South Florida Sun Sentinel. January 24, 2023.
Editorial: DeSantis violates two constitutions, but it’s a no-win situation
Try as he might, Gov. Ron DeSantis can’t spin vindication out of a judge’s decision that flayed him for violating the state and federal constitutions when he suspended Hillsborough County’s twice-elected Democratic state attorney, Andrew Warren.
Nonetheless, his spokesperson claimed that U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle had “upheld” the governor’s decision to sack Warren last August for neglect of duty and incompetence. That was a bald-faced lie. Although Hinkle concluded he didn’t have the authority to reinstate Warren, his 59-page opinion exposes the suspension as a political hatchet job.
In fact, the judge wrote that the trial record “includes not a hint of misconduct by Mr. Warren,” who was “diligently and competently performing the job he was elected to perform, very much in the way he told voters he would perform it.”
In sum, Hinkle found that the governor was head-hunting for a “reform prosecutor” to suspend. The pretexts DeSantis used were related to opinion and policy over abortion and minor everyday offenses, not to anything Warren had done or didn’t do.
“Disagreements about the proper prosecutorial approach are the stuff on which state attorney elections properly turn. Disagreements like this are not the stuff on which suspensions properly turn,” the judge wrote.
Hinkle didn’t “uphold” the suspension, either. He simply concluded there was nothing a federal judge could do about it.
Hinkle, 71, a senior judge, is a highly experienced jurist. But his reasoning on that point is puzzling and deeply disappointing to every Floridian concerned about the festering dictatorship in Tallahassee.
Hinkle based his conclusion on the 11th Amendment, which the Supreme Court has construed, somewhat curiously, to bar most suits by citizens against their own states. It was drafted in 1794 to apply only to suits by foreign citizens and those of other states and still reads that way.
However, the court allows litigation invoking the 14th Amendment, which applies the Bill of Rights to states. After finding that the suspension did violate Warren’s First Amendment rights, Hinkle rationalized that they were “not essential to the outcome.”
On the other hand, Hinkle wrote, the suspension violated Florida’s Constitution as well, which matters. But he said federal judges can’t act against a state official “based only on a violation of state law.”
An appeal route
We believe Warren has good reason to appeal that. The violation of his federally protected free speech rights should be enough.
An appeal, though, poses a dilemma. It would let the Florida Senate continue to put off a hearing for Warren and a decision on whether to remove him or restore him to his rightful office, as it should
Not that the Senate can be trusted to do right when DeSantis does wrong. It showed that by overruling its own special master, Dudley Goodlette, who had recommended reinstating Broward Sheriff Scott Israel. The Senate removed him instead on a party-line vote.
A similar fate could await Warren, but he has alternatives. One is to appeal to Florida courts. Hinkle’s findings practically make the case. Trouble is, DeSantis has packed the appellate courts with friendly right-wing judges who appear to be just as subservient to him as the Senate.
Warren’s third option is to use the judge’s order as campaign material to win back his office in next year’s election.
About George Soros
The order should also be of use to DeSantis’ potential opponents for the presidency and to voters everywhere. They might take particular interest in evidence that the governor was obsessing with the philanthropist George Soros’ financial contributions to progressive prosecutor candidates, which carries an undercurrent of antisemitism.
Although DeSantis accused Warren of having a blanket non-prosecution policy on abortion and petty offenses, Hinkle found that Warren “never said he would not prosecute a case that absolutely deserved to be prosecuted. …He said repeatedly that discretion would be exercised at every stage of every case.”
Hinkle noted that former Gov. Rick Scott did not suspend Aramis Ayala, then the state attorney for Orange and Osceola counties, after she would not seek the death penalty in any case. Scott simply reassigned potential capital cases to another state attorney.
“Criminal law has generated differences of opinion for about as long as there has been criminal law,” the judge added.
