Editorial Roundup: Florida

South Florida Sun Sentinel. September XX, 2021.

Editorial: The time is now: $5B of the $3.5T budget bill must go to completing Everglades restoration

Everglades restoration has been one of Florida’s longest-running bipartisan issues. Getting the money to finally complete it, however, may depend solely on Democrats.

Environmental groups have focused on President Biden’s proposed $3.5 trillion, 10-year spending plan. They have urged the state’s congressional delegation to include $5 billion for the Army Corps of Engineers. It would cover the remaining federal share of roughly a dozen projects in the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) that have been authorized but for which Congress has not allocated money.

Eric Eikenberg is executive director of the Everglades Foundation. He told the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board that restoration is at a “critical juncture” and the Biden plan offers a rare opportunity.

With that money allocated, Eikenberg said, the Army Corps could complete its work by 2030. He noted that when former President Clinton signed Everglades restoration legislation in 2000, the goal was to complete it in 30 years.

Without that money allocated, Florida would have to keep seeking money year by year. Completion might not happen until 2040.

“That’s unacceptable to us,” Eikenberg said.

Beth Alvi is director of policy for Audubon of Florida. She agrees that this moment is key. “It’s really, really important for the Corps to know that the money is there.”

Eikenberg was chief of staff to former Gov. Charlie Crist when Crist was a Republican, and he acknowledges the odd politics of the proposal. Despite previous Republican support for the Everglades, every Republican in the House and Senate has pledged to oppose the Biden plan.

“It pains me to see this as a Democratic ask,” Eikenberg said. “It is the partisan nature of Washington at the moment.”

In normal times, Florida’s 27-member delegation would have lots of leverage. But Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, told the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board that Republicans “have neutered our clout. It’s unprecedented.”

Yet Congress has every reason to prioritize the Everglades. Part of the spending plan will focus on climate change. Everglades restoration will help the climate. Biden’s campaign theme was “Build Back Better.” Everglades restoration will help the state’s economy.

“We do have a chance,” Wasserman Schultz said. She has had one “strategy session” with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and was set for another on Wednesday. “By hook or by crook,” Wasserman Schultz said, “we are going to fight to secure additional funding” for the Everglades.

Florida voters helped to make this moment possible. In 2014, they overwhelmingly approved a state constitutional amendment that created a fund — financed from real estate transactions — for environmental projects. From that came Legacy Florida, which Eikenberg says can handle the state’s share of restoration projects. “The state,” Eikenberg said, “is far ahead” of Washington on this issue.

Gov. DeSantis has made the Everglades a priority, removing board members of the South Florida Water Management District who opposed the reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee. Under construction, it will reduce or prevent harmful discharges east and west from the lake when water levels rise high enough to threaten the dike on the lake’s southern shore.

With politics such a factor, Eikenberg stresses the potential political benefit to state Democrats next year and in 2024. “Florida will matter,” he said.

To illustrate his point, Eikenberg cites the 2000 general election, after Clinton signed the Everglades bill. Then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert credited his fellow Republican, former U.S. Rep. E. Claw Shaw. That fall, Shaw defeated Democrat Elaine Bloom by 593 votes.

Now let’s get to the reality of 2021. Because of opposition from Senate Democrats, the Biden administration is paring down that $3.5 trillion plan. If that continues, lots of worthy projects will get left out.

In a letter, the environmental groups urged all of Florida’s 10 Democratic House members to back the $3.5 trillion plan with the Everglades money. Rep. Stephanie Murphy already has indicated that she won’t support the full amount.

If the money doesn’t get into whatever plan Democrats agree on, Eikenberg said, the House could add the money to the infrastructure bill. It has passed the Senate and awaits a House vote. Everglades projects, Eikenberg said, would increase water supply to Broward County. That’s infrastructure.

We agree. But getting the infrastructure bill through the Senate was the heaviest of lifts in these partisan times. More likely, the deal will be for the House to present a spending bill that the Senate can accept in exchange for the House accepting the Senate’s infrastructure bill — as is.

