Editorial Roundup: Florida

Palm Beach Post. May 8, 2022.

Editorial: Ending Roe v. Wade shouldn’t curb Florida privacy rights

In its haste to rid society of abortions, the U.S. Supreme Court appears headed toward weakening a very important constitutional guarantee against undue government interference. The Florida Supreme Court shouldn’t make that same mistake.

Our state constitution guarantees a right to privacy, a standard used by previous Florida Supreme Court justices to protect abortion. The current court is far more conservative, and abortion rights advocates worry that the justices could re-interpret the privacy amendment and erode a legal bulwark in further restricting abortions.

“Because having safe access to abortion is what the Florida Constitution provides for and is what Floridians prefer, opponents of abortion have no route through a ballot initiative or through the Legislature to constitutionally restrict that access,” Daniel Tilley, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida told USA Today Network — Florida. “Their only route is instead through the Florida Supreme Court, which is the only entity that can interpret, with finality, Florida constitutional law.”

Last week, a leaked draft of a majority opinion from the U.S. Supreme Court signaled the likely end of Roe v. Wade, a 49-year-old ruling that established the constitutional right to an abortion. The protection relied on the 14th Amendment’s due process clause that promotes the “right to privacy.” Since that right was an interpretation by justices and not spelled out in the Constitution, the current conservative majority on the court felt justified in ending federal abortion protections.

Abortion isn’t the only “right” not mentioned in the Constitution. Access to contraceptives, and the right to gay and interracial marriage, also rely on judicial interpretation, which has many worried that those rights also will be targeted.

Florida’s Constitution, in Article 1 Section 23, spells out “the right to be let alone and free from governmental intrusion into a person’s private life.” Voters approved that amendment more than 40 years ago by a 60% margin. The only exceptions to that privacy wall to date are efforts to circumvent the state’s public records and open meetings laws. Further abortion restrictions could open the door to more damaging exceptions.

As a candidate, Gov. Ron DeSantis supported a fetal heartbeat bill that would have prohibited a physician from performing an abortion if a heartbeat was detected. As governor, he approved a law that requires parental consent before a minor can have an abortion. More recently he signed legislation that outlaws the procedure after 15 weeks of pregnancy, joining other Republican-led states that expected the U.S. Supreme Court to set similar restrictions in a Mississippi case.

It’s now clear that the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative majority wants a restriction even tighter than 15 weeks, leaving abortion opponents downright giddy that their half-century quest to outlaw all abortions is coming to a favorable end. The anti-abortion organization, Florida Voice for the Unborn, for example, was quick to issue a press release asking Gov. DeSantis to include a bill that would prohibit nearly all abortions in Florida during the upcoming special session of the Florida Legislature, initially called to address the property insurance crisis.

And yet, Republicans are reacting to the High Court’s leak like the proverbial dog that chased a speeding car and finally caught it. There’s no celebrating a hard-fought victory, because a wide majority of Florida voters support choice.

Instead, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, chaired by Florida’s junior Sen. Rick Scott, is using poll-tested data to advise Republicans how to come across as compassionate consensus builders, while castigating Democrats for being extremists and lying about Republican views on abortion and women’s health. Even Gov. DeSantis, usually pugnacious on issues that help him politically, demurred when asked by reporters if he would include abortion in this month’s special session.

The reality is, the opposition from a riled electorate is mounting. Poll after poll shows a majority of Americans believe the U.S. Supreme Court should uphold Roe v. Wade. The sentiment is the same in Florida, where a recent Public Opinion Research Lab at the University of North Florida poll found 57% oppose the state’s 15-week abortion ban.

In a post-Roe world, the Florida Supreme Court will ultimately decide on future abortions. The smart play would be to respect court precedent and avoid a legal ruling that allows further abortion restrictions but invites additional incursions by state lawmakers into the lives of Floridians. We need our justices to lead, not follow.

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Orlando Sentinel. May 9, 2022.

