Editorial Roundup: Florida

Palm Beach Post. December 5, 2021.

Editorial: Court ruling a wake-up call for better approach to gambling

Just when it appeared Florida was on its way to becoming a gambling mecca, a federal judge invalidated an agreement between the state and the Seminoles that would have given the tribe a monopoly on online sports betting here.

On Nov. 22, U.S. District Court Judge Dabney L. Friedrich ordered the U.S. Department of Interior to throw out the 2021 gaming compact Gov. Ron DeSantis reached with the tribe. The judge apparently shared the misgivings of many of the compact’s critics, who saw the deal as a way around the Florida Constitution and federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, to expand gambling in Florida. The ruling not only halts online betting but blocks the tribe’s planned Hard Rock Casino expansions.

The judge made clear he didn’t buy the argument that the tribe could host online sports statewide as long as the servers taking the bets were located on tribal grounds. While recognizing the language of federal law, the judge also upheld the will of Florida voters who amended the state constitution to give them greater say over gambling expansion.

“This ruling says what should’ve been obvious to everyone from the beginning — that Florida’s Constitution gives only Florida voters, not politicians in Tallahassee and Washington, the power to expand gambling in our state,” John Sowinski, executive director of No Casinos, said after the ruling came down. No Casinos, an anti-gambling nonprofit, was one of several plaintiffs in the lawsuit that stopped the compact in its tracks.

Admittedly, we were skeptical when the compact was first announced earlier this year. Given, the state’s history of opposing constitutional amendments to expand gambling, we believed that the state should have pushed for more than what the tribe offered, which was less than the $3 billion-over-seven-years proposal made to then Gov. Rick Scott.

The ruling puts the state back to square one. Instead of operating under a gaming compact that would give the state $2.5 billion over five years, Florida finds itself under a 20-year compact reached in 2010 when Charlie Crist was governor. The judge’s order doesn’t foreclose online sports betting in Florida but any new compact must limit online betting to Indian lands. The only way those bets can be expanded statewide is through a citizen’s initiative approved by Florida voters.

For now the ruling leaves the governor and tribe on the sidelines, since neither was a party to the two lawsuits that invalidated the compact. The fate of the compact now depends on whether the Biden administration, which approved the ill-fated compact, will appeal Friedrich’s decision. That irony wasn’t lost on one Republican lawmaker who acknowledged online betting might not pass legal muster but criticized the Biden administration for failing to make a case for keeping casino expansion.

“I don’t know if Joe Biden is intentionally screwing Florida but this didn’t have to happen,” state Rep. Randy Fine, a Brevard County Republican who helped steer the compact through the Legislature, told POLITICO. “Their failure to argue it is inconceivable and unacceptable.... Joe Biden owes the state of Florida $500 million a year forever.”

Despite the ruling, Florida remains an attractive target for gambling interests, and voters may get another chance to have their voices heard, if organizers of two proposed constitutional amendments can get enough signatures by February. One, backed by the Las Vegas Sands, would put new casinos at existing cardrooms located more than 130 miles away from Seminole Tribe properties. The second initiative — Florida Education Champions — would allow online sports betting throughout the state and is bankrolled by Draft Kings and FanDuel, which operate online sports betting outside of Florida.

With more than a decade of experience, you’d think state leaders would have a better handle on how to assemble a deal that would pass federal court hurdles — and the smell test of more Floridians. To get back on track, Gov. DeSantis should use the upcoming legislative session to craft a better compact that works for the tribe and Florida voters.

Clarification:

In last Sunday’s editorial, “Lake O operating plan about the best option of tough choices,” the Post inaccurately referred to reductions in the amount of water to be released from the lake. The figures given actually referred to the reduced number of releases, not the percentage of water volume.

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Tampa Bay Times. December 7, 2021.

Editorial: Florida’s two-strikes law condemns too many offenders to life in prison

Life in prison should be reserved for the worst of the worst — murderers, chronic violent offenders and those who commit the most serious sex crimes.

But Florida condemns people to life sentences for far lesser crimes and provides them no meaningful chance at ever getting out. The state’s so-called “two-strikes” law has served its time and should be stripped from the books.

The Tampa Bay Times recently investigated Florida’s Prison Releasee Reoffender Act, which is responsible for about 2,100 people currently serving life. The law dates to the 1990s, when a wave of states enacted extra penalties for repeat offenders — people who were committing crimes, going to prison, getting out and reoffending. The laws let prosecutors pursue life sentences even if the offenses didn’t injure another person. And in Florida, a life sentence usually means dying in prison — no getting out early for good behavior or anything like that.

