Editorial Roundup: Florida

Palm Beach Post. June 12, 2022.

Editorial: Better data from Florida essential for pandemic control

It didn’t take an audit by the Florida Auditor General to confirm what many of us suspected all along: Florida’s COVID-19 pandemic data was, and most likely remains, flawed. The words “inaccurate” and “incomplete” are laced throughout the 30-page audit report, along with other descriptions that don’t stir confidence.

”...The number of entities reporting data, apparent inaccurate or incomplete data reported to the state by those entities, and the lack of effective access controls in the systems used to gather data, impacted the state’s ability to accurately report COVID-19 data at the beginning of the pandemic,” the report said.

Florida undercounted COVID cases and deaths and botched analyzing and collecting test results, confirming the disinterested attitude of Gov. Ron DeSantis and Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Ladapo, whose anti-mask policies helped the virus spread.

If authentic data is important to Florida health agencies, the Agency for Health Care Administration, the Department of Health and the Division of Emergency Management didn’t show it — not to state auditors and certainly not to the public. With pandemic deaths in Florida now totaling 74,800, the DeSantis Administration must do better.

COVID-19 no longer strikes fear in the hearts of many Floridians. Gone are the long lines for coronavirus testing, the crowded ICUs, overworked medical staffs, and infected patients dying on hospital ventilators. Take a glimpse almost anywhere, whether it’s the Atlantic Avenue promenade, the hotspots along Clematis Street or the aisles of the local grocer, and you’ll see a populace devoid of masks and not displaying any lingering concern about the virus.

There should be concern. Last month the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported 1,234 cases of hospitalized adults from COVID in Florida, an uptick from the March and December reports. Another sign of trouble: while the Omicron variant is milder than earlier Delta variant, new, more contagious Omicron subvariants have been found in the Southeast U.S., including just a few dozen miles away from us, in Miami-Dade County.

With a more highly contagious virus still present, we can’t afford a tepid response, much less to rely on shoddy data from the responsible state agencies. Bad data impacts how well public health agencies and the wider medical community can respond with effective care. Unfortunately, after the auditor general’s office examined nearly 11.3 million lab test results and 730,000 documented COVID cases statewide, the auditors found much of the data lacking. If ever the adage “garbage in, garbage out” applied, it’s here.

For example, the report found a majority — 51.5% — of the 5.5 million plus COVID test results failed to identify a patient’s race. Roughly 59% lacked ethnicity information and a much smaller but noticeable number, 75,828 results, had no indication of gender.

Auditors found that a lab that received more than $5.4 million from the state in July and August of 2020 failed to include ID numbers or dates for administered COVID tests, which resulted in a number of tests not making it into public reports about the virus.

There were other problems, including the failure to conduct initial contact tracing outreach, to routinely perform analyses to check the completeness of all reported test results and to document that hospitals, nursing homes and assisted living facilities reported their daily census counts on available beds, staffing needs, ventilators in use and face mask inventory. Throw in the need to limit access to technology to limit the risk of unauthorized data modification, and the challenges become crystal clear.

The problem rests with the leadership priorities, perfectly illustrated by Gov. DeSantis’ and Dr. Ladapo’s recently successful bullying of the Special Olympics. The state leaders threatened a $27.5 million fine for requiring participants to be vaccinated against COVID. They’d rather make that their priority than bolstering state resources to detect and fight this or any future pandemic.

As for COVID data collection, limited government may sound good on the campaign trail but in the face of a public health crisis, a partisan talking point only goes so far. Florida’s health agencies need to be able to function.

The auditor’s report went out of its way to praise “the great effort” made by the state employees in responding to the outbreak. In the face of bureaucratic limitations, they rose to the occasion. The same can’t be said for those at the top.

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Orlando Sentinel. June 10, 2022.

