years for a fairer apportionment, but could not break the Legislature’s stranglehold on the Constitution. It took the U.S. Supreme Court to do it.

A reapportioned Legislature liberated the voters through the new constitution of 1968, which brought to Florida the initiative process, long established in other states. It also provided for an appointed commission to review the entire constitution every 20 years. (A third new provision allowing a constitutional convention hasn’t been invoked and probably shouldn’t be.)

The first two commissions did good work. The third, in 2018, performed poorly overall but it did stiffen the ethics code by extending from two years to six the ban on ex-legislators becoming paid lobbyists. Now, the Legislature is asking the voters to abolish the commission. That’s Amendment 2 on the November ballot. It deserves overwhelming defeat.

The constitution also enhanced people power by giving home rule to cities and counties, ending their dependence on the aptly named “local bill evil” in Tallahassee. “The best government is that closest to the people” was a mantra dear to both parties.

No longer. As directed by the Republican leadership, the Legislature has been erasing home rule whenever some powerful special interests ring the cash register. One law overrode the voters of Key West who had barred large cruise ships. A bill (SB 620) awaiting DeSantis signature or veto would entitle businesses to recover lost profits attributed to new ordinances.

The Legislature’s hostility to initiatives was seeded by Gov. Reubin Askew’s “Sunshine Amendment” of 1976 that enacted a stricter ethics code, including financial disclosure. Askew went to the people after the Legislature refused to pass a stronger one.

It was the first successful initiative, and also the next to last accomplished entirely by volunteers gathering signatures. The Legislature responded by trying to ban signature-gathering near polling places, the best of all venues to find registered voters. The law now prohibits any solicitations within 150 feet of a voting station.

Initiative campaigns were easier then. The valid signature requirement, 8% of the most recent presidential vote statewide and in at least half the congressional districts, meant Askew needed barely 200,000 signatures, which he barely made in time. Now, the magic number is nearly 900,000. It’s considered unachievable without paid solicitors. The 2010 “Fair Districts” amendments, for example, cost their sponsors $9.1 million.

The legislative enemies of people power shed crocodile tears over exposing the Constitution to poorly drafted changes that would be more suitable as statutes, but they refuse to let laws be written by initiative as 21 other states allow.

The Florida Legislature has made itself an implacable enemy of people power. The voters should have no use for politicians who have so little respect for them.

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Miami Herald. May 13, 2022.

Editorial: Florida’s book rejection frenzy has right-wing kookiness written all over it

In the deepest corners of the right wing, the belief exists that teachers, textbook writers and publishing companies are conspiring to indoctrinate children. It starts with softening students up by talking about feelings. Then, their unsuspecting minds can be shaped to believe in climate change, COVID-19 vaccines, evolution and — worst of all — that racism exists.

Such kookiness has existed on the fringes of the Republican Party for a long time, and was, for the most part, shunned by mainstream conservatives. But in the Twilight Zone that Florida’s state government has become, this line of thinking is shaping education policy.

These extreme voices appeared to have been loud in the Florida Department of Education’s review of math textbooks. That process resulted in the state rejecting 54 of 132 submitted textbooks, though 19 were later accepted after publishers removed “woke content.” The department has provided little explanation for its reasoning but said the materials included prohibited topics like critical race theory, Common Core and social-emotional learning.

A Herald review of nearly 6,000 pages of math textbook reviews shows the overwhelming majority of the people assigned to go over the materials found no evidence of critical race theory. Usually taught in graduate and law schools, this is an area of study that looks at how racism has been perpetuated through laws and institutions. Conservatives believe it has infiltrated K-12 via anti-racist curriculum and, seemingly, any mention at all in textbooks that racism still exists.

Three of the 125 reviewers did find plenty of CRT hidden in math textbooks. Not surprisingly, one of them is part of the conservative group Moms for Liberty, best known for trying to ban books from school libraries. The other two are from Hillsdale College in Michigan, a Christian school that has become influential in conservative politics. One of the Hillsdale reviewers is a sophomore studying politics and it’s unclear why he became a Florida textbook expert. But here’s a hint: He is listed as the secretary of the Hillsdale College Republicans, the Herald reported.

Moms for Action member Chris Allen of Indian River County flagged lessons that talked about COVID-19 vaccinations, “climate change as if it’s fact” — it is, according to a consensus in the scientific community — and textbooks that stated a simple fact: that racism and poverty still exist in the United States.

A Hillsdale College reviewer had an issue with a mention of “racial profiling in policing,” a reality many Florida Black students face but that, apparently, cannot be uttered in classrooms anymore.

WHOSE VIEW MATTERS?

If reviews like these were in the minority, why did the state initially reject 41% of the textbooks submitted, the largest number in Florida history?

At best, this is just Gov. Ron DeSantis pandering to conservative voters as he eyes a presidential campaign.

At worst, it’s imposing the views of an extreme minority on the rest of Floridians — a view that looks at scientific consensus with suspicion, and efforts to bring equity and inclusion to education as a threat. A view that’s more concerned with protecting the sensibilities of white, conservative Christians than embracing an increasingly multi-cultural, multi-racial society.

Another group that has DeSantis’ ear is the Florida Citizens Alliance, which wrote a 2019 bill to allow schools to teach alternatives on issues like evolution and climate change. The group also publishes an annual “Objectionable Materials Report” that flags books that subject “all readers to LGBTQ agenda,” among other taboo topics.

IS MATH ONLY ABOUT NUMBERS?

DeSantis said in a news conference last month that, “Math is about getting the right answer.” It’s understandable that many parents believe learning basic algebra in math class is more important than discussing race relations. But there was no evidence the textbooks didn’t make math their primary focus.

DeSantis wants to eliminate from the discussion something that, like it or not, still impacts children’s lives. Race continues to be a determining factor in student achievement with Black and brown kids falling behind, at least in part, because of the structural racism that teachers have been banned from bringing up in classrooms.

Research suggest that girls and underrepresented minorities experience more anxiety over math. In fact, students’ emotions about learning can impact their grades. That’s prompted the development of “social-emotional learning.” But even that is considered too subversive by the Florida Department of Education.

A New York Times review found that many of the textbooks rejected had social-emotional learning references to character traits like cooperation, perseverance and having a growth mindset. One of the materials invited students to write a “math biography” reflecting their feelings on the subject.

How odd to reject those, given that values like perseverance and a growth mindset are conservative tenets.

It turns out social-emotional learning is now considered a gateway to critical race theory, according to right-wing activists. Its intent is “to soften children” and “rewire their behavior according to the dictates of left-wing ideology,” Chris Rufo, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, told the Times.

Under this warped world view, our kids are getting too soft and too aware of the world around them. The misguided solution is to keep them in the dark.

END