Editorial Roundup: Florida

South Florida Sun Sentinel. July 14, 2021.

Editorial: The towering spirit of Mary McLeod Bethune of Florida ' Editorial

Everyone in Florida — and America, for that matter — should take pride in what took place last weekend in the small Italian village of Pietrasanta. Dignitaries from Florida beheld the formal unveiling of the statue of a great Floridian, Mary McLeod Bethune, an educator, feminist and civil rights leader who became one of the most prominent African-American women of the 20th century. Soon, the statue will occupy a place of prominence in Washington.

Born in 1875 in a farming town in South Carolina, Bethune was the 15th of 17 children born to former slaves and was forced to overcome the many crushing burdens of the Jim Crow era. With $1.50 to her name, so it is told, but with a strong faith in God and an iron will, Dr. Bethune opened the Literary and Industrial School for Training Negro Girls in Daytona Beach. It would eventually become Bethune-Cookman University, one of America’s oldest historically black universities.

A forceful voice for racial and gender equality, she also began the National Council of Negro Women and served as an advisor on minority affairs to several U.S. presidents, most notably Franklin D. Roosevelt, and was a close friend of Eleanor Roosevelt for many years.

On Sunday, July 10, on the 146th anniversary of her birth, a white marble statue of Dr. Bethune was revealed to the public. It was created by sculptress Nilda Comas, who lives and works in both Italy and Fort Lauderdale.

Comas, who closely studied her subject, created a statue of Dr. Bethune that stands about 11 feet tall, dressed in a graduation cap and gown and clutching a black rose, a stack of books at her feet.

Comas was chosen from among 1,600 artists to create the statue, which will move next year to its permanent home at the National Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, where it will be seen by millions of tourists who annually visit the nation’s capital.

The Florida delegation at the statue unveiling numbered in the dozens and included Bethune-Cookman University’s interim president, Hiram Powell, and Pompano Beach lawyer Johnny McCray Jr., a 1978 graduate of the university and national president of its alumni association.

“As a Black American and as a Floridian, I’m so proud to experience living this history,” McCray told the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board. “She worked tirelessly, uniting people in our community and trying to further opportunities for Black folks and women.”

Groups across the country celebrated the moment, such as the Greater Boston Section of the National Council of Negro Women.

Dr. Bethune will be the first African-American to represent a state in the Statuary Hall. (Each state is allowed two representatives; the other Floridian is John Gorrie of Apalachicola, a doctor who studied tropical diseases and is regarded as the inventor of air conditioning.)

Honoring Dr. Bethune as a permanent representative of Florida is richly deserved and long overdue.

It took too long for a bipartisan political consensus in Tallahassee to agree that the state should choose someone else to replace Edmund Kirby Smith, a Confederate general who was born in St. Augustine but had tenuous ties to the state.

Four years ago, a four-member state review panel voted in favor of Dr. Bethune. The recommendation was adopted by the Legislature in 2018 in a bill (SB 472) sponsored by Sen. Perry Thurston of Plantation. The other two finalists were Everglades champion Marjory Stoneman Douglas and, inexplicably, George Jenkins, founder of the Publix supermarket chain.

No public funds were used to pay for the statue of Dr. Bethune. The entire cost, estimated at about $800,000, came from private donations.

Before she died in 1955, in her last will and testament, Dr. Bethune wrote, “The Freedom Gates are half ajar. We must pry them fully open.” Not everything has changed.

She seemed hopeful about America’s future, yet remarkably prescient, too.

“Now that the barriers are crumbling everywhere, the Negro in America must be ever vigilant less his forces be marshalled behind wrong causes and undemocratic movements,” she wrote. “He must not lend his support to any group that seeks to subvert democracy. That is why we must select leaders who are wise, courageous and of great mortal stature and ability.”

At a time when Florida is scrutinizing its civics curriculum, educators everywhere should redouble their efforts to make sure future generations learn about Mary McLeod Bethune, her incredible struggle, indomitable spirit and many accomplishments to her state and country.

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Miami Herald. July 13, 2021.

Editorial: DeSantis’ anti-riot law didn’t apply as Cuba protesters shut down a Miami-Dade road. Hmmm...

Gov. DeSantis should have just laid it on the line when a reporter asked about the scores of Cuban-American demonstrators and their supporters who shut down a portion of the Palmetto Expressway in Miami-Dade County.

Instead, he deflected, talking about protesters in Cuba.

Implicit in the question, however, was whether the governor’s vaunted anti-riot law — created in the wake of George Floyd demonstrations — would apply in the case of the demonstrators blocking streets and an expressway in Miami-Dade.

