Editorial Roundup: Florida

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

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Aug. 12

The Palm Beach Post on reopening schools:

“Trust the science.” “Trust the data.” “Trust the health experts.”

It’s excellent advice. And yet, how often have our political leaders ignored it as they have balked at doing the difficult things needed to quell the deadly coronavirus pandemic that continues to rage in our country long after other advanced nations have tamped it down?

The question hits close to home, as none other than our own governor appears to have abandoned any real respect for science in his zeal to reopen Florida’s public schools.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has fully bought into the fable that schoolchildren face little risk from COVID-19 and don’t spread it to others. This, despite the fact that health experts say that children between the ages of 10 and 18 can infect others. And that some children do become seriously ill.

To bring that point home, there has been a 90% increase in the number of kids diagnosed with COVID-19 across the nation over the past four weeks. And on Tuesday, CNN reported that more than 900 students and faculty in one Georgia school district had to be quarantined after one week.

One Georgia school district reported at least 484 students and 21 staff had already been quarantined.

Despite this backdrop, DeSantis and state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran continue to twist the arms of school districts -- like Palm Beach and Hillsborough counties -- to offer in-person classes.

The governor is correct that “nothing’s risk-free in life.” But we need a higher standard when it comes to the health of our students and teachers. That’s why this decision should be made locally. With the help of local health directors.

DeSantis has made that a problem. On Sunday, The Post’s Andrew Marra laid out in detail how DeSantis, Corcoran and Surgeon General Dr. Scott Rivkees effectively gagged county health directors when it came to recommending whether or not to reopen the state’s public schools. Clearly, they meant to stifle any resistance to the governor’s stated agenda: reopen Florida’s “brick-and-mortar” school campuses to in-person learning in the fall. Period.

Indeed, so damning was Marra’s report that DeSantis unapologetically copped to the low-key directive and attempted to explain it away with semantics.

“It’s not up to the health department to say a yes or a no,” the governor said at a news conference in Orlando after Marra’s story was published online. “They inform the policymakers. They provide information. And they should absolutely do that. But to say they should be the ones that would have effectively veto power, that’s just not the way it works. It’s an advisory role.”

That’s a straw man argument. County health directors have always advised and, based on the science, offered their professional opinions. The final decision of what course of action to take is made by local officials after considering all of the ramifications — economic, political, etc.

As Marra noted: “Florida’s public schools have long depended on local health directors for recommendations on everything from reducing encephalitis risks at football games to how to test students during tuberculosis outbreaks.”

DeSantis and Corcoran created a maddening Catch-22 to drive their objectives. First, they said that schools could keep classrooms empty if that was the recommendation of the health department. Then, they prevented the health officials from making recommendations. It was a crafty piece of manipulation.

Obviously, the science weighed too heavily in favor of either delaying reopenings or continuing online instruction for many school districts. And so a finger on the scale was in order.

This is not the first time that DeSantis has been disingenuous or accused of cherry-picking COVID-19 data to serve his own political agenda. But this — directing the truth tellers to withhold any part of the truth — will likely have lasting damage to critically important relationships.

Imagine a cancer physician running a battery of tests, performing examinations and doing research before advising that you have pancreatic cancer. The physician then tells you they can not recommend a best course of treatment based on that data because their boss wants you back at work.

Health directors, like Palm Beach County’s Dr. Alina Alonso, find themselves in a very similar position. Alonso has become the first line of defense in the county’s battle against the coronavirus spread. The veteran of numerous past contagion battles, like many of her peers around the country, have taken on the role of lightning rod for much of the public and political angst. But her steady resolve, even in the face of vocal threats during the debate over a mandatory mask order, engendered a needed level of trust.

Small wonder, then, that Palm Beach County Schools officials would react so vehemently when Alonso declined to put her verbal concerns about restarting in-person classes into a written, formal recommendation. Appearing not to have the School Board’s back with one of the toughest decisions the panel will ever make is unlikely to be forgotten anytime soon.

It doesn’t matter whether fences were later mended. What matters is whether trust can be fully re-established going forward.

We rely on our county health directors to be straight-shooters — no-nonsense scientists who eschew the din of politics to follow the data, advise, then recommend.

It is a serious abuse of power when authorities — governors or otherwise — subvert that for their own ends.

Online: https://www.palmbeachpost.com/

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Aug. 10

The Orlando Sentinel on The Florida Agency for Health Care Administration awarding Deloitte a contract to build a Medicaid managing system:

What do you call someone who buys a clunker of a car, then returns to the same dealer to buy another one?

Foolish.