Other findings by Hinkle:
— Warren’s policy presumed charges would not be filed after arrests “solely for a bicycle or pedestrian violation,” but they could be brought in specific cases with a supervisor’s approval. A study commissioned by Warren had found “significant racial disparity.”
— The policy also discouraged filing against other “low-level” offenses, such as having an expired driver’s license, unless there were “significant safety concerns.”
— DeSantis called for a hunt for “reform prosecutors” by asking his public safety adviser, Larry Keefe, whether Florida had any. Keefe talked only with the Florida Sheriff’s Association, Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister and a former Tampa police chief. He never spoke with Warren.
— Keefe was determined to oust Warren “primarily because Mr. Warren was a reform prosecutor of the kind targeted by the governor and Mr. Keefe from the outset” and because “he was being supported by a contributor to, of all things, the Democratic Party.”
— ”When the dust cleared… the governor’s office calculated the free media coverage generated by the suspension at $2.4 million in 14 days.”
The opinion nails this point: DeSantis removed a prosecutor whom the voters had elected twice for the most spiteful and indefensible of political motives.
It’s the Senate’s policy choice, rather than any law, that calls for postponing a suspension hearing while a court appeal is pending. None is at the moment. Even if Warren appeals, the Senate should promptly scrap that policy, hold a hearing and restore Warren to his rightful office. Otherwise, it is complicit in an abuse of office for which a dutiful Legislature could consider removing the governor instead.
Tampa Bay Times. January 19, 2023.
Editorial: In the free state of Florida, businesses should be free to choose
A bill that would ban businesses from making their own choices on masks and vaccinations hardly seems to promote freedom.
In the free state of Florida, shouldn’t businesses be allowed to make their own decisions? Shouldn’t the heavy hand of government stay out of their way? Republicans used to believe that.
And yet, Gov. Ron DeSantis, who constantly tells people that he is incubating the “free state of Florida,” wants to permanently tell businesses what they can and can’t do when it comes to COVID-19 protections. On Tuesday, he announced legislation that would forever penalize companies that require employees to wear masks or be vaccinated for COVID-19. Those who oppose vaccines and masks might see this as a victory. It’s not. How is it a good thing when business owners are prohibited by the government from making their own reasonable decisions? We should all worry when the state government intends to permanently limit how businesses run their operations.
DeSantis is pushing to forever write into the books a series of laws passed in a November 2021 special session to restrict Florida businesses that were following a federal law requiring mask mandates or requiring employees to be vaccinated. And he wants to prohibit employers from hiring or firing based on vaccine status or wearing a mask.
The Republican-led Legislature will feel intense pressure to pass this bill when the session begins in March. After all, DeSantis won a resounding 19-point reelection victory and is riding high. But Florida’s Republicans would do well to remember their roots as a pro-business, small government party. They should let this bad policy sunset on its own and reject attempts to make it permanent in Florida law.
At this point in the pandemic, whether to mask or to keep up to date on COVID-19 vaccinations is an individual decision. That should apply to businesses as well as people. DeSantis asserts that this is about individual rights. But in claiming that Florida is “serving strongly as freedom’s linchpin,” he seems to be forgetting that business owners are people, too, and they have rights of their own — rights that he would take away. There are appropriate rules, of course. A private business cannot discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity or gender, for example. But that does not limit a business’ ability to make its own choices. If a business owner wants to require masks or vaccinations for employees or customers, she should be able to do so. How is it “small government” for politicians to tell a private business owner otherwise?
In a free market, customers who don’t like that idea can take their money elsewhere. Employees who disagree can seek jobs elsewhere. Isn’t this the point of free market capitalism? It used to be that Republicans believed that government that governs least governs best. Here, they have a chance to harken back to their history and slap away the heavy hand of big government. They should do so.
Miami Herald. January 24, 2023.
Editorial: DeSantis wants more money for teacher pay, but beware, educators, there’s a serious catch
Good things come at a price in Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration.