Having acknowledged all the reasons why this moonshot for Florida might not happen, it still should happen. Wasserman Schultz said, “We are not limiting ourselves” to the Biden plan and the infrastructure bill. Congress also must pass a continuing resolution to keep the government operating.

Democrats might lose the House next year. So for Florida Democrats, the moment is here in so many ways. They may not have Republicans, but they have policy and politics on their side. Completing Everglades restoration is something to work for — and run on.

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Tampa Bay Times. September 16, 2021.

Editorial: UF’s top 5 ranking a statewide success

It marks a broad effort to support academic excellence.

The University of Florida’s top-5 ranking reflects what’s possible when the state sets an ambitious goal and rallies hard to achieve it.

U.S. News & World Report listed UF among the nation’s top five public universities in its annual rankings released Monday. Florida tied the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and the University of California, Santa Barbara, after moving up from No. 6 last year. The rankings used 17 metrics, focusing mostly on student outcomes, including graduation rates. Other Florida schools also climbed in ranks or held their place from last year. For the second year in a row, Florida State University was listed at No. 19 among public universities, and the University of South Florida came in at No. 46. The University of Central Florida moved up 10 spots, landing at No. 67.

The Gators did not earn the national distinction by accident, or by themselves alone. The university closely monitored over 100 data points, from graduation rates of Pell Grant-eligible students to incoming freshmen who graduated in the top of their class. Over the last 20 years, UF tripled its research volume, and in the last two years, added more than 500 full-time faculty. Those moves have enrichened the research base, and provided students more face time with professors. The university has a 97 percent retention rate (a measure of how many students keep going after enrolling as freshmen) and 89 percent graduation rate, both among the highest in the country.

UF also offers a bang for the buck. More than two-thirds of its graduates enter the workforce with no debt, reflecting UF’s ability to combine affordability with excellence. UF has reduced student debt by nearly 15% in the past four years. And its new artificial intelligence initiative promises to transform the university’s imprint on teaching, research and workforce development.

UF president Kent Fuchs had vowed to break into the top five, and he rightly called the moment “a milestone for the university” and a rewriting of the narrative of the South. “There’s been a perception in the past that only people in the Northeast or West Coast or maybe the Midwest value universities,” he said. And Fuchs credited a wide range of actors — from Florida lawmakers, the state’s university system and private-sector supporters to the university’s staff, students, and alumni for uniting behind this push for distinction.

Even in a state like Florida, with its tribal allegiance to college identity, the Gators’ success should be celebrated as a statewide achievement. It didn’t come easy or cheap, but its reflection on the entire state is priceless.

The top 10 public universities

1. University of California, Los Angeles

2. University of California, Berkeley

3. University of Michigan - Ann Arbor

4. University of Virginia

5. University of Florida(asterisk)

5. University of California, Santa Barbara(asterisk)

5. University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill(asterisk)

8. University of California, San Diego

9. University of California, Irvine

10. Georgia Institute of Technology(asterisk)

10. University of California, Davis(asterisk)

10. William & Mary(asterisk)

(asterisk) Tied.

Source: U.S. News & World Report

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Miami Herald. September 20, 2021.

Editorial: Don’t tell the ‘My body, my choice’ crowd: Florida has tons of vaccine mandates

In 1777, there weren’t chants of “My body, my choice” at political rallies or governors selling “Don’t Fauci my Florida” campaign T-shirts.

But George Washington’s decision to mandate that Continental Army soldiers be inoculated against smallpox wasn’t easy. There were no safe, widely tested vaccines like the ones used for the coronavirus today, and inoculation in the 18th century was controversial and risky. It required exposing healthy people to the smallpox virus by scratching it into their arm or having them inhale it through the nose, generally causing a mild infection that led to immunity but, also — occasionally — death.

Washington wrote that if his army got widely infected, “We should have more to dread from it, than from the Sword of the Enemy.”

That was the first mass military inoculation, according to the Library of Congress. Since then, vaccine mandates inside and outside the military — and opposition to them — have been woven into the fabric of American life. In fact, we’re living with vaccine mandates right now — and not just for COVID-19.