Editorial: Some DeSantis budget vetoes merit praise

Some folks complain we go a little too hard on Gov. Ron DeSantis. But when he gets something right, we should say so. And a few of his budget vetoes were on-point enough to deserve their own mention — particularly notable because with one of the cancellations, DeSantis sharply curbed his own power and with the other, he blocked a legislative move to punish local school districts for defying the governor’s own orders.

We only wish he had said “thanks but no thanks” a little more often.

A $1 billion inflation ‘slush fund’

It’s clear lawmakers created this pot of money with the intent of pleasing the governor, who has asserted an unprecedented level of control over how state money is spent and loves to hammer President Joe Biden as the culprit in current high inflation rates. The House even wanted to give it a cute name — the “Budgeting for Inflation that Drives Elevated Needs Fund” — you can figure out the acronym on that one.

The stated purpose of the fund was to help state agencies cover projects that had budgetary approval but were going to run short due to fast-rising costs. It would have allowed the governor to direct which projects get excess funds, though bump-ups of more than $1 million would have required approval from the Legislative Budget Commission, a joint House-Senate committee that reviews budget changes.

But the LBC has always had the authority to make these adjustments. And, as the governor pointed out, knowing there’s a handy pile of money to deal with rising costs might discourage state agencies from attempts to hold down costs. “Really, you shouldn’t have,” was the right response.

Denied treats for ‘naughty’ school districts

For key lawmakers, this veto must have felt a little like selecting a gift oh-so-carefully, consulting the planned recipient and getting their tentative approval — and then having it returned with a big stomped footprint in the middle. Apparently, DeSantis figured out that it’s not fair to punish Florida schools, and individual students, for decisions made by district-level officials (though the governor still doesn’t seem moved by the fact that those decisions were made with the intention of keeping students and teachers alive).

It was a welcome about-face. As COVID progressed, Florida’s governor grew increasingly irritated at efforts to control COVID, starting with forced shutdowns — which DeSantis believed were bad for the state’s economy — but progressing to rules requiring mask usage or vaccination in most areas, including public schools. When a dozen school districts (including Orange and Broward counties) carried forward with mask mandates anyway, he issued a huffy press release a few weeks before school started in August that spouted scientifically dubious claims about mask usage and authorized the state Board of Education to withhold salaries from Broward and Alachua School Board members. That initiative was quickly slapped down by a federal judge and after some sulking, the governor complied.

But the governor’s friends in the Legislature wanted to revive the notion and after some back-and-forth settled on a plan that would block the erring districts from receiving money under the state’s school recognition program. The penalties were hefty, especially since all the offending counties had since dropped their mask mandates: Schools in Broward County that met the criteria for recognition would have been collectively denied $32.4 million; Orange County schools would have missed out on $14.5 million.

DeSantis seemed to like the plan; he even tweeted his support. He didn’t mention that in his veto message, but he did say — correctly — that it wasn’t fair to punish schools, teachers and students who worked hard during tough times.

Other noteworthy cuts

Those weren’t the only vetoes that merit praise. DeSantis killed $20 million to buy two new planes and hire pilots. In his veto message, DeSantis noted that opening up a state air pool to nearly 100 top executives could create problems, and he’s right — especially with elections coming up. He also shut down a massive new 4,500-bed prison that would have cost $640 million and a $195 million correctional hospital. There’s a legitimate argument that many Florida prisons are outdated and need to be replaced. But this state is long overdue for the kind of sweeping overhaul that has cut prison costs while improving programs for nonviolent offenders and reducing recidivism.

There was one more cut that got a lot of people excited until they realized it wasn’t nearly as good as they’d hoped. When DeSantis axed a plan to spend $50 million on a new district court of appeal building in Lakeland, many were hopeful that he’d abandoned a wholly unnecessary court-expansion plan. Guess the opportunity to appoint seven new judges to powerful and potentially long-lasting positions was too tempting to turn down, even if the gift to DeSantis wastes at least $10 million a year plus the eventual facilities cost — after all, the new court won’t be meeting in the food court of the Lakeland Square Mall.