His “Teachers’ Bill of Rights” sounds like an overdue effort to give more dignity — and pay — to the people educating our children. That’s not entirely wrong, it’s just the upside of the education proposal the governor announced on Monday. But it comes with a catch, the dark side, better described as the “Teachers’ Union-Busting Bill.”
DeSantis’ relationship with public school teachers has been one of feeding with one hand and punishing with the other. He has allocated millions to raise teachers’ starting salaries. That, however, has not been enough to move Florida from the 48th spot in the nation in average public school teacher pay, according to the National Education Association. At the same, he’s treated educators as pariahs in his culture wars, accusing them — with little to no proof — of indoctrination and teaching ideology.
His latest proposal, which he wants legislators to approve this year, follows the same pattern.
DISTRICTS GET TO DECIDE
DeSantis wants an extra $200 million annually toward salary increases, bringing the yearly total to $1 billion, the Herald reported. School districts would choose how to prioritize that money, whether by continuing to fund starting pay beyond the current $47,500 or by investing in veteran teachers, who have rightfully complained they were left out when the state set the minimum salary.
“All that additional money can go to increase teacher salaries however the district wants to do it, and we think that’s important to both recruit and retain good people in the classroom,” DeSantis said at a press conference at Duval Charter School in Jacksonville.
There are a few other sensible bullet points in DeSantis’ plan, such as asking voters to set term limits for school board members. Few people will argue against his idea to require teachers’ unions to provide financial reports to the state and allow state auditors to investigate fraud — though in DeSantis-land that might be weaponized. But that’s where the “Teachers’ Bill of Rights” ends and the terrible fine print begins.
The governor wants to essentially kill teachers’ unions, the very same organizations that — albeit not perfect — have fought to earn educators more rights through bargaining. And DeSantis does that so cleverly he will have his constituents believe he’s doing all of it in the name of teachers themselves.
The dagger the governor wants to drive through the heart of collective bargaining is the requirement that teachers’ unions represent at least 60% of eligible employees (in Florida, employees cannot be required to join a union). Last year, he talked about setting a 50% threshold, and it’s unclear why his latest proposal increases it. It’s worth noting that United Teachers of Dade has 50.7% representation, UTD spokesman Julio Ligorria told the Herald Editorial Board on Monday. UTD and DeSantis have butted heads on school re-openings and masking requirements during the pandemic, and UTD President Karla Hernandez-Mats was his Democratic opponent’s running mate in the midterms.
Hernandez-Mats might also be the inspiration for another proposal in DeSantis’ plan to prohibit union officials from earning more than the highest paid employee they represent. DeSantis has often taken jabs at Hernandez-Mats for her salary, which was almost $170,000 in 2021-22. However, a UTD tax filing from 2020 shows her salary was $197,225 the previous year. Ligorria told the Editorial Board that “zero taxpayer dollars” fund her salary.
While salary caps aren’t necessarily a bad idea — and DeSantis knows they are popular with the public — the question arises about how unions in large districts such as Miami-Dade County, with hundreds of schools and thousands of bargaining unit members, will recruit top officials if they cannot pay them an executive salary.
If the issue is union bosses abusing their power, why target only teachers’ unions?
Republican lawmakers made it clear what their target was when they exempted unions representing police, firefighters, correctional officers and correctional probation officers from a 2022 bill that would have prohibited unions from automatically deducting dues from paychecks (the bill would have affected other public-sector unions besides teachers). The proposal died, but DeSantis wants to revive it this year. He said it “maximizes freedom to choose” during a speech in December, but the true intent appears to be to make it less convenient for teachers to join unions, therefore making the 60% membership threshold harder to reach.
It’s impossible to blast the governor for wanting to pay teachers more. But the moniker “Teachers’ Bill of Rights” is pure spin and public relations. Unfortunately, in Florida nowadays, no good policy comes without a not-so-hidden agenda.
Orlando Sentinel. January 19, 2023.