Their cause is righteous, of course — bringing down Cuba’s oppressive and regressive regime.

Florida’s misbegotten anti-riot law leaves even peaceful demonstrators subject to being arrested if a protest is arbitrarily deemed a “riot.” The law explicitly makes blocking a highway a felony offense. Worse, it gives civil legal immunity to people who drive through protesters who are blocking a road — basically, encouraging haters to do just that.

Here’s what the governor said when he signed the blatantly un-American bill into law: “Just think about it, you’re driving home from work and, all of a sudden, you have people out there shutting down a highway, and we worked hard to make sure that didn’t happen in Florida.”

But it did happen in Florida, Gov. DeSantis. Demonstrators shut down State Road 826 in both directions Tuesday in solidarity with their counterparts in Cuba. Police obliged and redirected traffic. Mercifully, no one roared through the crowd in a vehicle.

Everything was as it should be in a country that has a high tolerance for free expression. But, unfortunately, for the governor, the reporter’s question trapped him in the hypocrisy of his law, likely to be arbitrarily enforced.

Honestly, we would have been more impressed if he had just responded: “Nah, the Miami-Dade demonstrators seeking human rights in Cuba have nothing to fear from my anti-riot law. We created it to subdue Black folks seeking human rights in the United States.”

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Orlando Sentinel. July 13, 2021.

Editorial: Realtors doing what Legislature wouldn’t: Protect affordable housing fund

Lawmakers kept on gerrymandering, so Floridians passed a constitutional amendment forcing them to draw fair voting districts.

Florida wouldn’t restore voting rights to people who had finished serving their time in prison, so voters intervened again. And again when lawmakers wouldn’t legalize marijuana for medical use. And again when the state Legislature refused to raise the minimum wage.

Time after time, Floridians have taken matters into their own hands when elected officials refused to do what’s right.

And they might do it again, this time led by a business constituency that traditionally sides with the Legislature — Florida’s Realtors.

More power to ’em, we say.

Realtors are pushing back against a law passed last year that permanently guts a state trust fund originally intended to solely benefit affordable housing, something Florida needs now more than ever.

The Sadowski fund — named for a state official killed in an airplane crash — was created almost 30 years ago and gets its money from a portion of the tax paid on real estate transactions in Florida.

It was supposed to be a reliable source of revenue to help meet the challenge of a chronic Florida problem: A population that doesn’t make enough money to afford a house or an apartment.

The money largely funds two types of programs: One that’s geared toward helping people achieve homeownership, and another that helps finance affordable rental projects.

Nice idea, but starting in 2001 legislators began skimming money from the trust fund to pad the overall state budget, even in years when the budget was flush. Like a drug, it got to be a habit, and the state has snapped up some $2.3 billion over the past two decades that was intended for affordable housing.

This year lawmakers decided annual raids weren’t good enough. So they passed a law that permanently cut the Sadowski housing funding in half. The money taken from affordable housing will now go toward shoreline protection and wastewater projects.

We’re all for less flooding and cleaner water. But paying for it by cannibalizing housing money is no solution, especially when the state had other pots of money it could easily have used, like revenue from a new online sales tax. Lawmakers didn’t have to use housing money to pay for environmental projects, they chose to use it.

While the new law permanently cuts the housing fund, it also shields what’s left from future raids by the Legislature (unless, that is, it changes the law again). So lawmakers have been spinning the new law as a way to protect the housing fund from … themselves.

That logic reminds us of mobsters demanding a cut from the corner produce store in exchange for not robbing it.

Cutting the housing fund deprives working-class Floridians of housing that’s getting more and more out of reach every week. The average monthly rent in Orlando is now north of $1,500, an increase of nearly 14% over last year.

A chronic affordable housing crisis is not sustainable for an economy like Orlando’s, nor for the economies of nearly every other county in Florida.

Florida had a chance to really protect the Sadowski trust fund this year without decimating it. A law proposed by a Pinellas County Republican, with bipartisan support, would have protected the affordable housing fund from any future sweeps.

The housing protection law had near unanimous support in two Senate committees but died in a third committee.

Enter the Realtors, whose motives for a constitutional amendment may not be wholly selfless, but whose goal is something every caring Floridian should support: To ensure Florida has an accessible and affordable housing stock and a means to help people get into a home they can afford.

The proposed amendment would restore the housing trust fund’s original funding scheme and make it off limits to any future raids by the Legislature.

In other words, the amendment would allow voters to do what the Legislature would not. Again.

The Realtors association means business. It’s already raised $13 million toward gathering petitions and waging a political campaign.