Florida’s five district courts of appeal — which review cases from trial-level county and circuit courts, along with some appeals of state regulatory decisions — are not overburdened, and not likely to become so. In fact, the appellate courts’ caseload has been steadily dropping in recent years, even as Florida’s population was booming. From 2011 to 2020, the caseload across all five districts dropped by more than 8,000.

Appellate judges figured that one out on their own — when asked if Florida’s districts should be shifted around to create a sixth appellate court, only two (of 64 responses) said it was needed. Looking across all the judges and attorneys that answered the survey, close to 80 percent agreed Florida didn’t need a new court.

The only fiscally conservative move would have been to axe the entire mess.

But it would have taken more restraint than DeSantis has previously shown to turn down all the Legislature’s pointless, pricey presents (which look even more pathetic after the governor gleefully squashed the top budgetary priorities for House and Senate leaders).

At least, however, the governor trimmed away some of the wretched excess.

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Tampa Bay Times. June 11, 2022.

Editorial: Gov. DeSantis makes right call on Everglades bill

Also, pluses for the environment, animals and nonprofits — and look at Pasco!

Governor’s worthy veto. The Everglades bill that Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed this week was as bad for the restoration effort as the legislative process itself. The bill, SB 2508, would have allowed investor-owned utilities to fast-track the permitting process, which could lead to the destruction of wetlands, and interfered with an ongoing plan to reduce polluted discharges from Lake Okeechobee while recharging the basin’s southerly flow. Though an earlier version was worse, environmentalists said even the amended legislation primarily benefited the agricultural industry. In his veto letter, the governor rightly faulted the bill for creating “redundant regulatory hurdles” that could have put restoration projects at risk. And the bill, supported by outgoing Senate President Wilton Simpson, was introduced halfway into the regular session, and heard by just one committee — hardly the public vetting that such serious legislation deserves. The governor’s veto was a rejection of bad policy and the backroom political process. That doesn’t happen every day. But we’re glad it happened here.

Pasco’s growing up. Enough about the area’s beaches and downtowns — look at Pasco. The county commission there approved a $55.8 million incentive package this week for the new Pasco Town Center project, which, as envisioned, will include 4 million square feet of industrial development, 725,000 square feet of offices, 400,000 square feet of retail, 3,500 housing units and 300 hotel beds on a 965-acre parcel at the southeast corner of Interstate 75 and State Road 52. Most of the incentive package would come in the form of property tax rebates to the developer, Dallas-based PTC Boyette LLC. That is a valuable inducement for PTC Boyette to build a quality development with all the essential infrastructure over the rebate’s 40-year lifeline. The project is adjacent to the connected city corridor, a 7,800-acre swath stretching from Wesley Chapel into eastern Pasco, whose draw includes planned high-speed internet to attract businesses there. Coming as Pasco’s newest school prepares to build a new wing to handle growing enrollment, the news marks the latest in Pasco’s coming of age.

Pinellas’ pet policy. Kudos to the Pinellas County Commission this week for being the latest area government to ban any new stores selling dogs and cats. Tuesday’s vote balanced animal welfare with private business; the commission did not grant advocates’ pleas to shutter the six stores currently operating, adopting an ordinance instead that imposes heightened regulations on retailers, like requiring the posting of medical histories and origins of those pets being sold. This is a solid step toward bringing more accountability to an opaque industry, and it also sends an important message to would-be buyers about responsible pet ownership. Hillsborough County voted in 2020 to ban pet retail sales, and Manatee and Pasco counties did the same. Why even support mass-scale, commercial trafficking? Thousands of dogs and cats are jumping at the chance to be adopted. Area counties feature their adoptable pets online, as does the Humane Society and many rescue groups. Check them out. Save a life.

