Editorial Roundup: Florida

South Florida Sun Sentinel. November 18, 2021.

Editorial: Three days in Tallahassee we could easily have lived without

The show’s over.

It was brief, three days. The plot was predictable. It played to a near-empty house with as little dissent and disagreement as possible — just the way Gov. Ron DeSantis likes it.

At this week’s special session of the Florida Legislature, every Republican, and too many Democrats, became handmaidens of the governor’s escalation of public health risks by restricting vaccine and mask mandates in a state where nearly 61,000 people have died of COVID-19.

This rush job by DeSantis and fellow Republicans had two missions: to demonize President Joe Biden’s federal vaccine mandate and promote DeSantis as the nation’s No. 1 vaccine critic. The result pushes Florida further to the extreme edge of anti-vaccine hysteria. Doesn’t that make you proud to be a Floridian?

New laws will restrict businesses and school districts from controlling the virus with mask or vaccine mandates; allow the governor to create a costly new agency to replace federal oversight of worker safety; and placate corporations with an overly broad public records loophole that keeps secret all employee complaints and state investigations of vaccine mandate restrictions. DeSantis & Co. don’t want your doctor to require his staff members to be vaccinated, and your favorite restaurant could be a hotbed of COVID complaints — you’ll never know.

The only suspense this scripted show provided was on the open records bill (HB 3B). That was a disappointment, too. Senate Democrats could have prevented its passage and derailed DeSantis’ dangerous agenda by sticking together and blocking the required two-thirds vote that applies to any new public records exemption. But the fractured minority party’s internal dissension got in the way.

Four Democratic senators missed the key vote, and those absences gave the Republicans the cushion they needed. The result: more points on the board for DeSantis.

The official roll call vote tells the story: Senators Loranne Ausley of Tallahassee, Lauren Book of Plantation, Randolph Bracy of Orlando and Bobby Powell of West Palm Beach all let down their many Democratic constituents by not voting.

All four were DeSantis enablers who missed an opportunity to impede the sad, continued erosion of Florida’s public records laws.

If all four of those Democrats voted against the public records loophole, they would have killed a bill that the First Amendment Foundation calls overly broad and likely unconstitutional. But their inaction helped preserve a perfect 4-for-4 score for DeSantis on bills passed in the special session.

He took the first of many victory laps Thursday by signing the bills into law at a suburban Tampa car dealership. The cheering section included Attorney General Ashley Moody, who must enforce the new mandate ban, and Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo, who must quickly write new emergency rules to enforce the new laws.

“You control your body,” Ladapo told the crowd. “It is your body. God gave it to you. It’s your body.” (Remember those words when the 2022 regular legislative session begins in January and DeSantis pushes for new abortion restrictions).

The event came the day after DeSantis attended a Fox Nation Patriot Awards event at Seminole Hard Rock in Hollywood, where guests were required to show proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test.

At Thursday’s event, DeSantis trafficked in more disinformation, telling a TV audience: “COVID vaxxes are not preventing infections, OK? It’s just not,” citing the case rate on the island of Gibraltar in the Mediterranean. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control begs to differ and says vaccines save lives.

On the day the session ended, Disney, the state’s most iconic corporate name, announced a mandatory vaccination requirement for cruise ship passengers as young as age 5.

DeSantis is flat-out wrong and irresponsible about the effectiveness of vaccines. He should be traveling to all corners of the state, using all of his political capital to emphasize the virtues of a safe and historic scientific breakthrough that allows most of us to stay alive.

Instead, DeSantis has now become the nation’s most visible and powerful vaccine resister, railing against “jabs” and “forced injections,” and using Floridians as political pawns to pander to Republican voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and other early-voting states in the next race for the White House.

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Tampa Bay Times. November 23, 2021.

Editorial: State needs to use caution with Tampa Bay foster care

Don’t let the debate over child services, resources and governance fall victim to a rush job.

The Florida Department of Children and Families is expected any day now to choose a new provider to run foster care services in Pinellas and Pasco counties. The state is up against a deadline, which is fueling a sense of urgency. But this decision is being rushed, and important considerations are being marginalized or ignored. The state needs to slow this process down, open it up and answer some straightforward questions about how a new provider would be an improvement.