Editorial: Ignoring teens’ trauma won’t make it go away, Florida

In the spring of 2021, nearly 11% of Florida high school students said they’d missed at least one day of school in the past month because they didn’t feel safe; 12.8% said they’d been bullied and 6.2% said they’d been injured or threatened with a weapon on campus.

For middle-aged Floridians whose high-school memories have mellowed into a grainy highlight reel, these numbers seem startling. But they are legit, part of Florida’s response to a national survey headed by the Centers for Disease Control. Thousands of American teenagers participate in the Youth Risk Behavior Survey. And the results have changed the way schools and communities care for adolescents, the way state and federal governments allocate funding.

The news is never good. In the survey, students – whose responses are completely anonymous — talk about issues no child should have to face: Drugs, tobacco and alcohol. Lack of access to healthy food. Physical and sexual violence.

But what’s better? Knowing, or deliberately remaining ignorant?

Last month, state officials picked the wrong option: The next time the survey is administered in 2023, Florida won’t participate.

We can’t say this is the most short-sighted decision Florida officials have made in recent months, but only because there’s so much competition.

More than 11% of Florida students said they’d been victims of sexual violence, ranging from kisses to more intimate assault. Eight percent of students said they’d been physically forced to have sexual intercourse against their will.

Gov. Ron DeSantis and GOP lawmakers haven’t given a good reason why they are dropping out. But the events of the spring legislative session might provide some context. Lawmakers pushed through bills aimed at turning Florida schools into culture-war battlefields, with minority and LGBTQ+ students coming under particular attack. One bill (HB 1467) made it easier for parents and other community members to challenge books – knowing that books featuring sexual and racial minorities were among the most likely to be targeted. Another (HB 7) tightened restrictions on discussions of racism in public schools. The most controversial, HB 1577, banned classroom discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity that wasn’t “age appropriate” — a vague term intended to make teachers afraid to allow any talk at all. What message does that send to the more than 16% of Florida’s high-school students who identify as non-heterosexual?

Some theorize that Florida’s newly puritanical leadership doesn’t want schools asking students – even anonymously —about how many times they’d had sex or whether they’d used drugs. But is there an even more insidious motive? Mental health experts have warned that 2022′s “hate slate” of bills, particularly the legislation dubbed “don’t say gay,” could increase stigma, anger and shame for students who feel increasingly marginalized. It could also put some teachers in the position of outing their students – leading to self-destructive behaviors like substance abuse and suicide.

If the mental-health experts are right, the results of the 2023 survey could put a serious damper on GOP officials who want to brag about the legislation they’ve passed.

That’s just a theory, of course. And you don’t have to buy into any conspiracies to understand this: Ignoring real threats to the mental, emotional and physical health of Florida teens is a terrible idea.

Nearly 40% of students said they’d felt sad or hopeless nearly every day in the two weeks before they answered the questionnaire. More than 17% said they’d seriously considered killing themselves over the past year, and 13.8% said they’d made plans to end their lives. Nine percent actually attempted suicide..

There’s still plenty of time for Florida lawmakers and education leaders to reverse course. And they should. This is crucial data that often illuminates dangerous trends in teen behavior. The risk behavior survey provided the first evidence that e-cigarettes and vaping were rapidly gaining popularity among teenagers, for example.

If state leaders won’t budge, there’s another option. Six counties — Orange, Broward, Duval, Hillsborough, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach – get CDC funding to produce county-level data on behavior in middle schools. Leaders in those counties should talk to the CDC about continuing the high-school surveys as well, and if they’re successful, other counties should consider doing the same. It won’t be as good as getting data from all 67 counties, but it will be significant: The combined population of those six counties is around 8 million, significantly bigger than most states.

In Florida’s current atmosphere of hyper-partisan politics and brute retaliation, defying Tallahassee could bring grief onto those counties’ heads. But measure that against the importance of paying attention to high-school students as they struggle with burdens almost too heavy for their young shoulders to bear. These kids should count. And that means they should be counted.