What do you call a state that buys a clunker of an unemployment computer system, then buys a Medicaid distribution system from the same company?

Florida.

The Florida Agency for Health Care Administration last week awarded a $110 million contract to Deloitte Consulting LLP to build a system that manages Medicaid data. Yes, that’s the same Deloitte that built the $77 million unemployment system that melted down during the coronavirus pandemic.

There’s a righteous and well-deserved backlash. It’s obvious Florida’s bid-procurement process needs an overhaul. At the very least, the state should stop awarding contracts to companies it is investigating for incompetence.

But amid the howls of protest over all things Deloitte, it would be nice if someone uttered words rarely heard in Tallahassee:

My fault.

You won’t hear it from Deloitte, which says it has always followed work orders from the state. You won’t hear it from Sen. Rick Scott, who got this Deloitte debacle rolling as part his crusade as governor to gut the state’s unemployment structure.

And you won’t hear it from current Gov. Ron DeSantis, who says he had nothing to do with Deloitte winning the Medicaid sweepstakes.

On that count, he is right. The governor is prohibited from getting involved in the awarding of state contracts. And there’s no evidence DeSantis put his thumb on the scale.

While there was no direct influence, DeSantis deserves no slack for his administration ignoring warnings that Deloitte’s CONNECT unemployment system was a disaster waiting to happen.

He’s gotten religion now — too late for Floridians victimized by the system’s meltdown.

“I think the goal was for whoever designed, it was, ‘Let’s put as many kind of pointless roadblocks along the way, so people just say, oh, the hell with it, I’m not going to do that,’” DeSantis said last week.

In other words, it was Scott’s fault. To which Scott said: “It’s a tough time to be governor. Some people are leaders. Some people take responsibility. Some people solve problems. And some people blame others.”

That was rich coming from a politician who never met a finger he didn’t like to point.

Scott has never accepted any role in the CONNECT fiasco, saying Deloitte was selected by Charlie Crist’s administration. But the contract was signed two months after Scott’s 2011 inauguration.

Things got so bad so fast that by the end of that year the Department of Economic Opportunity was threatening to fine Deloitte $15,000 a day if it didn’t fix the problems.

Scott fiddled as the unemployment system was set up to burn. And burn it did.

Now, Deloitte is a four-letter word to millions of Floridians. The state’s chief inspector general is probing the original contract. After that clunker, how can Deloitte get an even sweeter deal now?

“Bidding is an art,” Bob Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University, told the South Florida Sun Sentinel. “It is not a science.”

Five companies bid for the Medicaid contract, and Deloitte was one of two finalists. The process is designed to be objective, but let’s not kid ourselves. Connections, lobbying and politics have always played roles.

In 2013, the Department of Children and Families awarded Deloitte a $31 million contract despite rival firm Accenture making a bid that was $6 million cheaper. Coronavirus relief packages unleashed a flood of emergency no-bid contracts that went to politically connected companies.

One of the factors evaluators consider in awarding bids is a company’s past performance. It’s hard to imagine a worse performance than CONNECT’s when millions of unemployment claims flooded in.

Deloitte is one of the world’s largest accounting firms and contributes heavily to politicians of both parties. It is adept at the art of the procurement deal.

That doesn’t mean Deloitte did anything nefarious here. It doesn’t mean the company is incapable of building a functional data system.

It means that given the company’s history, Florida’s bidding system needs an overhaul. Maybe the application process needs to include a question as simple as: Are you currently being investigated by the state of Florida for botching a previous job for the state of Florida? Yes or No.

The Medicaid contract is not finalized. DeSantis has come out against it but cannot legally veto the deal.

He can further use his bully pulpit to pressure Deloitte into dropping out or at least offering iron-clad assurances the system won’t pull a CONNECT. Then he should call for a review of the state’s entire bid procurement process.

If nothing else, it would be a good public relations move. DeSantis and Scott are supposedly eyeing 2024 presidential runs. Hence the oblique jabs they’ve been throwing at each other over who bears responsibility for Florida’s 2020 unemployment nightmare.

We’d tell people to just kick back, get some popcorn and enjoy the Ron vs. Rick Show. But there is nothing entertaining about how we got to this point.

It’s ridiculous the state is compelled to do business with a company whose system failed so badly when so many Floridians needed help. Almost as ridiculous as the notion this whole unemployment debacle is nobody’s fault.

Online: https://www.orlandosentinel.com/

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Aug. 7

The Sun Sentinel on the unemployment system:

A leading Republican finally has told the truth about Florida’s unemployment system.