The state announced Nov. 1 that it would not renew Eckerd Connects’ contract after receiving reports from Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri that a child was injured and another overdosed while they were staying overnight in an unlicensed agency office. The Clearwater nonprofit has faced criticism for a handful of high-profile deaths of children under its watch and struggled to find long-term placements for teenagers.

Last week, the department heard presentations from three bidders hoping to succeed Eckerd Connects. The agency’s contract was set to expire Dec. 31, leaving the state little time to make a transition. But the emergency bidding process is raising questions of its own and putting key issues at risk of being lost in the haste.

Child welfare advocates are rightly alarmed the state will award a long-term contract without adequately vetting the bidders or soliciting public input. To that end, the department sent exactly the wrong message by fast-tracking this selection process under a shroud of secrecy. DCF did not release the names of the bidders, which the Tampa Bay Times requested under Florida’s public records law. The Times independently verified the three agencies that made presentations last week, and none is local. Only one bidder has proximate geographical ties to the Tampa Bay area, given its operation in Hernando County.

The state needs to slow the rush job, open up about the applicants’ strengths and weaknesses and address what meaningful role this community will have in managing its foster population. Several immediate questions come to mind:

What new strategy will the state and the new provider bring to the table? Is this a question of resources, provider competence or both? Will the state increase its financial support for foster services here?

Is there something unique to Tampa Bay that explains its nagging problems with foster care? What strategies will the provider pursue to increase the availability of foster homes and improved security?

Will the new provider create a board of area community leaders? Any outside agency needs a sounding board, and residents here deserve a say in caring for the foster population. What guarantee is there that local voices will be heard?

Should the state rethink its policy of decentralizing foster services? After two decades of privatization, serious gaps still exist, both in delivering services and holding providers responsible for their part. Are there too many moving parts?

Everyone knows the clock is running. But the goal here it not merely to find a replacement, but to address where and how Eckerd Connects fell short, and to draw clearer lines of responsibility for private and government providers alike. That’s a conversation for the entire community, which has an enormous stake in protecting its children, one of the most core functions of government at every level.

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Palm Beach Post. November 19, 2021.

Editorial: Planes, trains and electric automobiles; Infrastructure law holds promise for Florida

It will get harder, in days ahead, to deny the power of government working for the common good.

As money approved by Congress for road, bridge and rail projects transits through Tallahassee to counties throughout Florida, we will see results cast in concrete and steel, of months of political debate. Not only will these infrastructure repairs smooth our daily rides and make our families safer but they will drive our economy, already revving its way out of the pandemic, to new heights.

Thanks to a foundation fortified during the Obama years to lift us out of deep recession, and to injections of stimulus cash that a Democratic-majority in Congress approved in the early months of the pandemic, unemployment rates are near historic lows and Wall Street is confident enough in the nation’s corporate growth that market indices are near historic highs.

While the troubling gap between poor and rich has continued to widen, many millions in the workforce have seen tax-deferred retirement plans soar over these past couple of years. In a sign of broad-based economic improvement, the markets have climbed steeply and steadily despite the onset of a viral siege that has taken a dozen times more American lives in less than two years than the Vietnam War did in 20. The infrastructure projects will provide more jobs and bolster the economy even more, while preparing the nation for its future.

U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, in a conversation last week after Congress approved the Infrastructure Bill, told the Editorial Board of The Palm Beach Post that the package will include $19 billion worth of projects, including: $13.1 billion for federal highways; $2.6 billion for public transportation; $1.6 billion for clean water projects; $1.2 billion for airports; $245 million for bridge replacement and repairs; $198 million for electric vehicle charging stations; $100 million to expand high-speed internet access; $29 million to guard against cyber attacks; and $26 million for wildfire protection.

Florida also can apply for $1 billion in competitive grants, for Army Corps of Engineers projects such as port-dredging; electric vehicle infrastructure; zero-emission buses; rail safety; electric grid resiliency and upgrades; energy cybersecurity; and flood mitigation measures.