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Tampa Bay Times. May 7, 2022.

Editorial: Paying to save Florida’s manatees is the right thing to do

Also on this week’s list of highs and lows: The Hillsborough County Commission makes the right call on John Dingfelder, and the governor makes a move on sea level rise.

Manatee help. The state is prepared to spend more than $30 million to help rescue Florida’s iconic manatees, $17 million more than the current budget. It’s a sound and warranted investment. Last year, 1,101 manatees died, more than any year on record, and at least another 527 have died already this year. The deaths are mostly due to human-related activities, including algal blooms fueled by fertilizer runoff that damage manatee feeding grounds. Boaters also hit and killed more than 100 manatees last year. To put it bluntly, humans are killing manatees. We owe it to them to help stabilize the losses and to provide a safer environment in which they can thrive.

The right call. The Hillsborough County Commission chose the smart path in rejecting former City Council member John Dingfelder’s bid to become a land use hearing officer. Only a few weeks ago, Dingfelder took the remarkable step of resigning from City Council after he was caught up in a self-inflicted public records dispute. He wrote that he “engaged in activities that were contrary to the spirit and intent of open government and transparency.” In the settlement, Dingfelder agreed not to run for City Council, mayor or seek an appointed position dealing with city zoning or land-use issues for five years. But he sidestepped that agreement by applying with the county, not the city. The part-time land use hearing officers are paid $75 an hour to conduct hearings on rezoning applications and oversee variance requests, among other duties. The county commission voted 6-1 on Wednesday to extend the contracts of the two current land use officers, a move that denied Dingfelder’s request. That was the right call. A public official who voluntarily leaves office on a serious public records allegation should not be acting in a quasi-judicial governmental role just a few weeks later. Dingfelder made his own bed. For the people making Dingfelder out as a martyr, we’d recommend reading the lawsuit’s depositions.

Taking action. Too many of Florida’s elected leaders in Tallahassee dragged their feet over the last decade when it came to climate change and sea level rise. The state still has a lot to do to prepare, but the Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis took a good step by creating the new Statewide Office of Resilience. The office, set up to address the impacts of flooding and sea-level rise, will report directly to the governor, who signed the bill into law this week. The office will also help develop a resilience action plan for the state highway system, a prioritized list of resilience projects that would include costs and timelines, and a database that would identify such things as medical centers, utilities, emergency operation centers and airports threatened by rising sea levels, the News Service of Florida reported. The office cannot be just window dressing or a fount of data that no one acts upon. Florida is already feeling the effects of rising seas, an unfortunate reality that won’t be going away anytime soon.

Pasco happenings (times three). 1. Great to see the diverging diamond interchange on Interstate 75 at SR 56 in south Pasco finally open on Sunday. The road won’t be at full capacity until later this summer, but the opening signals that the long-awaited and delayed project is coming to an end. 2. It took eight months, but Pasco teachers and support staff finally reached a tentative contract with the district... for the school year that ends in a few weeks. Here’s hoping the next contract doesn’t take so long. 3. A civil trial over Walgreens’ contributions to the opioid crisis ended in a $683 million settlement with the state. Most of the money — to be paid out over 18 years — will go to fund community treatment, education and prevention programs around the state. The trial was based in Pasco, which state lawyers said suffered Florida’s highest drug overdose death rate from 2004 through 2012. Blame for the opioid epidemic can be spread wide, but the money from the settlement should help keep others from getting addicted to dangerous drugs.

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South Florida Sun Sentinel. May 6, 2022.

Editorial: Don’t let political revenge dictate budget vetoes

Dissent is essential to democracy.

Punishing dissent is essential to the Ron DeSantis brand.

Just ask Disney. Ask state university faculty members who face tenure challenges. Or ask school board members in Broward, Palm Beach and elsewhere, who faced threats of retaliation for insisting on protecting students with COVID-19 mask mandates.

When he’s challenged, DeSantis lashes out. That’s what bullies do.

