Editorial Roundup: Florida

Palm Beach Post. April 27, 2022.

Editorial: Florida’s shame and the war on Disney

And so, our governor manufactures yet another controversy out of whole cloth, or in this case out of big ears and a tail.

And again, the media dutifully cover it as an affront to decency and democracy, or, at Fox News, as a righteous battle for conservative (read 1950s) values.

Disney, one of the state’s biggest employers, brought this battle upon itself, state Rep. Randy Fine explained Saturday on Fox. The company, the rosy-cheeked Brevard Republican said, is a “houseguest” that insulted its host. That insult — begrudgingly standing up for LGBTQ equality on behalf of its employees — was so offensive that it gave Gov. Ron DeSantis the political support to stand up to Disney and revoke its special district status, Fine said.

It’s hard to say which is more offensive: this latest Disney animation; the ill-disguised racism and illegal partisan bias of the DeSantis’ redistricting maps; the state-sponsored attacks on corporations, city commissions and school boards that encourage anti-COVID safety measures; the state Health Department red-lining of prescription drugs that assist in gender transition; or, the bans on textbooks that allegedly put America’s racial friction in historical context — or that don’t even but the governor pretends they do.

More offensive still: the fact that DeSantis benefits from the media obligation to cover all the above, sustaining and perpetuating this parade of putrid state laws as it marches into the national spotlight. Not to mention, he benefits in a calculated way from the attention the universal popularity of the Disney brand brings him, even as he puts his sword to Pegasus’ heart.

Is there not real work to be done here?

Is Florida doing everything it can to counter the effects of climate change, for example? Or, are we slow-walking solar power conversion, stalling construction standard upgrades and shrinking Everglades replumbing projects?

Are we cleaning our springs, rivers, lakes and atmosphere, or decimating environmental enforcement and letting cane growers blacken our skies with open fires for a few more pennies on a bag of sugar?

Are we empowering teachers, public schools and universities, or subjecting them to book-burning virtue posses?

Are we keeping our communities safer by adopting even the mildest of gun regulations?

Are we propelling innovative mass transit, or just building more houses and office towers without a way to get from one to the other?

As communities across Florida grapple with a paucity of affordable housing, while workers struggle with rent, children and families sleep in cars and mentally troubled individuals pass their lives on sidewalks, where are our Governor and Legislature?

They’ve been out chasing Mickey Mouse with a broom over LGBTQ+ tolerance, hassling the cruise industry over COVID vaccination policy, remapping legislative districts to perpetuate white Republican rule against the threat of an ever-more-diverse state.

On the Disney score, why haven’t chambers of commerce and industry associations done more to protect Florida businesses from the governor’s scare tactics? The one time their old rallying cry of laissez-faire would make sense, they’re nowhere to be found.

While there’s no reason the state shouldn’t review operating agreements it has with corporations to make sure taxpayers get optimal advantage, this latest, impetuous declaration came at a moment’s notice, with no thought or study aforehand.

What great flaw in Disney’s municipal oversight of its expansive site since 1967 demanded this upheaval? What great damage is done to Florida by letting Disney’s special district run a fire department, contract for police protection and provide other city services over its 39 square miles?

Are Osceola and Orange counties prepared to assume that responsibility? Did anyone in the DeSantis Administration study the numbers before lighting this fuse? Some say the state could be stuck with some $2 billion or more in assuming Disney debt; others say taxpayers of those two Central Florida counties could see their tax bills soar.

What responsible state government does business like this?

Above all, let’s not forget the sentiment at the heart of this action: The new Florida law that treats anyone who isn’t heterosexual as an aberrant from whom we need to protect our children. If you’re a Florida Republican, is that really what you stand for? If you don’t, how long will you sit back quietly and let this governor speak for you?

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Tampa Bay Times. May 3, 2022.

Editorial: Here’s one way Floridians could protect abortion rights

With Roe v. Wade in jeopardy, abortions are likely to become more difficult to get in Florida.

