Editorial Roundup: Florida

Recent editorials from Mississippi newspapers:

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Feb. 10

The Tampa Bay Times on legal notices in newspapers:

Local governments have been required for decades to make a modest effort to keep residents informed about issues affecting their communities, from the common to the consequential. They have to publish legal notices in the local newspaper. Yet the Florida Legislature is attempting to abolish that requirement, which would push government further into the shadows and make it harder for Floridians to learn about public policy issues, make their voices heard and hold their leaders accountable.

A House bill, HB 7, that would end the requirement that governments publish legal notices in newspapers and allow them to be published on government websites is ready for a vote by the full House. That’s no surprise; the House passed the same bill last year and it died in the Senate. More distressing is that the Senate Judiciary Committee is suddenly taking up similar legislation, SB 1340, on Tuesday. What horse trades are going on between House and Senate leaders that suddenly has this terrible public policy moving?

Despite the overheated rhetoric from the sponsor of the House legislation, Brevard County Republican Rep. Randy Fine, there are plenty of reasons to keep legal notices in newspapers. Those legal notices provide the public with information about the meat and potatoes of government. They alert citizens about proposed budgets and tax rates for cities, counties, school districts and special taxing districts. They cover issues such as infrastructure plans, changes in land use and other proposed ordinances. Residents may learn their property tax rates are about to increase, or that apartments or warehouses could sprout on nearby vacant land that was supposed to be set aside for single-family homes.

Fine inaccurately claims nobody reads print newspapers anymore. Newspapers in Florida and throughout the nation are under financial pressure as ownership consolidates and the digital transformation continues. But research shows more than 7.5 million people in Florida read a printed newspaper every week. How many citizens access government websites?

Second, there is strong support among Floridians to keep the requirement that state and local governments publish legal notices in newspapers. A 2019 poll by Mason Dixon Polling & Research show 83 percent of Floridians support keeping the requirement and 68 percent would be unlikely to seek out legal notices on a government website.

There is no legitimate argument for making this change. Florida newspapers already operate a separate legal notice website, www.floridapublicnotices.com, that aggregates legal notices from around the state. Individual newspapers also have public notices on their websites. But one study shows a million Floridians do not have internet access, and the digital divide is particularly stark in rural areas and poor neighborhoods. The House bill would require governments to publish an annual notice in a newspaper that says any resident could receive legal notices by first-class mail or by email. How many residents would take the time to sign up to receive every legal notice by regular mail or email from their county, city, school district and special taxing districts?

Florida’s long tradition of government-in-the-sunshine, defined in the Florida Constitution and state law, is under attack on multiple fronts in Tallahassee. There is another effort to make secret the initial searches for college and university presidents. Other legislation would make secret the home addresses of the very lawmakers pushing to end the requirement for legal notices to be published in newspapers. To ensure basic accountability, independent sources should keep publishing legal notices of government actions rather than trusting every government agency to do it faithfully and accurately.

Some lawmakers may be eager to take more revenue away from newspapers, which remain the primary institutions that hold government and elected officials accountable. Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, inaccurately calls the legal notice requirement "corporate welfare.'' The Tampa Bay Times, like other newspapers, makes money from legal notices. The lost revenue would be particularly painful for smaller newspapers that are often the sole independent source about what local government is up to in their communities. But the fees for legal notices are set by statute, and the benefits of informing citizens far outweigh the cost.

The House may be a lost cause. As it did last year, the Senate should stand up for open government and against this misguided effort to take government further out of the sunshine.

Online: https://www.tampabay.com/

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Feb. 9

The SunSentinel on diversity in the Supreme Court:

The courts, the Florida Legislature, the Congress and other public bodies need diversity not because it is politically correct, but because it is essential to something that gets too little attention these days: Maintaining the people’s faith in self-government.

To have that confidence, citizens need to see a reasonable number of lawmakers and judges who look and think like them, reflecting the diversity that is our nation’s greatest strength.

That means a diversity of thought and creeds, as well as of gender and ethnicity.

Unfortunately, Floridians see too little diversity of any sort on the Florida Supreme Court.

The five justices — two seats are vacant — all are male and white. Two are Hispanic.