That’s what makes the governor’s use of line-item veto power in the new budget worth watching.

The Florida Legislature will soon send DeSantis a budget of $112.1 billion. That’s by far the largest in state history and represents a spending increase of about 20% in the past two years alone. The budget for fiscal 2020-2021 was $92.2 billion. So much for fiscal conservatism among the ruling Republicans in Tallahassee.

All those billions

With an irresistible federal windfall of billions from President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, state lawmakers went on a spending spree with our money as never before. They still had enough left over to give lavish tax breaks to the state’s largest and wealthiest corporations and to sock away $8 billion in reserves.

On a positive note, state workers will get 5.4% pay raises, every state worker will earn at least $15 an hour, and teachers and first responders will get special pay raises. But legislators couldn’t find enough money for more than one month of gas tax relief for cash-strapped motorists, and they stubbornly refused again to expand Medicaid to help the uninsured.

The budget headed to DeSantis’ desk is stuffed with a record number of projects tailored to individual lawmakers’ districts — more than 1,200 projects in all worth $2.8 billion, according to the annual report on budget “turkeys” by Florida TaxWatch. That’s about twice as many member projects as are in the current budget, and as much as all total projects in the past five budgets combined, TaxWatch found.

The new budget includes a $106 million research park in Pasco County, the home of Senate President Wilton Simpson, and a $35 million sports complex in Pasco reported to be a future spring training home for the Tampa Bay Rays.

Other projects are of the brick-and-mortar variety, like a new $3.5 million police station in South Miami, or for an array of worthy human services such as $1 million for health care access for veterans at clinics run by Broward’s Nova Southeastern University.

The Nova project appears to be politically secure because its sponsor was Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., a Hialeah Republican who was just chosen by DeSantis as Florida’s new commissioner of education.

A chance to get even

Every project has a legislator’s name attached to it, and scores of other projects subject to the line-item veto are championed by Democratic lawmakers who also voted against his priorities, like a 15-week abortion ban, the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill, a new elections police force, a pathway to censorship of textbooks and library books and a racially gerrymandered congressional redistricting map that eliminates two Black access districts.

The line-item veto is DeSantis’ weapon to get even with those Democratic dissenters by punishing them and their constituents in their pocketbooks.

Broward projects in the budget include Huizenga Park in downtown Fort Lauderdale, at $950,000; an expanded forensic unit for the sheriff’s office at $505,000; and storm-water and drainage improvements in Melrose Manors ($1.1 million), Southwest Ranches ($793,000), Lauderdale-By-the-Sea ($512,000), Miramar ($500,000) and Davie’s Little Country Estates ($250,000).

Several Democratic lawmakers, outraged over the congressional map, staged a sit-in in the House on April 21 that briefly delayed floor votes. One protester was Rep. Yvonne Hinson of Gainesville, who supported a paramedic program in that city and an Alachua County health care project that are both in the budget. If either one is vetoed, will anyone wonder why?

According to a detailed House staff spreadsheet provided to the Sun Sentinel, the overwhelming majority of member projects were sponsored by Republicans, with $457 million out of $483 million, or an astounding 95% of the House total.

That level of imbalance is wrong in a House chamber where more than a third of Florida’s population lives in districts represented by Democrats. But it’s not surprising in this era of hyper-partisan, top-down Tallahassee governance.

To be sure, there’s waste in this budget. DeSantis has a duty to remove it, especially projects that escaped careful review or were inserted by a single powerful lawmaker.

But every one of his line-item rejects should be justified by sound policy, not politics. Dissent is essential in a democracy, especially with this governor.

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Miami Herald. May 6, 2022.

Editorial: Florida Republicans aren’t done targeting trans youth. Denying them care might be next

They should not be seen, heard or discussed in classrooms.

Florida is returning to a time when only the voices of a few mattered. Especially irrelevant — or, worse, threatening — to Republicans state leaders are transgender youth. The plan appears to be to shove them back into the closet where they won’t cause discomfort to conservative policymakers.