But in the GOP playbook, vaccine mandates are a new concoction by the freedom-hating far-left and government bureaucrats. Could long-standing vaccine mandates be the next target in Republican-led states like Florida? We once thought that would be a far-fetched possibility. Not so much today.

PROOF NEEDED

Want to attend state-funded Florida International University? You must show proof of two MMR shots, for measles, mumps and rubella. Vaccination for hepatitis B and meningitis are also “strongly recommended,” but not mandatory, and require the signing of a waiver.

Want to work at taxpayer-funded Jackson Health System? Whether you’re a doctor or a cafeteria worker, you’ll need a flu shot and proof of MMR and chicken pox vaccination. The hospital system also requires workers to get COVID shots or face restrictions, such as wearing an N95 mask at all times. Religious and medical exemptions apply for the COVID and flu shots, spokeswoman Lidia Amoretti-Morgado told the Herald Editorial Board.

Want to send your children to a public school in Florida? Unless you have a religious or medical exemption signed by a doctor, get ready to prove they received shots for polio, hepatitis B, chicken pox, MMR and DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis).

Florida’s school mandate is stricter than those of other states such as Colorado, where parents can object to vaccination on “philosophical” grounds or because of personal beliefs. But don’t tell Florida’s lawmakers. They don’t need any help coming up with bad ideas.

REMEMBER SMALLPOX?

Vaccine mandates have been part of everyday life for Americans for more than a century for the simple reason that they work in controlling or eradicating diseases. Thanks to widespread vaccination, the last natural outbreak of smallpox in the United States happened in 1949.

Gov. Ron DeSantis is leading the charge against local governments that require COVID vaccination from employees, announcing in a recent news conference that he will start fining local officials. Mandates seem to be a greater issue than the misinformation that was propagated at his own event, when a Gainesville employee took the stage to claim falsely that the COVID vaccine “changes your RNA.” DeSantis, apparently suffering from a case of amnesia, said he doesn’t “even remember” what the man who was standing next to him said.

Many say the COVID vaccine is just too new to be mandated. But the approval standards set by the Food and Drug Administration — which gave the Pfizer shot full authorization last month after reviewing data from more than 40,000 people who participated in a clinical trial — are more stringent than what was in place in 1809, when the first state vaccine law was enacted in Massachusetts for smallpox.

LANDMARK RULING

In 1905, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling in Jacobson v. Massachusetts upholding a Cambridge City mandate. The court rejected the idea of an exemption based on personal choice because it would strip the legislative power from its function to “care for the public health and the public safety.” In 1922, the court denied a challenge to childhood vaccination requirements. More recently, the Arizona Court of Appeals rejected a challenge to a Maricopa County policy that excluded unvaccinated children from school when there is an unconfirmed but reasonable risk for the spread of measles.

“The liberty secured by the Constitution of the United States to every person within its jurisdiction does not import an absolute right in each person to be, at all times and in all circumstances, wholly freed from restraint. There are manifold restraints to which every person is necessarily subject for the common good,” the court wrote in the 1905 case.

In other words, the Supreme Court said freedom doesn’t give you the right to harm others.

But these days, the liberty that Washington’s inoculated troops fought for has been turned into a cloak for anti-vax entitlement and selfishness. Those attitudes have always been part of American society, but partisan politics has never played such an important role with conservative principles becoming intertwined with vaccine hesitancy.

MANDATES IN PERIL

And that raises a scary possibility: If so many Americans believe the COVID vaccine to be harmful or ineffective, who’s to say vaccine mandates for diseases that we thought long eradicated won’t come into question next?