Florida, though, went further than any other state, the Times reported, directing prosecutors to seek the maximum sentence (often life) for anyone who commits a new crime within three years of leaving prison. It also takes all discretion away from judges. Mandating maximum sentences and handcuffing judges is almost never good policy, and the human reality illustrates why.

A man, now 37, who served time in his teens while suffering from drug addiction is now imprisoned for life for an armed burglary near Pensacola in which no one was hurt. An art student in Fort Lauderdale who became addicted to cocaine robbed two motels and a gas station. Because he’d previously served a county jail sentence, he’s now in prison for life. A St. Petersburg man was one of the first people sentenced under the two-strikes law. Dorian Mackeroy had a tumultuous childhood with no father present. He got into a cycle of trouble beginning at 16. After serving a short prison sentence as an adult, he was back in St. Petersburg. While drinking with friends one night, on a dare Mackeroy wrapped a socket wrench in a bandana and robbed a woman in her car. She was traumatized but unhurt.

All three of those men deserved to be punished. They all deserved to go to prison. But a system that condemns people to the same fate for break-ins and robberies as for premeditated murder is grievously off balance. During Mackeroy’s time behind bars, his brother was murdered and the man who killed him was imprisoned — and released in less than a decade. There is simply no justice in that disparity.

What’s more, the reoffender law does not live up to its intended purpose of deterring crime. Mackeroy had never heard of the sentencing enhancement for reoffenders until his day in court. Few Floridians outside the justice system have. Yet it’s costing state taxpayers more than $300 million a year to house the 13,600 inmates serving life without parole, including those convicted under the two-strikes law. That’s a staggering cost in lives and dollars.

State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, long an advocate for prison reform, has repeatedly filed bills rolling back the two-strikes law, with little support. Brandes’ Republican colleagues in the Legislature should give his sound reasoning a hearing in the upcoming session. Ed Brodsky, the elected state attorney in Sarasota, told the Times it’s worth giving the law a new look to make sure it’s living up to its intended purpose.

Rehabilitation is one of the pillars of any truly just criminal system. Punishment is the other. Florida overachieves in punishing people who have gotten into a cycle of crime, imposing the longest possible sentence even for nonviolent offenses. The state’s penal system is crying out for major reform in innumerable areas, including improving prison conditions, raising guards’ pay and abolishing the death penalty. Giving lower-level offenders back their lives and sparing more Floridians the fate of dying in prison should also be high on the list.

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Orlando Sentinel. December 3, 2021.

Editorial: FP&L connection to ‘ghost’ campaign consultants makes dark money reforms all the more urgent

In Florida, consumers have no choice about who they buy their electricity from, thanks to the state’s system of regulated monopolies.

If you’re a Florida Power & Light customer, that means you must do business with a company whose money bankrolled political consultants using underhanded tactics to manipulate elections.

That much is clear from a blockbuster Orlando Sentinel scoop that outlines connections between FP&L and those involved in the campaigns of phony candidates in three state Senate elections last year, campaigns intended to undermine Democratic candidates and ensure Republican victories.

Why might a power company be so intent on keeping the state Senate in GOP hands? We can’t say for sure but one thing is certain: The financial fortunes of utilities across the state depend in large part on state laws and on state regulators known as the Public Service Commission.

The state Senate has to pass those regulatory laws. This year, for example, one bill would make it harder for solar customers to sell their excess electricity back to power companies, saving the companies money at the expense of the solar industry.

The Senate also must confirm the governor’s picks for PSC commissioners, who approve rate increases for power companies. Worth noting: The most recent PSC appointee, Gabriella Passidomo, is the daughter of Republican state Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, who is expected to become the next Senate president.

So yeah, if you’re a power company that’s in bed with the Republican Party, as FP&L is, you have a distinct financial interest in making sure the Senate stays in GOP hands.

Keeping the Senate red was the whole point behind last year’s no-party affiliation candidates in South Florida Districts 37 and 39 and Central Florida’s District 9. At the time Republicans had a narrow 23-17 majority, so it was essential to win those races for the GOP to retain control.

The campaigns of the NPA candidates were funded through various nonprofits and designed to siphon off potential votes for Democrats.

Thanks to Florida’s meaningless election laws, those nonprofits are able to hide campaign contributions to the point that it’s almost impossible to discern where they got their money.

But Sentinel reporters Jason Garcia and Annie Martin obtained a trove of documents that show FP&L dropped millions of dollars on political consultants who were behind the nonprofit group Grow United Inc. Grow United was the beating heart of the campaigns supporting the NPA sham candidates, all of whom remained in the background and unavailable to the public.

The documents, described in the story as including “checks, bank statements, emails, text messages, invoices, internal ledgers and more,” leave no doubt that one of Florida’s leading utility companies had a significant financial connection to campaigns designed to do nothing more than deceive voters.