Sharper United Way. The United Way Suncoast announced a new strategy this week that promises to bring a greater focus on local needs and a bigger bang for the buck. The organization will distribute $18 million over a three-year period to more than 100 programs that work to clear educational and financial barriers for low-income families. The multi-year grants differ from the United Way’s past distribution model, which required nonprofits to apply annually for funding. The goal of a multi-year cycle is to reduce administrative time; community partners can focus more on their mission, and the United Way can assess these programs over a longer tenure. As the organization’s CEO, Jessica Muroff, noted: “The kind of community challenges that we’re tackling aren’t solved in one-year increments.” Of course, with the longer time frame, the United Way will need regular checkups to ensure accountability. But this is a smarter approach that should wring the most out of the United Way Suncoast’s precious resources in the five-county region.

Protecting old Florida. If drivers think Interstate 4 is a death trap, imagine being a bear. The concrete superspeedway between Tampa and Orlando is a deadly barrier for wildlife crisscrossing the state. But overdue relief is coming. Construction crews are building a major animal crossing under the highway, part of a $71 million redesign of the interchange where I-4 meets State Road 557. While the Florida Department of Transportation has not broken out the cost for the crossing, officials estimate it at about $8 million. That’s money well spent to preserve a wildlife corridor and improve commuter safety on I-4. The underpass crossing is 61 feet wide at its opening and 8 feet high. Fencing around the surrounding highway will herd animals toward the passage. While bears and panthers may use it, officials said deer and bobcats are more common in the area. As development booms from Tampa, Lakeland and Orlando, these conservation lands will be harder to find. Preserving more of these wildlife corridors now is critical.

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South Florida Sun Sentinel. June 14, 2022.

Editorial: The conservative cruelty of an appellate court

Conservative shouldn’t be synonymous with cruelty. But that’s how it seems at Florida’s First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee.

That’s bad news for injured workers. All compensation appeals go there.

What the court did this month to Stephen Sargent is as cruel as cruel could get.

He was a correctional officer for the Bradford County sheriff. He began as a part-timer in May 2012 and transitioned to full-time work a year later.

In January 2020, he had a heart attack. Florida law presumes that’s a work-related injury for correctional and law enforcement officers and firefighters, among others, because they have very stressful jobs. They’re as entitled to worker’s compensation benefits for heart trouble as for any other workplace injury.

Sargent was denied the health care and lost wage benefits he applied for.

Ruling against him and in favor of the sheriff’s office and its insurer, the Florida League of Cities, a compensation judge invoked a diabolical Catch-22.

Sargent hadn’t had a second physical examination after switching to full-time work.

Never mind that he had passed the one he took before going to work part time in 2012 — ”the only one BCSO ever required,” according to the dissent in his appeal.

The dissent, by Judge Scott Makar, is the only clue as to why the two other judges on the panel, Ross Bilbrey and Susan Kelsey, ruled against Sargent’s appeal. They didn’t bother to explain it, leaving nothing for Sargent to take to the Supreme Court. All three were appointed by former Gov. Rick Scott.

The applicable state law, Makar explained, forbids reliance on a prior physical exam “only when a correctional officer goes from a previous employer to a different employer,” not when one is promoted to a full-time job within the same agency.

Moreover, he noted, the sheriff’s office not only failed to require a second one but “affirmatively disavowed” the necessity when any part-time officer was promoted to full-time status.

Makar quoted testimony from the office that “we didn’t do a second physical because they’d been there with us, they’d been observed, they passed their first drug test. We knew they were widely capable … ”

In light of that policy, it is unconscionable that the sheriff’s office and its insurer held Sargent responsible for not having had a second physical.

We asked James Spears, his lawyer, what that has meant for Sargent.

“He’s lost tens of thousands of dollars in compensation that would be due under the law,” Spears replied in an e-mail. “He has lost lifetime medical care with a cardiologist for his heart disease, along with medications.