A flawed — and later debunked — study and online conspiracies fueled by celebrities like Jenny McCarthy led many parents in the late 1990s and 2000s to believe MMR vaccines caused autism. There were 22 measles outbreaks across the nation in 2019, the second highest number of reported outbreaks since measles was declared eliminated in the United States in 2000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

We’re already seeing that the fervor against the coronavirus vaccine has jeopardized public access to information about immunizations in general. Tennessee health officials, under pressure from lawmakers, stopped all adolescent vaccine outreach for COVID as well as other diseases in July. Health department employees were told to remove the agency logo from vaccine information given to the public, and the state fired its top vaccine official. After The Tennessean broke the story, drawing national condemnation, the state resumed most outreach efforts.

In past times, we would brush off what happened in Tennessee as an isolated case of lunacy. But today we cannot so easily dismiss the idea that lunacy might prevail against established — and effective — public-health measures.

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Orlando Sentinel. September 21, 2021.

Editorial: Florida’s elected hypocrites undermine the Constitution they profess to love

State Rep. Randy Fine marked Constitution Day last week by taking to Facebook and affirming his devotion to the 233-year-old document.

That’s what he says.

But here’s what the Brevard County Republican did:

Fine has introduced a bill in the state House that contains some of the most sweeping government-imposed speech restrictions we’ve ever seen in a piece of legislation.

Fine’s proposal would ban schools and government agencies from teaching or advocating, among other things, “divisive concepts,” which is defined in such broad terms that it includes saying anything that might make a person “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex.”

If the bill passes, it’s not hard to imagine a classroom discussion about civil rights where a teacher is fearful of mentioning that a white sheriff, Lake County’s Willis McCall, beat, tortured and shot young Black men who were wrongly arrested in Groveland.

Or that Florida’s white Legislature didn’t repeal a ban on interracial marriage until 1969. Or that a white mob massacred Black residents of Ocoee on Election Day in 1920. Or that Florida has a long, shameful history of preventing Black residents from exercising their right to vote.

Any of those facts might make a white student uncomfortable. The bill has lip-service language that says it isn’t intended to chill free speech. But come one, we all know that’s exactly what it would do.

Fine’s proposal is something we would expect to see at a “woke” university to ensure that delicate young hearts and minds aren’t injured by ideas they might find offensive or hurtful.

And yet, this bill comes from someone who styles himself as a conservative warrior.

There is nothing conservative about this bill, or original. It’s basically a copy-and-paste job from other laws already passed in states like Iowa and New Hampshire — and condemned by dozens of academic organizations — in response to the right’s critical race theory straw man.

For example, here’s a definition from Iowa’s state law:

a. “Race or sex scapegoating” means assigning fault, blame, or bias to a race or sex, or to members of a race or sex because of their race or sex, or claiming that, consciously or unconsciously, and by virtue of persons’ race or sex, members of any race are inherently racist or are inherently inclined to oppress others, or that members of a sex are inherently sexist or inclined to oppress others.

And from Fine’s bill:

(b) “Race or sex scapegoating” means assigning fault, blame, or bias to a race or sex, or to a member of a race or sex because of his or her race or sex. The term includes any claim that, consciously or subconsciously, and by virtue of his or her race or sex, a member of any race is inherently racist or is inherently inclined to oppress others, or that a member of a sex is inherently sexist or is inherently inclined to oppress others.

If there was such a thing as plagiarism in lawmaking, this would be a slam dunk case.

The Florida proposal — like those in other states — does not actually use the words “critical race theory,” but that’s what these laws are responding to.

Critical race theory makes the point that racism is baked into our nation’s history, psyche and policy. It was a fairly obscure, decades-old concept usually reserved for law-school class discussions until the right seized on it as the latest existential threat, using CRT as a way to agitate its political base and stoke grievances.

Earlier this year, Gov. Ron DeSantis pressed the state Board of Education to pass a rule prohibiting schools from teaching critical race theory, even though it wasn’t being taught here.

Now comes Fine with a follow-up bill that he’s fully aware will chill speech in both public-school classrooms and inside local and state government, whose diversity and inclusion training would be subject to the new law.

If Fine — and others like him — had any self-awareness, he would spot the disconnect between a stated devotion to the U.S. Constitution and this government effort to police speech at the metaphorical point of a gun.

Self-awareness is not Fine’s forte. Neither is constitutional awareness.