Editorial: Don’t use a pension panic to advance DeSantis’ anti-WOKE nonsense
There was a time when Florida’s state retirement system (which covers pension benefits for state employees as well as the workforces of hundreds of other governmental bodies including counties, cities and districts) was considered one of the best in the nation. Lately, however, we’ve been seeing headlines blaring about massive shortfalls and claims of mismanagement — claims that are helping Gov. Ron DeSantis and other top conservative leaders spin a narrative of state bureaucrats led astray by ideological crusades and more than a million Floridians at risk of losing their long-term financial security.
What the heck happened?
For the most part, it’s nonsense. While it’s true that Florida currently owes more in pensions than it can expect in revenue and return on investments, nobody’s pensions are in jeopardy due to wild-eyed, reckless investing that ignores returns in favor of efforts to remake the world.
Fixes for pension shortfall
The long-term health of a pension system relies on many factors — how much current employees are expected to contribute, how much the governmental agencies they work for or retired from pay into the system on their behalf, and how many retirees are drawing benefits. Investment strategy plays a big role, no doubt, with roughly 60% of Florida retirement payouts coming from investment funds. But it’s not the only determining factor and it’s logical to expect investment returns to wobble during periods of intense economic upheaval.
Lawmakers did make progress on that front in the recent session, increasing the amount paid into the system by governmental employers. But they aren’t facing up to the monsters they created through the policy tweaks they’ve forced on the system, including efforts to shove more employees away from the traditional retirement/pension approach.
None of this has stopped the governor, who recently enacted a series of policies meant to restrict state fund managers from considering corporate virtue when making investment decisions. In his rants against “woke” investing, DeSantis skips all the subtleties — including an acknowledgment that many of the people in charge of managing the state’s resources have been at this for a long time, through fat years and thin, and have yet to show any tendency toward Social Justice Warrior thinking. And he can’t explain his own behavior in light of the current alarm.
That starts with his decision to shut down the only venue where the health of the investment funds would be open for public discussion. Over the past year, and at his behest, the Florida Cabinet — which includes DeSantis as well as the state attorney general, chief financial officer and commissioner of agriculture and consumer services — has met just three times. And ultimate responsibility for the health of Florida’s investment funding rests in the hands of a three-member board of trustees that includes everyone but the ag commissioner. If Florida’s main investments were really on fire, you’d think the top executives would at least keep to the Cabinet’s decades-long schedule of monthly meetings to monitor the progress of the blaze.
What’s the rationale, then, for scaling back public meetings so drastically? We suspect there are multiple reasons, and this isn’t the only board DeSantis has shut down ― as Scott Maxwell discusses in his column today. But it certainly deprives folks who might contradict DeSantis’ narrative of a platform from which to do so.
That leaves the governor free to claim that “ESG” investing (those letters stand for environmental, social and governance, referring to corporate responsibility and integrity) investing poses a real risk to state investment funds. That’s also nonsense. Most independent, arms-length analyses of the practice show that investments managed on ESG principles perform about the same or slightly better than investment based solely on profits.
Meanwhile, there’s a growing body of evidence showing that ESG-based investing has a significant impact on corporate behavior. The websites of most of the nation’s large corporations now include descriptions of their ESG efforts, which range from better pay, benefits and support for their employees to increased charitable contributions. Corporations brag about their commitment to green buildings and efforts to decrease reliance on fossil fuels.
The real agenda?
That last point may be the biggest motivator to undermine the principles of ESG. The nation’s gas and oil interests can’t really stand up and argue that other corporations are being irresponsible by adopting climate-friendly policies. And the rest of it — the improved working conditions, the commitment to be more honest with stakeholders, the boost in community involvement by business interests — is all just bycatch. It might sound a bit circuitous, but many Republican leaders have specifically called out anti-emissions policies in their anti-woke rants.
There are other points of hypocrisy, including earlier grandstanding by Florida leaders about pulling state investments from China. That sounds an awful lot like ESG decision-making to us.