President Joe Biden continues to hold out a hand to bipartisan participation, only to have it slapped away reflexively, by the GOP in Washington and self-promoting state-level Republicans, Gov. Ron DeSantis loudly among them.

“It’s not easy making a sausage,” as Frankel put it, referring to internal Democratic disagreements as much as the standoff with Republicans in lockstep legislative opposition. “It’s like we’re being punished for trying to do the right thing.”

Other than Democrats, American voters have only 13 Republican representatives to thank for the infrastructure bill. And those 13 now face the loss of committee assignments, retribution from a party whose culture favors political warfare over doing the right thing for constituents.

Frankel noted that Florida’s Republican senators, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, voted against the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, as they had against the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan before it, the economic stimulus bill that powered the economy forward through the pandemic early on. They’ve also fought against the Affordable Care Act every chance they could, leaving an estimated 2.8 million Floridians without health insurance.

Gov. DeSantis boasts of a $7.5 million state road project near Tampa while dissing the $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan as “pork barrel spending, from what I could tell.” One can only hope his administration will direct the federal money it gets to the purposes for which it was designated.

Frankel assured those concerned about the trillions the government is spending that the bills will pay for themselves, through a combination of increased taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals. On that score, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office is assessing the Build Back Better plan before it comes up for a vote.

That transformative plan, which would bolster the working classes with help for pre-k education and childcare, among many other social benefits, presents Republicans with a chance to redeem themselves, rather than just take credit for the projects they opposed. Sadly, in recent years integrity has not been a hallmark of the GOP, once God-fearing, now just Trump-cowering. There’s no reason to expect more from the family values party in months ahead.

As 2022 and 2024 approach, American citizens, who in recent years have favored Democratic presidential candidates by millions of votes, would do well to remember how well they’re being served and which party truly is working for equity for the common man and woman.

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Orlando Sentinel. November 24, 2021.

Editorial: Must we even say this? Florida should not have white supremacists guarding prisoners

Florida has a white supremacy problem in its prisons, and no one in authority seems to think that’s a big deal.

An Associated Press investigation published last week described the state’s refusal to investigate credible allegations of two beatings of Black inmates, even though an inmate’s complaint noted the names, times, dates and locations of two separate beatings of Black prisoners by white prison guards with white supremacist sympathies. The alleged beatings even took place in areas with surveillance video.

But a Florida Department of Corrections spokeswoman told The AP its inspector general’s office didn’t investigate, and offered no additional explanation. The prison bosses couldn’t just go take a look at the video?

Shades of another AP report several years ago, describing in detail a murder plot directed at a former Black inmate by guards — Ku Klux Klansmen — working in the Florida prison system.

Once again, the DOC displayed no curiosity about whether it employed other guards who were either Klansmen or were involved in other white supremacy groups. They wanted no part of it.

Florida law enforcement’s flirtation with white supremacy in recent years is nothing new.

The tiny Lake County city of Fruitland Park found out a few years ago that two of its cops belonged to the Klan.

The Lake County Sheriff’s Office was one of a handful of agencies across the nation whose deputies were busted in 2019 by a watchdog group for posting racist content on Facebook, among other wildly inappropriate material.

Most recently, several arrests stemming from the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection — whose ranks were shot through with white supremacists — involved current or former Central Florida cops, as well as the spouses of other cops.

Last week’s AP investigation, citing interviews and documents, showed that Florida’s prison guards sometimes make no effort to hide their affiliation with white supremacist groups, even boasting of their affiliations.

None of this is OK, especially considering 40% of Florida’s prison population is Black. But you wouldn’t know it from the reaction of administrators, who seem intent on turning a blind eye. It may be they don’t care, or it may be an ongoing staffing crisis has them lowering standards for who gets hired.

One former guard who was harassed and intimated because he kept reporting brutality against inmates told the AP, “If you have a heartbeat, a GED and no felony conviction you can get a job.”

Top lawmakers and Gov. Ron DeSantis also seem unconcerned with prison guards showing up at a Klan meeting now and then. At least, they’re not saying so publicly.

Senate President Wilton Simpson went off on the DOC recently, saying there was a “leadership crisis at the top.” He was talking about staffing, though, not allegations of white supremacists guarding Black inmates in prisons.