This is the same lawmaker who introduced a bill earlier this year to prohibit private companies like Twitter and Facebook from enforcing standards for users. In later voting for a different, slightly less absurd version of his bill, Fine conceded it could mean open season on social media for “crazy people, Nazis and child molesters and pedophiles...”

To summarize, Fine is opposed to private firms policing speech, which does not violate the Constitution, but he’s OK with government policing speech, which does.

A federal judge with a more thorough understanding of the Constitution saw it differently, striking down Florida’s social media law in June.

It would be hoping too much for the Legislature to consign this latest attack on the Constitution to the bad-bill landfill where it belongs, especially considering the Senate version is being sponsored by state GOP Chairman Joe Gruters.

So once again, we’ll probably have to rely on the courts to protect the nation’s founding document from unserious lawmakers who cynically profess fealty to the Constitution, and then undermine it.

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Palm Beach Post. September 22, 2021.

Editorial: Haitians at the border: They’re only human. Are we?

For many Haitians, the United States is the end of the rainbow. They hear this from childhood and focus their dreams on tales of a better life that awaits.

But the images from the U.S.-Mexico border this week hardly bear out that vision. Led by rumor, desperation and human traffickers, thousands of Haitians in recent weeks traveled north through South and Central America and the Caribbean, amassing at the imagined gates to paradise.

Instead many found their way into the squalid shadow of of a highway overpass writhing with lost souls, or were pushed back across the river by law enforcers on horseback who herded and prodded them like cattle, with what looked like riding crops or even whips. Hundreds of others have been rounded up for flights back to Haiti, a beautiful but anarchic island reeling from corruption, earthquakes, floods and the governance of gangs. Nothing to eat, nowhere to go, no shelter from any tropical storm or hurricane, no place to protect their families from the poverty and violence they fled.

Meanwhile in the air conditioned halls of Congress and the White House, nothing is done. Politicians with last names that reflect the lands from which their ancestors fled poverty, discrimination and violence throw up their arms in distaste. Many who descend from comfortable generations, with elite educations and multimillion-dollar bank accounts, can’t be troubled to come to the table, to overcome partisan squabbles, power games and blatant prejudice to craft a solution to this most horrendous of global crises.

How many years must this go on? How much suffering must go unheeded?

Even in the best of times, among honorable people with the best intentions, immigration has presented an extraordinary challenge to policymakers. How many should be allowed in, from which countries, under which conditions – economic, political, personal, educational? What about those sneaking in? What about those already here illegally for years? How to address the root causes of their distress?

But, in an era when every concern becomes a wedge issue and partisan congressional leaders corral members into sheepish obeisance, at times like these, courage, compassion and reason cannot break free.

We can see this as an intractable problem. Or, we can set our minds and morality to address its components, one step at a time.

Firstly, immigration and refugee crises are international by definition and their solutions require international participation, in this case not just from source countries but from wealthier nations throughout the hemisphere, from Chile to Panama, Costa Rica and Canada. Second, they require work to counter political corruption and crime and to create jobs, to give people a way to thrive in their home countries, where, given the choice, many would remain.

Third, the U.S. needs to devote sufficient resources to process quickly and humanely those who do make it to our border, even if that process does lead to deportation. We need to do it without horsewhips. This is 2021, not 1864. Is it really so hard to consider each of these travelers as people?

There’s no call for open borders. We have no obligation to remove restraints on immigration, nor should we. And we need to communicate that throughout the world, so that our borders don’t swell with 15,000 more people with every false rumor of eased entry.

But most Americans also realize that we benefit from those who come to invest in our economy, or to work in agriculture and other industries short on labor, or to gain knowledge from our universities that they can disperse throughout the world. And the biggest benefit of all: an open-minded, multicultural society.

None of those approaches, however, can come to fruition until we break the back of partisan gamesmanship here in the U.S., not just in Washington, D.C. but from sea to shining sea. This isn’t a game. These are human beings suffering badly, in search of a life and we ought to help them, even if only because that helps us, too.

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