Two women, one of them black, sat on the court until their mandatory retirement in January 2019. Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed a white man and a white Hispanic woman to replace them, but both left almost immediately for presidential appointments to a federal appeals court.

Florida’s highest court had not been all-male since 1985, and except for one four-year span, had not been all white since 1975.

Now, the Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission has recommended nine applicants for those two vacant seats. Five are women, including one who is black. One of the men is Hispanic and another is Jewish.

If DeSantis understands the need for a black justice, as he should, he has a dilemma. He can either appoint someone who won’t be eligible to take the seat until September 24, or he can ask the commission for up to three more names.

The Constitution requires a Supreme Court justice to have been admitted to the Florida Bar for the previous 10 years. Renatha Francis, the black nominee who is a judge of the 15th Circuit at West Palm Beach, won’t reach that milestone until September 24. She passed the Bar Examination in 2010, soon after graduating from Florida Coastal School of Law.

Francis acknowledged the timing problem during her interview with the nominating commission. Why its members voted to recommend her regardless is nothing the public is allowed to know. The Constitution permits secret deliberations, which is unwise. Replying to our inquiry, the chairman, Daniel Nordby, said he couldn’t comment on its discussions or on any candidate or nominee.

Francis is obviously a DeSantis favorite. She had been an appointed circuit judge in Miami for just two years when he appointed her to a Palm Beach vacancy four months ago, passing over local applicants. She also was a favorite of former Gov. Rick Scott, who appointed her to the Dade County Court in 2017 and to the circuit bench a year later.

There were four other black applicants, including three well-qualified circuit judges with longer service records. Unlike the nine nominees, however, those judges did not report membership in the Federalist Society.

Federalist credentials have become virtually a requirement for appointment to the federal bench under President Trump and to Florida’s courts under Scott and DeSantis. The politicization of the judiciary has intensified since 2001, when the Legislature agreed to let the governor appoint all nine members of each nominating commission, not just three.

(In Florida, the governor alone decides who will serve on the Supreme Court, but he must select someone whose name has been forwarded by the nominating commission. But he gets to pick all members of the nominating commission, too. Florida does not require Senate confirmation of state Supreme Court justices.)

Diversity of thought has all but vanished from the Florida Supreme Court, where Jorge Labarga is now the only justice not committed to the Federalist Society’s controversial creed of “textualism.” Under that legal philosophy, law and legal documents are interpreted based on the ordinary meaning of the legal text.

In other words, the original intent matters little, and current reality and contrasting precedent matter not at all. It is a lodestar for extremely conservative rulings, such as the court’s recent reversal of a ruling that said only a unanimous jury could recommend a death sentence.

In her application, Francis wrote that “statutory textualism best preserves our republican form of government by deferring law-making responsibility to the democratically accountable branches of government, and thwarting potential end-runs on the democratic process caused by judges who try to make law from the bench.”

That’s just what the Legislature, the governor and his nominating commissioners want to hear.

DeSantis’s office is candid about it: According to Joe Jacquot, DeSantis’s general counsel, sharing the governor’s Federalist views is the “singular test” for appointment to the bench.

He said exactly that at a Federalist Society convention in Orlando February 1.

Describing the attendees at a recent Judicial College course for new judges, he said he had heard them talking about the ethnic diversity in the room. But, he said, they told him, “’We all think the same.’”

“They brag about it, but it’s frightening,” says Sen. Perry Thurston Jr., D-Fort Lauderdale, a lawyer who is sponsoring legislation to restore the independence of Florida’s nominating commissions.

His Senate Bill 86, and House Bill 379 by Rep. Al Jacquet, D-Riviera Beach, embrace the appointment method established in 1972 by Gov. Reubin Askew, who valued a non-political judiciary.

Florida’s nominating commissions — one each for 20 circuits, one each for five district courts of appeal — used to have three members appointed by the governor, three by the Florida Bar, and three chosen by the other six members. That worked with only rare controversies over 29 years, under a Republican governor as well as Democrats.

Asked why he had named a Supreme Court justice who turned out to be quite conservative, Askew, a Democrat, replied, “I didn’t appoint him for his politics. I appointed him for his integrity.”

