Editorial Roundup: Florida

South Florida Sun Sentinel. May 18, 2021.

Editorial: Do some good with gambling: Expand Medicaid

The Seminole gambling compact that the Florida Legislature is considering in special session this week anticipates $2.5 billion in new state revenue over the next five years but doesn’t propose how to spend it. That’s an awful lot of money to leave to the discretion of people whose first instincts are to cut taxes for special interests rather than invest in making the state a safer and healthier place to live.

So here’s a suggestion to senators and House members from Broward, Palm Beach and other enlightened corners of our state: Amend the legislation to prioritize the new money for expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act of 2010.

Don’t worry about whether you have enough votes to adopt that amendment. It’s time to put every lawmaker on record. Of the dozens of bills passed to expand Medicaid during the regular session, none got out of committees or were even heard there except for a provision in the appropriations act to provide a year’s extended overage for women on Medicaid who give birth. That provision is commendable, but the failure to do more was cruel, spiteful and self-destructive.

The point that’s so sadly lost on Florida’s recent governors and legislators is that the money spent on health care for poor people doesn’t go to them. It goes to the benefit of doctors, hospitals and pharmacies.

Expanding Medicaid to everyone eligible under the 2010 law would extend health insurance to an estimated 800,000 Floridians or more, most of them working adults without children who are eligible neither for Obamacare insurance premium supplements or basic Medicaid.

Congress didn’t intend for there to be a gap, but the Supreme Court overturned the part of the law requiring expansion. That left the carrot but not the stick.

Even then, the top income limit would be 138% of the federal poverty level, which is about $17,609 for an individual or $23,709 for a couple. That’s barely enough for subsistence.

Florida is one of only 14 states, all of them Republican-led, that still haven’t expanded Medicaid. Eight are in the South. But 11 other Republican states are on board and two others are considering it. What’s good for Utah should be good for Florida as well, or is it just that kinder people live out there?

The fallback excuse of Florida leadership has been a concern over whether the federal government will keep funding its expansion share at the present 90%. But Congress has given no reason to doubt that, and the American Rescue Plan, the coronavirus relief law that President Biden signed, essentially makes the expansion cost-free to states for the next two years. Afterward, the Seminole gambling money would be more than sufficient to cover it.

Gov. Ron DeSantis and his allies in the Legislature are doubtlessly salivating over how to spend the gambling bonanza, but this is no time to trust their instincts. During the regular session, the Legislature finally agreed to require out-of-state merchants to collect and remit Florida’s sales tax. That amounts to a tax increase on Florida consumers of about $1 billion a year. The Legislature promptly earmarked it to reducing the taxes that businesses pay into the unemployment trust fund.

The moral imperative for earmarking the gambling revenue to a good purpose goes beyond simply the health needs of so many uninsured Floridians. Despite its popularity, gambling is widely and rightly viewed as a vice. It is addictive to many people, and when they suffer from unaffordable losses, so do their families and society as a whole.

The Seminole compact is the vastest expansion of gambling in Florida’s history despite the revision this week to eliminate the possibility of online casino games. Among other things, it still would legalize sports betting and fantasy sports betting for persons over 21 on terminals and smartphones linked to Seminole servers. That puts gambling on every desktop and in every pocket.

Whether that aspect is even legal remains in question. What’s not in doubt is that the compact requires no more than $250,000 a year in contributions to the Florida Council on Compulsive Gaming. That is woefully inadequate and calls for another amendment.

Speaking of “gaming,” the euphemism of choice throughout the legislation, the omission of the letters “b” and “l” don’t change a vice into a virtue. Wherever the word appears, it should be amended to “gambling.”

If it’s inevitable — and we believe both passage in the Legislature and lawsuits over voter approval certainly are — let the gambling money at least be committed to a wholesome purpose.

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Tampa Bay Times. May 18, 2021.

Editorial: Lawmakers should have done more to fix Florida’s unemployment system

The pandemic was an outsized lesson in what happens when you neglect the unemployment insurance system.

Florida lawmakers certainly have short memories. Barely a year after the state’s unemployment system left hundreds of thousands of Floridians waiting weeks for benefits, the Legislature seemingly forgot the magnitude of the fiasco, letting the legislative session end without overhauling the state’s feeble program. Working Floridians deserve a reliable unemployment system, not lip service and broken promises.

As the coronavirus pandemic was unfolding last spring, Florida’s unemployment system was collapsing. Restaurants and businesses statewide closed their doors, prompting newly unemployed workers to turn to the state website to apply for unemployment insurance. The CONNECT system was already known to be unreliable and inadequate, so it was little surprise that it couldn’t manage the deluge of new applicants.

But this wasn’t just a website error. Weeks into the crisis, the system was still rejecting people on the (erroneous) basis that they didn’t qualify for benefits. Thousands couldn’t log in. Or when they did, they were prompted to reset their PIN by calling an understaffed hotline. It was a technical and customer service nightmare that left people angry, desperate and teetering on the financial edge.