Realtors have come under some criticism because the amendment would lock in 65% of the trust fund to pay for homeownership programs, which often means commissions for real estate agents involved in sales. The other 35% would go toward rental housing projects.

But that’s largely how the money is divided up now, under current law. The amendment wouldn’t change that, it would just lock in that split and ensure affordable housing gets a bigger piece of the pie — a size closer to what was promised decades ago.

Amendments like this one, which defy the Legislature, are why lawmakers have for years been trying to silence the voices of voters by making it harder for citizen-led drives to change the Florida Constitution.

The latest attempt was a law that puts limits on contributions toward petition-gathering efforts. It’s been blocked by a judge, and the good money is betting that it’ll be overturned as unconstitutional.

When that happens, we’re looking forward to voters deciding in 2022 whether affordable housing is a priority in Florida. We already know where legislators stand on that.

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Palm Beach Post. July 9, 2021.

Editorial: Ban the burning of Florida sugarcane fields

When the cane fields burn and skies turn black over the Glades, mothers bring children indoors. That should tell you all you need to know.

As sugar growers torch acre after acre to facilitate each harvest, month after month, residents know to avoid the soot that descends upon their streets, sidewalks, playgrounds and yards. They fear bouts of coughing, asthma and other lung ailments.

A joint investigation by The Palm Beach Post and nonprofit newsroom ProPublica has shown how, in pursuit of profits, Florida’s sugar giants have snowed this ash upon the state’s poorest residents, year after year, insisting that it causes no harm.

We live and raise our children in the Glades, U.S. Sugar representatives told the Post Editorial Board. “Would we take a chance if we thought it wasn’t safe?” they ask. The companies comply with federal clean air standards, they noted.

In fact, as the yearlong Post/ProPublica investigation showed, the one air quality sensor upon which that assessment relies was malfunctioning as far back as eight years ago and as of last week still didn’t meet federal accuracy standards. Further, what measures environmental regulators apply are based upon contamination levels averaged over time, downplaying the acute, real-time effects of acres of cane flaming into black clouds that envelop homes of the very laborers hired to work the mucky fields.

Florida’s clean-air enforcement finds its skies darkened by a Republican-led climate of anti-regulatory, anti-environmental sentiment, polluted by legislative lobbying that outspends any other industry in the state.

Palm Beach County emits the most particulate matter from agricultural fires of any county nationwide, almost entirely from cane burning. And even as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency weighs more-stringent protections for public health, Florida lawmakers this spring enacted legislation ostensibly protecting farmers from legal challenges over air pollution. Gov. Ron DeSantis signed it into law in April.

The burns of dozens of cane fields, each day for months, rid the stalks of outer leaves, easing the processing that generates 21 million tons of cane sugar each year, more than any other state. That’s a $650 million take.

The sugar giants say there is no other realistic way to get the job done. But somehow Brazil, Thailand and India acknowledge the hazards of open burning and have found alternate methods.

Even if it costs a few extra pennies for each sack of supermarket sugar, why can’t the same state whose engineers are planning missions to Mars figure out a smarter way to take leaves off a cane stalk?

It’s telling that, when suburban residents of wealthier Wellington and Royal Palm Beach fought the industry in 1991, the Florida Department of Agriculture swiftly banned sugar growers from burning when the wind blows east. No such courtesy has been shown the 31,000 people of the Glades, a large portion of them Black or Hispanic.

They’re out of sight, out of mind and hard-pressed to oppose their area’s largest employer. Big Sugar supports 12,000 workers during each six-month harvest season.

Immediate health concerns for our fellow local residents aside, what about the bigger picture: In this time of worldwide action against climate change, how on God’s Earth can we countenance open burning of hundreds of thousands of acres of sugar cane every year?

On one side of the county, we have Florida Power & Light closing its last coal-fired plant and boasting of its shift to cleaner fuels and solar power. On the other we have government price-supported sugar growers in climate change denial, feeding the Legislature a sugar high of contributions while pumping black smoke into the atmosphere six months a year.

While we appreciate the sugar industry’s economic contribution to the Glades, the county and the state, we implore its leaders to drop their defensiveness and dedicate themselves to an environmental contribution: Stop the fires immediately. Be the hero.

But hearing no acknowledgment of damage being done and seeing no effort at reform, and with the state of Florida showing no sign of protecting residents from this primitive and dangerous practice, we urge the Biden Administration to follow through on its pledges of climate repair and to ban the burns. The U.S. must rebuild the Environmental Protection Agency as a science-based protector of the air and water and hold accountable those who put public health and safety at risk.

There’s no reason this work can’t start in our state, our county, our Glades. That would be a breath of fresh air.

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