One of those South Florida races has resulted in criminal charges against the candidate and a former Republican state senator accused of bribing the candidate.

As a corporation, FP&L should be ashamed of even getting near this type of anti-democracy behavior. Just as bad, however, are the Florida politicians who continue to do nothing about the information black hole created by dark money in politics.

It’s particularly galling that Florida residents — who have no choice but to do business with a power company that has a legal monopoly — often have no way of knowing how that company is spending money to influence politics. That is, until a cache of documents shows up and news reporters start digging into them.

This sordid episode proves once again that government-sanctioned campaign secrecy is the real election scandal in Florida. Not early voting. Not ballot drop boxes. Not voter IDs.

State Sen. Joe Gruters had one of the best and simplest ideas we’ve heard so far to shine light on dark money. He wanted to make it illegal for political committees to contribute money to other political committees or parties. That’s how campaign money gets hidden in Florida. Money changes hands so many times it’s impossible to tell how a contribution got from Point A to Point Z. His bill would have stopped much of that.

Gruters, who is the chairman of Florida’s Republican Party, has clearly given up on the idea, probably because dark money proved so successful for the GOP last year. Maybe he was never serious about it in the first place.

These latest revelations must awaken the public to the threat dark money poses to a functioning democracy, and politicians must finally be forced to take action to bring more transparency to this state’s elections.

As for the politicians who won’t get behind transparent elections, the people of Florida should vote them out of office. Every last one of them.

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Miami Herald. December 3, 2021.

Editorial: Florida GOP wants to further divide a divided electorate. This time, schools are the target

From mask mandates to the teaching of race, public schools have turned into a political battleground. Florida lawmakers now want to inject even more partisan antics into education with a cynical proposal disguised as an attempt at transparency.

Legislation advancing in Tallahassee would ask voters next year to turn school board elections, which are currently nonpartisan, into partisan contests. That means candidates would have to declare whether they are Democrat or Republican on the ballot.

The justification is that those races are already political, with parties and outside groups throwing their support behind their candidates. So instead of working to tone down the partisan rhetoric, lawmakers’ solution is to put it on steroids.

It’s only suitable that the head of a political party would be behind this proposal. Sponsor Sen. Joe Gruters, of Sarasota, who also chairs the Republican Party of Florida, says he’s just trying to help voters make a more-informed decision. Because having an R or a D next to their name really tells how much a person can do for K-12 education.

School board races became nonpartisan thanks to a 1998 statewide referendum, but Gruters says times have changed. He’s referring to the more than 10 school boards, including in Miami-Dade and Broward, that defied Gov. DeSantis and enacted mask mandates to keep students and staff safe from COVID-19. Gruters acknowledged that’s part of the reason he filed SJR 244.

That some of those school boards were in conservative counties such as Sarasota and Brevard irked Republicans, who now are using their control of state government to try to “out” Democrats elected in those communities.

This proposal has nothing to do with transparency. It’s all about partisan vengeance.

CULTURE WARS

Partisanship might work in Congress or the state Capitol, but we have historically done our best to keep it out of public education. That’s lost on Florida’s Republican leaders, who have turned masks into a liberal-versus-conservative battle and politicized anything from Dr. Anthony Fauci to Critical Race Theory, a term most people had never heard of (and probably don’t know what it actually means) until Donald Trump made it into a boogeyman for white parents who are opposed to racial-equity efforts. DeSantis banned teaching CRT from K-12 — even though it’s not part of school curriculum in Florida.

When school boards aren’t the target of these fabricated cultural wars, they are making a series of under-the-radar decisions — for example, funding the hiring of more school counselors or school renovations — that impact students more than any made-for-Twitter controversy. It’s parents and students whom they should be beholden to, not party.

“One thing I think we need to keep in mind is the mission of a school board member,” Dawn Steward with the Florida PTA told a Senate committee Tuesday. “I don’t think they check with their party to see what’s in the best interest of a child. Their core belief is we need to do what’s in the best interest for children, not politics.”

ON THE BALLOT

The Senate Election and Ethics Committee approved SJR 244 with a 5-4 party-line vote Tuesday. It needs support from 60% of both legislative chambers to pass and, if it does, it will become a constitutional amendment question on the 2022 ballot. Final approval would require support from at least 60% of voters.

Nonpartisan races, Gruters said, are a “shell game to try to trick voters” to vote for candidates of a different party than their own. He appears shocked that a candidate’s position, say, on whether to increase school bus routes might be more important than party affiliation.

His proposal would ensure parents don’t have to research candidates or look beyond a D or an R before electing someone to office who will impact the quality of education of their children.