On the leadership front, Gov. Ron DeSantis recently replaced Corrections Secretary Mark Inch, who is retiring, with longtime DOC administrator Ricky Dixon. Normally, we might view a replacement as a possible moment for change, considering we’re unable to see where Inch had given the problem of racist guards much thought.

But Dixon’s been with the DOC for more than two decades, and for the last three he’s been Inch’s top deputy. Based on that, we’re unable to find much room for hope that Dixon will create a new atmosphere of intolerance for white supremacist sentiment in his department. This is one time we would love to be proved wrong.

The plain truth is that corrosive beliefs about race, while plentiful in Florida, aren’t on DeSantis’ radar. Well, except to the extent that he’s doesn’t like Black Lives Matter protests or critical race theory. But when it comes to Klansmen with badges … crickets.

In other words, there’s not much political incentive for Dixon to make racism in the prison system a priority if it’s not a priority of his boss.

One encouraging note: Lawmakers are talking about paying guards a better wage, which — while it may not be their intent — might allow the prison system to weed out applicants to would come to work in white hoods if they had their way.

Prison guards in Florida have one of the toughest jobs in the nation. They face the daily threat of violence from people whose crimes have shown them fully capable of such acts. Their pay is horrible. Embarrassing.

They deserve better pay and better working conditions.

But even with that, the rot inside Florida’s corrections system isn’t going away until those in charge make it known they won’t tolerate hate and bigotry inside prison walls.

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Miami Herald. November 21, 2021.

Editorial: A judge called Florida’s gaming deal a ‘fiction.’ Finally, someone speaks the truth

The federal judge in Washington, D.C., who tossed out the Seminole Tribe gambling deal in Florida late Monday, said it was built on a “fiction.”

Boy, was she right.

The gambling “compact,” crafted by Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Tribe — and approved by a roll-over Legislature last spring — was based on Florida’s nonsensical claim that the online sports betting it authorized was actually occurring on Indian lands by having all bets go through a server on tribal property. Lawmakers obviously chose the wording in the hope of getting around a 2018 constitutional amendment that says only voters can expand casino gambling in the state.

The judge saw right through them.

“When a federal statute authorizes an activity only at specific locations, parties may not evade that limitation by ‘deeming’ their activity to occur where it, as a factual matter, does not,” Judge Dabney L. Friedrich wrote. The court, she added, “cannot accept that fiction.”

In other words, no matter how the lawyers dressed up that idea, it was actually a whole lot of hooey. Illegal, in fact. We couldn’t agree more.

The ruling was a refreshing burst of truth — refreshing because we’ve become so accustomed to ridiculous lies that a child could see through being repeated as truth by our leaders. Donald Trump is the chief practitioner of this, by continuing to claim without any basis in reality that he won the 2020 election, and Florida Gov. DeSantis has learned at his feet, encouraging anti-vaxxers and claiming Florida is “doing great” while gazing fixedly past the more than 61,000 COVID dead on his watch.

Friedrich’s common-sense words amount to a ringing condemnation of the make-believe that DeSantis and company tried to pass off as valid here in Florida. Not only did she toss out the new deal, she told them the only real cure is to go back to the old gambling deal that Florida had with the Seminole Tribe from 2010.

She also noted that a citizens’ initiative might work, if voters — not lawmakers — really want to have sports betting across the state. Republicans, by the way, have repeatedly tried to make it harder for citizens to change the state Constitution through petition drives.

The decision is a big, public smackdown for DeSantis and the Legislature. And it’s a long-sought win for our community. Miami businessmen Armando Codina and Norman Braman, the No Casinos group and the owners of Magic City Casino and Bonita Springs Poker Room filed a number of separate lawsuits accusing the federal government of improperly approving the gaming compact in violation of federal Indian gaming law.

It’s also a victory for the truth.

Our governor and legislators tried to pretend that placing a bet from your couch in Miami is the same thing as placing a bet at the Hard Rock Casino many miles away. It’s not, but it took a federal judge to put a stop to such nonsense.

She called it “a fiction.” We call it by something a bit plainer: a lie.

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