The Supreme Court appears poised to overturn Roe v. Wade and end a half century of abortion rights in the United States, according to a draft opinion leaked Monday. Roe and later cases affirmed a woman’s right to control her own body and have an abortion up to the viability of the fetus. If Roe is overturned, the right to abortion will become an issue for elected politicians, either in Congress or, more likely, the states. That will create a patchwork across the nation where some states have liberal abortion laws, even more expansive than Roe’s guidelines — and others, perhaps a majority, will effectively ban abortion altogether. That’s the reality.

What about Florida? Gov. Ron DeSantis has already signed a bill that bans most abortions after 15 weeks, and the Republican-dominated Legislature won’t likely stop there. A total ban — or nearly — is easy to imagine. One counter measure is the ballot box. Elect representatives who support a woman’s right to choose. But the Republican stranglehold on power in Tallahassee makes that unlikely.

A majority of Floridians support abortion rights. A Pew poll found that 56 percent of Floridians believe abortion should be legal in most cases. A University of North Florida survey from earlier this year found that 54 percent strongly or somewhat disapproved of banning abortions at 15 weeks. That number would likely — and should — grow if the state contemplated banning all abortions. The right to control your own body is a fundamental human right, one that shouldn’t be subject to political impulse.

So what to do? One possibility is to amend the state Constitution. Legislators won’t protect a woman’s right to choose, so citizens can put a question on the ballot to enshrine the right in the Constitution. The state Constitution already says, “All natural persons, female and male alike, are equal before the law and have inalienable rights, among which are the right to enjoy and defend life and liberty, to pursue happiness, to be rewarded for industry, and to acquire, possess and protect property.” Many details would need to be worked out, but an amendment could specify that one of those inalienable rights is control of one’s body, the ability to obtain an abortion.

Changing the Constitution won’t be easy. Abortion foes will fight hard against such a move. Even if the question get on a ballot and then receives the 60 percent of the vote needed to pass, some Republican lawmakers would find ways to water it down, as they have with other successful citizen amendment petitions they didn’t like.

The Constitution shouldn’t be amended willy-nilly. But voters in recent years have agreed that felons should regain the right to vote, a fundamental right in a democracy. They also voted to raise the state minimum wage to $15, which many of their own elected leaders would not have supported. Sometimes the will of the people differs from the very people they elect to represent them. And sometimes, voters can take for granted the rights they have — two-thirds of Americans alive today have never lived in a world without Roe.

If the Supreme Court overturns Roe, 26 states including Florida are certain or likely to ban abortion, according to the pro-abortion rights think tank the Guttmacher Institute. North Carolina would likely be the closest state to Florida where abortion would still be legal. Currently a woman in Florida drives fewer than 16 miles on average to find an abortion provider. A ban would push the average distance to 583 miles, according to Guttmacher.

There are 4.6 million women of reproductive age in Florida, and the state reported 79,648 abortions last year. The number of abortions in Florida peaked more than 15 years ago, and the national rate has been trending downward for years, good news no matter how anyone views abortion. In the best of worlds, abortions would be legal and available but rare. And “legal” should not depend on who won the last election.

But this is not about numbers or distances. It is about basic rights. It is appropriate to amend the state Constitution to enumerate human rights, and a woman’s right to control her own body fits that definition. Having an abortion is one of the most difficult decisions a woman can make. But it is her choice, not the state’s. State lawmakers should protect, not endanger, this right. If they won’t, the people should do it themselves.

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Orlando Sentinel. May 1, 2022.

Editorial: How Florida can win the battle of Reedy Creek

It’s been nearly two weeks since House and Senate Republicans were goaded into attacking Walt Disney World, the state’s most iconic employer.

Since then, we suspect many have come to regret the mess they stumbled into, and its potential to leave taxpayers on the hook for hundreds of millions in debt and operational costs. Even those who feel those dangers are unrealistic — such as Sen. Jason Brodeur, R-Altamonte Springs — should welcome the chance to nail down the facts.