It also would disenfranchise a growing segment of Florida voters, those not registered with either party. They cannot vote in primaries, which, in counties that are overwhelmingly red or blue, decide the final outcome of elections.

The point of SJR 244 seems to be precisely to leave some voters out of the democratic process and polarize school boards so the next GOP cultural war can be waged. Voters should shut down this ill-conceived idea if it makes it on the ballot next year — which it should not.

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South Florida Sun Sentinel. December 6, 2021.

Editorial: Florida Supreme Court again tramples on the rights of defendants

The Florida Supreme Court repudiated the U.S. Constitution and decades of precedents last week in ruling 5-2 that a judge may sentence someone harshly for showing no remorse. Short of waterboarding or other explicit tortures, there could not be a more deliberate violation of the precious right to not incriminate oneself.

Justice Ricky Polston, a classical conservative and usual ally of Chief Justice Charles Canady, broke with him this time, to his credit.

“Showing remorse is admitting you did something wrong — an admission of guilt. And increasing a defendant’s sentence based on the failure to show remorse is punishing a defendant for failing to admit guilt,” Polston wrote. “Punishing someone unless they confess guilt of a crime is a violation of due process and the right against self-incrimination.”

Justice Jorge Labarga, who often dissents alone to the court’s recent right-wing dictates, chided his colleagues for overlooking Florida’s glaring record of wrongful convictions.

“Florida’s capital cases provide important context here,” Labarga wrote, “and one needs to look no further than the 30 exonerations from Florida’s death row — the most of any state in our nation. A defendant’s adherence to a claim of innocence is not always borne of a stubborn refusal to admit the truth. Sometimes, people convicted by juries are actually innocent.”

Such people now have an impossible choice: Either apologize to the judge for what they said they did not do, or risk being sentenced to the max.

That’s what happened to Alvin Davis, an ex-convict, after a Tallahassee jury convicted him four years ago of illegally possessing the firearm police found under the seat of the car in which he was riding. Davis claimed he was framed by the driver and continued to say so after the jury found him guilty. Unwisely he told Circuit Judge Robert R. Wheeler, “I understand I cannot get any justice here in this court,” and said he would trust “my life and liberty” to an appeal.

Sentencing guidelines provided for a term between roughly 10 years and 15. Wheeler opted for the maximum, telling Davis it was because of “your failure to take any responsibility, the nature of the crime, the fact that it involves a firearm.”

Had Wheeler kept his reasons to himself, there would have been only faint grounds for the issues Davis took to the First District Court of Appeal at Tallahassee. That court ruled 7 to 3 against a new sentencing hearing for Davis, 43, who remains incarcerated at Charlotte Correctional Institution.

“No one has a constitutional right to be remorseless about committing crimes,” said Judge Bradford Thomas in a concurring opinion. That reprised the hard lines he took as a legal adviser to Gov. Jeb Bush, who appointed him to the district court in 2005.

Acknowledging a clash with precedents around the state, the court also certified the core issue to the Florida Supreme Court.

But that didn’t necessarily signify any discomfort with its decision. Otherwise, the precedent it was setting would apply only within its North Florida territorial district. Kicking it upstairs could make it effective statewide.

Judge Scott Makar, one of the dissenters, asked, “What’s changed to justify this dramatic shift…?”

He didn’t get an answer from his colleagues, but the answer has long been obvious to Florida’s legal community and others who care for the integrity of the judiciary — the two most recent governors have been openly politicizing the appellate bench. Both former Gov. Rick Scott and Gov. Ron DeSantis have taken advantage of a power the Republican Legislature gave them in 2001 to appoint all nine members of each judicial nominating commission rather than merely three as the system was set up in 1972.

The new conservative Supreme Court majority created by DeSantis has been reversing key precedents and lurching to the right at almost every opportunity. In the most dramatic example, the Court renounced, over Labarga’s dissent, its historic policy of reviewing death sentences for proportionality.

Among those protesting the Davis ruling last week was Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, who described it as a “reminder of the dire need to revisit how we select judges in Florida and the importance of an independent judiciary.”

Thurston, a former assistant public defender, filed legislation in the 2020 and 2021 sessions to restore the nominating commissions to the independence they had for 29 years after their creation by Gov. Reubin Askew. Neither of those bills nor their companions in the House had so much as a hearing in any of the several committees to which they were assigned.

Thurston is leaving the Legislature because Florida’s resign-to-run law applied to his unsuccessful congressional candidacy. Whoever succeeds him must pick up the banner. So should every candidate who believes that independence from politics is essential to the integrity of the judiciary and to the preservation of constitutional rights.

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