In the coming year, lawmakers should consider increasing the amount they pay into the retirement system coffers and look at other changes. And the Cabinet should get back to monthly meetings. But the blustering over ESG can’t hide the reality: DeSantis has yet to come up with any credible ESG threat to Florida’s long-term fiscal health, or the retirement security of close to 1 million Floridians. In the meantime, he might be forcing state investment managers away from investing in funds that offer better-than-average returns. That is a losing proposition for this state, even if most Florida residents don’t connect the motive behind the madness.
Palm Beach Post. January 20, 2023.
Editorial: Inspiring teachers harder to find in Florida schools
Florida needs more teachers like Willie and Estella Pyfrom. Unfortunately, state education policies are making it difficult for public schools in Florida to attract and retain educators of the caliber of the Pyfroms, whose work in Palm Beach County’s Glades communities earned them overdue public recognition and enduring adulation.
For almost four decades, the Pyfroms taught music, raised students and mentored a community. Willie Pyfrom became known as “the godfather of band directors” for his many students who would go on to become music teachers and band leaders themselves. Estella, his late wife, was no slouch either. After retiring, she used her life savings to start Estella’s Brilliant Bus, a mobile computer lab that brought technology and internet connections to children living in some of the county’s poorest areas.
Imagine school districts filled with such dedicated teachers. Fat chance, right?! Today’s educational environment is buffeted by strong headwinds working against both dedication and longevity. As Justin Katz, the Palm Beach County teachers’ union president put it to Katherine Kokal, the Post’s education reporter, at the start of the current school year: “We’re getting burnt at both ends basically. The level of attrition and resignation of career or short-term teachers has grown dramatically, and simultaneously the pool of future educators has shrunk.”
As of early January, there were 5,294 instructional vacancies and 4,631 support staff vacancies in the state, according to Florida Education Association data. The Palm Beach County School District is faring better than most. It only had 418 teaching vacancies as of Oct. 1, up 70 from this time in 2021 and from more than 200 before the pandemic.
The good news is that teacher salaries in Florida have been going up. Last year, Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Legislature increased teacher-pay spending by $250 million over the previous year and gave school districts greater flexibility in raising salaries for new and veteran teachers. The raise amounted to a noticeable change from previous Legislatures that restricted salary increases for experienced teachers.
Still, according to the latest National Education Association data on average teacher salaries, Florida moved one position between the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 school years — from 49th to 48th place in the nation. Hopes of ending the state’s high stakes testing have failed to materialize, according to the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest association of teachers, educational staff and students training to become future educators.
Ever-changing programs and state standards, worsening student behavior, growing parental indifference and hostilities are taking a toll. The result? Fewer students are studying to become educators and more teachers are retiring early. The recent enrollment figures at Palm Beach State College’s education program is another indicator of a troubling trend. Between 2012 and 2021, the number of students earning associate degrees in the program dropped 34%, from more than 1,500 students a year to 1,026.
Our state elected officials aren’t helping matters, either. Throw in Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law, which restricts classroom instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation and The Stop W.O.K.E. Act, which prohibits teaching certain concepts related to race, and now you have an environment where teachers are not only looking over their shoulders but considering heading for the exits.
Granted, the Pyfroms didn’t have to worry about an ambitious governor weaponizing classroom instruction to gain votes in a bid for higher office. Their primary concern was simply making sure their students received a decent education under the nation’s harsh Jim Crow laws that left Black students in racially segregated in shoddy schools.
Adjusting to the whims of politicians and society are nothing new for teachers. But, in Florida and other parts of the country, it’s reaching a breaking point. It’s time for elected officials to consider the profession itself and devise laws, rules and standards that will help educators do their jobs and make teaching attractive again.
Willie and Estella Pyfrom taught school for almost 60 years. For their service in the classroom, the music hall of Glades Central High School this month was renamed their honor. It’s the type of thanks any teacher in Florida would like to receive after a long and devoted career but most likely won’t.