Lawmakers were paying attention, at least then. Their offices were flooded with phone calls from people seeking help with their applications. They responded by forwarding names to the Department of Economic Opportunity, which oversees the unemployment program. They demanded audits of the department and the resignation of its director. The cause of the crisis was not lost on anyone. “The system never should have been that hard to deal with in the first place,” said Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota.

So how did legislators remedy this calamity? The state budget includes $56 million to resolve backlogged claims issues. That’s not an investment in improving the system overall. The money will be used to review claims from last year to ensure they complied with state and federal laws and even to resolve some that are still pending. And in what feels like a second-rate consolation prize, lawmakers also passed a bill to begin the work of modernizing and upgrading CONNECT, but that is expected to take years.

Here’s what they did not do:

— Increase the maximum weekly benefit of $275, which ranks among the lowest in the nation. The Senate tried, but House Republican leaders and Gov. Ron DeSantis opposed the move.

— Change the law to allow benefits to start the date people lose their jobs, instead of after they apply and wait another required week.

— Eliminate a Gov. Rick Scott-era rule that encouraged businesses to keep people on their payrolls at drastically reduced rates so the employees wouldn’t qualify for unemployment. Even Gov. DeSantis called it a “perverse incentive.”

Some of Florida’s long-standing rules were waived during the pandemic. So policymakers have all the data they should need to abandon these outdated policies and better align the state’s unemployment system with the needs and features of the modern workforce. But they punted.

The pandemic was an outsized lesson in what happens when you dismantle the safety net. (Hint: It doesn’t work when people need it.) There will be another recession or some other future event that drives up unemployment, so this problem isn’t going away no matter how much legislators would like to forget it. They have vowed to get more done next year to improve Florida’s unemployment system. But by then, the urgency will have faded even further from their memories.

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Miami Herald. May 18, 2021.

Editorial: Florida gaming commission no watchdog for the people. It lets DeSantis reward his friends

A Florida commission to catch “nefarious” gambling activity in the state, as Senate President Wilton Simpson put it last week, sounds like something any sane citizen would jump at, considering the vast plan to expand gaming that lawmakers seem intent on passing in Tallahassee this week.

But take a look at the details. That’s when it becomes clear that the proposed Florida Gaming Control Commission will be both ineffectual — it won’t be able to regulate Seminole gaming, the largest player in the state — and create a high-priced political patronage system for the governor. This is no watchdog group. It’s just one more attempt to put one over on voters while forcing them to pay for it.

Under the proposal, the five-member Florida Gaming Control Commission would regulate gambling in the state including parimutuel wagering, cardrooms and slot machine facilities — for a hefty salary of about $136,000 a year, according to a legislative staff analysis of the bill.

The commission would start out neutered. It wouldn’t be able to lay a hand on the most important gambling interest in the state: the Seminole Tribe of Florida, the Hard Rock gaming powerhouse hoping to expand its reach many times over by adding an exclusive 30-year deal for sports betting in this session.

Gov. DeSantis has already signed a revenue-sharing deal, or compact, with the Tribe worth at least $2.5 billion to the state over five years. Now it must be approved by the Legislature and the federal government. More than a dozen other gambling-related bills are also under consideration, including the one creating the state gaming commission.

Of course, there’s a bit of language in the bill dressed up to look like the commission has some say over tribal gambling. The commission could “propose” to the Seminole Tribe’s own regulatory agency that it add consumer-protection measures to its sports-betting app, such as procedures to help gambling addicts or to stop children from being able to bet.

Those words have zero regulatory power. The Tribe runs its gaming on sovereign soil and is regulated under the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, commission or no commission.

Funny, that’s exactly DeSantis is relying on to get this compact done. The Tribe will share its revenue with the state in exchange for the long-term rights to sports betting — using computer servers on tribal land. It’s a blatant attempt to get around a 2018 constitutional amendment that required voter approval of an expansion of casino gambling.

So not only is this commission designed to do little but falsely placate voters — who may well worry about gambling infiltrating every corner of the state — it also gives the governor a chance to award cushy jobs to his cronies.

That’s win-win for the governor and a lose-lose for the state.

Some voices in the Legislature are raising questions, thank goodness. Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Republican from St. Petersburg, argues — correctly — that the state could simply strengthen its existing regulations under the Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering instead of “paying exorbitant salaries to gaming commissioners.”

After all, that’s how gambling is being regulated right now.

“Does the commission become the Legislative Retirement Act, where commissioners make $150,000 to rarely work?” Brandes wondered.

We’d bet on it.

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Orlando Sentinel. May 18, 2021.

Editorial: FSU is off the hook, but Florida’s stuck with a culture warrior running education

Richard Corcoran won’t be the next president of Florida State University. He didn’t make the cut for the final three candidates over the weekend.

If you’re an FSU student, professor or alumni, go ahead and breathe that sigh of relief. You just dodged a bullet fired from the culture-war front.

If you work at a public school in Florida, or send a child to one, you’re still stuck with an education ideologue.