Gov. Ron DeSantis admitted to CBS 4′s Jim DeFede that GOP state legislators added “pointless roadblocks” and designed the system “to lead to the least number of claims being paid out.” Republicans hoped that laid-off workers would “just say, oh, the hell with it. I’m not going to do that.”

That system ranked among the nation’s worst even before the COVID-19 pandemic. When lockdowns came, however, the system collapsed.

Between mid-March and late July, Florida had to process roughly 3.1 million jobless claims. Last week, the financial website WalletHub ranked Florida last in terms of how state unemployment claims are recovering.

One change in that 2011 legislation prohibited unemployed workers from filing claims by mail. All had to come online. But most public libraries closed when the lockdowns began, thus depriving lower-income Floridians of free Internet access.

In addition, Florida’s weekly benefits — $275 — are among the lowest in the nation and last for only 12 weeks. As an official of the National Employment Law Project told the New York Times during the April surge, “Florida is a terrible state to be an unemployed person.”

Under DeSantis, the Department of Economic Opportunity hired more people to deal with the demand. He allowed submission of claims by mail. DeSantis also has repeatedly waived the requirements that, to receive benefits, unemployed Floridians must show that they have looked for work.

The system itself, however, remains. And Republicans still want to disown it.

As governor, Rick Scott signed the bill that created the system. He oversaw the botched rollout of the CONNECT website to apply for benefits.

After DeSantis’ comments, Scott blamed … well, not himself. He said of DeSantis, “It’s a tough time to be a governor. Some people are leaders. Some people take responsibility. Some people solve problems, and some people blame others.”

Scott obviously missed the irony.

The governor also has changed his tone. In May, he attempted to blame laid-off workers for filling out forms improperly. An audit last year gave the unemployment system its most recent dismal analysis. DeSantis told DeFede that the audit “never reached my desk.”

State Rep. Chip LaMarca, R-Lighthouse Point, also tried to rewrite history. In a Sun Sentinel op-ed, LaMarca claimed that the legislature changed the system “to help people get back to work after the 2008 recession.”

In fact, the change took place after the worst of the recession had passed. It happened because the Florida Chamber of Commerce and other business groups wanted the system to be terrible.

Those changes predated LaMarca. In the op-ed, he offers several helpful ideas.

The legislature, LaMarca said, should raise the unemployment benefit and extend it past 12 weeks. The system should be much more “accessible” and should allow laid-off workers to file claims using “any device.” The system should be more flexible and modern, to encompass self-employed gig workers, such as those who deliver groceries.

“Imagine,” LaMarca wrote, “if all 120 members of the Florida House of Representatives came together to address the problem and commit to changing how the system works?”

Great idea. At this point, however, imagining is all that anyone can do. Republicans have resisted calls from Democrats for a special session to address the unemployment system.

In response to LaMarca’s article, Rep. Carlos Smith, D-Winter Park, noted that LaMarca was among the Republicans who in May voted not to hold such a session. On the current timetable, Smith said, no changes could come until next March. Even if that happened, the changes wouldn’t take effect until next July.

Perhaps Republicans don’t want to call added attention to their terrible creation in an election year. Perhaps, like some of their colleagues in the U.S. Senate, they assume that the economy will recover fully this year and the crisis will end.

That idea is fanciful. Nationally, the rate of job growth has slowed. Though new unemployment claims in Florida declined for the third straight week, to roughly 74,000, that puts the state nothing close to normal. In early February, the weekly number was roughly 5,600 new claims.

Further, the biggest hit to travel employment in Florida still may be coming. In October, airlines can begin laying off workers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention extended the ban on cruise ships until Sept. 30 and ripped the industry for allowing the virus to spread.

And now, Florida is prepared to award a $110 million for the state’s Medicaid system to Deloitte — the company behind the CONNECT system that DeSantis called a “clunker.” His office said DeSantis can’t interfere in the contract, even though his office is investigating Deloitte regarding the unemployment contract.

Deloitte continues to defend its work, as does its team of lobbyists with connections to the governor. For example, that team of lobbyists, from the firm of GrayRobinson, includes Kim McDougal, who lobbies DeSantis on behalf of Deloitte and was also named by the governor to his Education and Workforce Development Transition Advisory Committee in 2018.

DeSantis said of negotiations in Washington over a new COVID-19 relief bill, “I haven’t been following what they’re doing.” To enlighten the governor, his GOP colleagues want to end or sharply reduce the $600 in added unemployment benefits that have propped up Florida.

The governor could have called for a special session months ago. If he is sincere in wanting to fix the unemployment system, he won’t wait for next year. Otherwise, he might as well say, the hell with it.

Online: https://www.sun-sentinel.com/opinion/editorials/