“He stopped working for the sheriff’s office last year due to the stress this has caused him as well as the way he has been treated... This cost him income and benefits and pension, as he has not found a job earning the same salary or benefits…

“He feels duped and let down by the sheriff’s office and is worried for the others that this will affect in the future.”

Others should worry too. This isn’t the first time that court has gone to extremes to deny coverage under the worker’s compensation law. Its tendency to do that is welcome news for employer lobbies both private and public.

In November 2019, it turned away claims involving two workers who had contracted diseases that their doctors said were almost certainly caused by mold exposure at work. One had already died when the court got the case.

Those rulings made it practically impossible for anyone ever to win a toxic mold case. Among other things, the court said they would have to prove that the concentrations were enough to cause harm and that they had not been exposed elsewhere. In both cases, the best evidence — the mold itself — had already been cleaned up when the workers became ill.

By extension, those cases also created a very high bar to successful claims for COVID-19 exposure.

In those cases and Sargent’s, the decisions turned on laws that the Legislature could and should correct. But you would have to go back a very long time for any occasion when Florida’s lobbyist-ridden Legislature did anything with the worker’s compensation law other than to make it less fair for wage-earners and more comfortable for their employers.

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Miami Herald. June 11, 2022.

Editorial: With no assault-weapons ban in sight, Rubio and Scott must do bare minimum on gun control

There won’t be a ban on so-called assault weapons coming from Congress, and don’t hold your breath for limits on high-capacity magazines.

The fate of federal gun control legislation rests in the hands of 10 Republicans needed to overcome a Senate filibuster — and Democrats keeping a united front. If a bipartisan group negotiating a compromise comes up with anything, it will be lackluster. On the flip side, it will be harder to argue it’s an attack on the Second Amendment.

Florida — home of the Parkland and Pulse nightclub mass shootings — will be looking to its senators, Rick Scott and Marco Rubio, to do their job. But neither have said they will support any form of gun legislation beyond encouraging states to pass “red flag” laws. Lawmakers should, at a minimum, strengthen background checks and gun-storage requirements.

If they can’t show a backbone and compromise after the murders of 10 people in Buffalo, New York, and 19 elementary school children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, then when will they?

It will be hard to justify inaction after the heart-wrenching U.S. House testimony of the 11-year-old who survived the Texas shooting by playing dead and covering herself in a classmate’s blood. Or the pediatrician who saw the unrecognizable bodies of children mangled by bullets from an AR-15-style rifle.

Dr. Roy Guerrero told lawmakers he saw “two children whose bodies had been pulverized by bullets fired at them, decapitated, whose flesh had been (so) ripped apart, that the only clue as to their identities was the blood-spattered cartoon clothes still clinging to them.”

Gory, but necessary, details that lawmakers — in theory — can’t brush aside.

‘POLITICAL THEATER’

The U.S. House’s passage of a package of gun reforms on Wednesday was a partisan showdown. The “Protecting our Kids Act” got only five Republican votes and has no chance in the Senate. The bill raises the minimum age to buy a semi-automatic rifle to 21 and prohibits the sale of ammunition magazines with a capacity of more than 15 rounds.

Miami Republicans Maria Elvira Salazar, Carlos Gimenez and Mario Diaz-Balart opposed the legislation. Salazar voted in favor of a stand-alone provision on the age restriction.

Gimenez and Diaz-Balart issued statements that called the House vote “political theater” and “radical.” Yes, it was a partisan tactic to put Republicans on the record opposing gun control. But radical? No, considering polls show many Americans support these measures.

Both congressmen have tried to switch the focus to strengthening school security and addressing mental health — a deflection tactic we’ve seen before. Gimenez said that as Miami-Dade County mayor he oversaw the spending of $20 million to ensure that every school had a law enforcement officer and the creation of an active shooter response team in the county Police Department. Diaz-Balart highlighted his co-sponsoring a bipartisan bill to help states enforce existing laws to keep guns from people not legally allowed to own one.

These are good measures, but they don’t go far enough.

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