You might not know it from listening to Corcoran’s hourlong interview on Saturday in Tallahassee with the committee set up to recommend a new president, ahead of the impending retirement of John Thrasher.

The former speaker of the Florida House sounded reasonable, reassuring and steady.

“You have to be a collaborator. You have to bring people to the table. You have to be open and accessible at all times,” Corcoran said in response to a question during his FSU interview. “I’ll meet with anybody.”

An admirable sentiment. Hear, hear.

But the disguise is about as effective as Clark Kent putting on a pair of glasses to hide his identity.

One day earlier, the education commissioner played the part of bomb-throwing culture warrior during a divisive political speech at Hillsdale College in Michigan, the higher education darling of many conservatives.

Among his targets: Florida public school teachers and textbook publishers.

“You have to police them on a daily basis,” he said of the state’s 185,000 teachers, to ensure they aren’t attempting to “indoctrinate” students in ideas such as critical race theory.

He boasted of making sure a Duval County teacher was “terminated” after she refused to take down a Black Lives Matter flag in her classroom. (The teacher wasn’t terminated, she was reassigned outside the classroom. Also, the teacher advocating Black Lives Matter worked at Jacksonville’s Robert E. Lee High School, where nearly 70% of the students are Black.)

As for textbook publishing houses, they’re “infested with liberals” and produce textbooks with “crazy liberal stuff,” Corcoran told the audience.

When asked by an audience member how he finds common ground with ideological opponents, Corcoran struck a different tone from his FSU interview, answering, “The way I have found common ground is, literally … I have fought. Because they will roll over you.”

Corcoran hastened to add that he was “always open” to talking with others, even those he views as radicals, but he was just getting started with the war metaphors.

“Where necessary I’ll sit with them, but I think we have to be efficient and very strategic in how we go about what we are doing. The war will be won in education. If we can get education right we can have kids be literate and then understand what it means to be a self-governing citizen in a self-governing country … Education is our sword, that’s our weapon.

“There’s going to be a battle … The way we’re going to get to where we’re gonna get is by fighting every step of the way.”

Corcoran had a choice observation for higher education, too, saying that fundamental truths are under attack. “The whole argument on university campuses, there is no truth, it’s all subjective.”

Not surprisingly, Corcoran didn’t bring up the “there is no truth” movement during his interview with FSU’s 15-member search committee.

Instead, he yukked it up about sports and turned serious about the really important stuff, like raising money.

The FSU search committee was wise to pass on Corcoran. He may be bright but he’s a bad fit for FSU, and not just because of his rigid ideology. He has no experience in university administration. And unlike other politicians who went on to become presidents of FSU — Thrasher and T.K. Wetherell — he didn’t even attend the school.

Meanwhile, Corcoran remains in charge of a state education system that oversees a massive public school system, one that employs thousands of teachers and millions of students with a vast array of backgrounds and beliefs.

Having missed out with FSU, his job is to ensure is to ensure that system is educating students and respecting diversity of thought, not to put his own ideological stamp on Florida’s schools.

If spreading — or combating — an ideology is his motivation, Corcoran would be better off finding work with an institution that comports with his personal beliefs.

Should the job should open up, maybe president of Hillsdale College?

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Palm Beach Post. May 18, 2021.

Editorial: Let’s be smart about new CDC guidelines

With its short, sharp announcement of last week ending mask requirements in most instances, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) created a lot of confusion. But when you boil it down, it’s pretty simple.

Vaccinated people don’t have to wear masks, either indoors or out, except in certain situations like traveling on an airplane or attending school. But because no one can tell who is vaccinated and who isn’t, it means that America is basically going to go maskless from here on out.

In many ways, the new guidelines are a headscratcher. Because even though the trends are heading downward in COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths, the pandemic is far from over.

The sweeping new guidelines have inadvertently “made life much less safe for people who are unvaccinated, for immunocompromised individuals and for young children who cannot yet be vaccinated,” emergency physician Dr. Leana Wen told CNN.

But the CDC says the real-life experience of having 123 million American adults fully vaccinated is showing that the vaccines work. “If you are vaccinated, we are saying you are safe, you can take off your mask and you are not at risk of severe disease or hospitalization from Covid-19,” the C.D.C. director, Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, said on “Fox News Sunday.

But, she added, the part many seem to be overlooking: “If you are not vaccinated, you are not safe. Please go get vaccinated or continue to wear your mask.”

In other words, the coronavirus now poses a serious danger mainly to those who have refused to wear a mask or get a vaccine. They haven’t wanted the government telling them what to do. They’ve wanted to be able to make their own free choices.

Well, now they have their wish. The government — or Publix — isn’t forcing them to wear a mask anymore. And now they can freely choose.

They can choose to stay unvaccinated and pretend that the coronavirus can’t reach them. Or they can choose to get a shot and truly protect themselves and their loved ones from a virus that, epidemiologists say, will menace the country and the globe for some years to come.

It doesn’t take an Einstein — or a Darwin — to know what the smart choice is.

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