It is fundamentally destructive of the integrity of the courts to make any particular creed a criterion for appointment.

The Thurston-Jacquet legislation would save the judiciary from becoming a satellite of the Federalist Society. However, the bills haven’t had a single committee hearing during the present session and are not likely to.

Lawyers who aren’t concerned about this should be, because their clients are the ultimate losers from a judiciary slanted so drastically in a single direction.

Online: https://www.sun-sentinel.com/

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Feb. 5

The Lakeland Ledger on a proposed ban of using tourist development taxes to finance facilities used by professional sports teams:

It’s been a rough offseason for Major League Baseball.

For example, in 2019 MLB game-attendance dropped for the sixth time in the past seven years, and last year’s figures were the worst in 16 years. Then, the league was rocked by cheating scandals that involved the previous two World Series champs — the Boston Red Sox and Houston Astros, respectively. Both were accused of stealing opponents’ signs throughout their victorious campaigns. Now, Pete Rose, the sport’s all-time hits leader, who has been denied his slot in the Hall of Fame as punishment for gambling on baseball, is reviving the controversy surrounding him by citing the Astros’ scandal, for which no players have been punished so far, to petition for admittance into Cooperstown.

Yet hope, supposedly, springs eternal. And as we draw closer to spring, MLB is gearing up for spring training, with the Detroit Tigers returning to Lakeland for their 84th year — the oldest affiliation of its kind.

The Tigers’ entire team begins working out in earnest next week, with their first spring training game slated for Feb. 21 against Southeastern University.

We say welcome back to the Tigers, and we hope for a better season than last year — when Detroit won just 47 games, the second-worst season in the team’s storied 120-year history.

But the pending renewal of America’s pastime locally makes us grateful for the vision shown a few years ago by the Tigers’ management, city, county and state officials and Polk County’s tourism agency.

According to The News Service of Florida, or NSF, state lawmakers are considering a bill that would ban using tourist development taxes, commonly known as the “bed tax,” to build, improve or finance local facilities used by professional sports teams.

Polk County, like many counties throughout the state, levies a supplemental excise tax on overnight or short term rentals lasting less than six months. The revenue is then tapped to add or improve tourist magnets, or make other efforts to promote tourism.

A sound argument can be made for the ban. Professional sports franchises are typically rolling in money, as are their owners. With that in mind, better uses can be made of taxpayer funding than to subsidize ballparks. Such schemes are akin to subsidies provided to wealthy corporations as part of economic development projects. On a gut level we cringe at such handouts.

But the reality is that expense-averse companies and local officials hungry for new jobs and revenue, or to keep existing ones, have transformed our economic system to make this a routine practice. It’s unfortunate, but those who refuse to play will soon be left far behind.

And had such a law been in place a few years ago we wonder if there would have been the same commitment to upgrading the now beautifully renovated Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland.

The project, completed three years ago, cost $48 million. Almost a third of that — about $15 million — was pulled from the bed tax account. In other words tourists supplied a sizable chunk of the money needed to overhaul one of the city’s premier attractions.

Which means we must consider another angle to this proposed ban.

According to the Lakeland Chamber of Commerce, the Tigers’ spring training season generates $45 million a year in local economic activity, as the team is one of the best draws among MLB teams who prep in Florida. As the chamber notes on its website, “The majority of these fans are from out of state —bringing new money into our area!”

The accounting assures us that visitors pitched in almost $15 million toward Publix Field. What we don’t for certain is how much additional funding came courtesy of visitors who paid sales taxes on other items during their stay in Polk County. Or alternatively, what other things the city and county were able to provide through that revenue.

According to NSF, Rep.Colleen Burton, a Lakeland Republican, voted for the ban as it sailed through the House Ways & Means Committee with one dissenting vote. Oddly, Burton did so while expressing curiosity about how spring-training cities like Lakeland might be affected by the bill.

As we noted earlier, it might have been much tougher to renovate Publix Field with such a ban, if it got refurbished at all.

Again, we get the philosophy. But the ban is a bad idea. Fortunately Publix Field was finished before lawmakers began mulling this over. So this spring, take a trip to the ballpark and go Tigers!

Online: https://www.theledger.com/