As Gov. Ron DeSantis scapegoats the LGBTQ community on his possible path to the White House, the infamous Florida parental rights law known as “Don’t say gay” and a transgender athlete ban were likely just the beginning.

Florida is among GOP-led states that have proposed or enacted a raft of measures to deny rights to LGBTQ people. There’s realistic fear that even same-sex marriage, guaranteed by a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, might be the next target of these states if the court overturns abortion rights under Roe v. Wade.

The Florida Department of Health last month issued recommendations against providing transition treatment to transgender teenagers, such as hormones and gender-affirming surgery, which is more typically done on adults. The guidance even advises against social transition, such as name, pronoun and clothing changes — the stuff that really irks conservatives.

The document seems more like a political stance than an attempt to protect youth. Withholding care can “prolong gender dysphoria and contribute to an appearance that could provoke abuse and stigmatization,” the World Professional Association for Transgender Health warns.

DOCTORS OPPOSE

A group of 300 health care providers signed an open letter in the Tampa Bay Times opposing the DOH’s position. Among them was former Florida Surgeon General and DOH head Scott Rivkees. Rivkees was apparently sidelined by DeSantis when he spoke in favor of masks and social distancing in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. His successor, Dr. Joseph Ladapo, has toed DeSantis’ anti-mask, vaccine-skeptic line.

The letter accused the DOH of cherry-picking studies on transgender care. For example, the agency states its guidance is in line with the recommendations by Sweden, Finland, the United Kingdom and France. But “none of these countries recommends against social gender transition, and all provide a path forward for patients in need of medical intervention,” the letter states.

Sweden this year published new recommendations that advise “restraint when it comes to hormone treatment,” citing lack of evidence on effects and safety. But it also says that treatment should be used “in cases where they are deemed justified” and that teens with gender dysphoria must be taken seriously and “offered adequate care measures.”

The decision to undergo treatment has life-changing impacts that young people cannot make alone. Parents, with medical advice, should have the ultimate say after knowing the risks and benefits. But the DOH leaves no room for such nuance and instead suggests an outright ban that smacks of grandstanding.

OUTLAWING CARE

Luckily, Florida’s misguided guidelines aren’t enforceable. But that might change with a bill Central Florida GOP Rep. Randy Fine said he will file next year to outlaw gender-affirming medications and surgery for minors.

Similar legislation has been filed in the past but didn’t advance. But times have changed. The Legislature has embraced a hard-right agenda in its past two sessions. For example, lawmakers fast-tracked the “Don’t say gay” law, which bans K-3 instructions on gender identity and sexual orientation, and limits on classroom discussions and workplace training on racism and sexism.

More than a dozen states are considering proposals to penalize healthcare providers for providing gender-affirming care, POLITICO reported. In a display of even greater cruelty, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott ordered child abuse investigations into parents who allow their children to obtain these potentially life-saving treatments.

It would be a waste of time to hope Republican leaders understand that being LGBTQ isn’t a “trend” or a “phase.” These adults would rather spend their political capital making children and teens feel inadequate in the hopes of drumming up votes.

They also appear to be ensuring the state remains in ignorance when it comes to the lives of the teens affected by their policies.

Florida has withdrawn its three-decade-long participation in the federal Youth Risk Behavior Survey. The confidential survey asks high-school students things like their sexual orientation, gender identity, sexual behavior, whether they use drugs, drink alcohol and milk, eat fast food and think about suicide. That data is used to learn what kind of physical and emotional problems threaten teenagers.

The Department of Education told the Herald Editorial Board it “withdrew from a federal grant we did not view as necessary to collect this information,” and “we will not stop collecting data.” The agency didn’t specify how it will do that. Our guess is that it will cater to the sensitivities of the adults in state leadership who don’t want to feel uneasy.

Lawmakers should quit legislating their discomfort. Transgender people aren’t a threat. The real threat comes from lawmakers with an ax to grind.

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