It’s past time for a hard look at the 50-year-old decision that gave a corporation the power of a government. But first, the Legislature should retract the precipitous leap it’s already taken, gather the information it needs to make the right decisions, and give everyone involved a chance to talk.

For the corporate lions watching with fascinated horror as the nation’s third-largest state attacks one of the pillars of its economy, GOP legislators could signal that Florida has not completely lost its mind. They can prove that our Republicans are still capable of behaving like …. well, Republicans, instead of bomb-lobbing culture warriors.

Stampeded in the dark

Legislators were already in Tallahassee April 19 to do Gov. Ron DeSantis’ bidding by adopting his version of a congressional redistricting map. At 10 a.m., DeSantis announced that he was sending lawmakers two new pieces of legislation, and it quickly became apparent that the governor was targeting Disney. The governor was theatrically angry over Disney’s criticism (albeit late, and relatively tepid) of two bills that weaponize racism and homophobia. DeSantis may have been more genuinely enraged with the company’s decision to shut the tap on campaign donations, which had heavily favored Florida Republicans.

One of DeSantis’ bills was easy to understand: It yanked back a legislative gift the Legislature had crafted at Disney’s behest just a year before, written to protect the company from a silly, and most likely unconstitutional, law aimed at punishing social media for censoring political content.

The other looked simple, as well. It abolished a handful of special districts around the state as of June 2023. Most were inconsequential. One was not.

The Legislature created the Reedy Creek Improvement District in 1967, as Disney was unveiling its plans for a major tourist attraction west of Orlando. Lawmakers granted the district nearly all the powers of a city, and gave it triple the taxing authority. That let Disney build its own roads, utilities and other infrastructure, as well as approve its own building permits and do its own inspections. Lawmakers created two cities at Disney’s behest, as well: Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista. All three entities were set up in a way that gave Disney near-total control.

The district spans 25,000 acres — most of it owned by Disney, but about a third by the district itself — in Orange and Osceola counties. It has nearly 300 employees, including a 220-person fire department. It levies $164 million a year in property taxes, mostly paid by Disney. And it owes about $1 billion in municipal bonds, some of it secured by utility proceeds but most borrowed against the property-tax revenue that will soon be going away.

The truth comes out

That was the first rude shock for lawmakers, who didn’t realize that the terms of Reedy Creek’s bonds appear to hold the state responsible if the district is dissolved. Many were probably also surprised to learn that Disney was voluntarily paying a much higher tax rate than it would have if the district didn’t exist. They heard from local experts who said that much of the burden for maintaining the infrastructure around the theme parks and resorts could fall to taxpayers in Orange County. None of this was mentioned in the staff analysis of the legislation (SB 4-C) DeSantis sent lawmakers. Committee hearings were truncated, and the House and Senate sponsors couldn’t answer important questions about the implications of their own legislation.

This is why Florida’s GOP legislators should be angry. DeSantis, out for revenge, sent lawmakers to attack one of Florida’s most significant corporations — but they went into battle blindfolded.

There’s a way out of this mess, and it’s hidden in a failed amendment that would put the dissolution of the Reedy Creek district on hold. Lawmakers should commission the state Office of Program Policy Analysis and Governmental Accountability to review the district’s operations, authority and finances. They can order a report by December that could help the Legislature carefully evaluate the wisdom of giving one company so much power.

That’s the best call. We’ve always been uneasy about the scope of Reedy Creek’s authority. It’s likely that a careful examination would reveal areas where the district (and Disney) has far too much power. It might even lead to the conclusion that the district does need to be dissolved — but carefully, in a way that does not rebound on taxpayers.

Unfortunately, DeSantis is likely to push legislators in the opposite direction. He’s suggested the Legislature create a new district — one that would force Disney to pay more taxes. And who would appoint the new district’s board? DeSantis says “the state,” and by now it’s clear what he means. In his mind, DeSantis is the state — Florida’s own Sun King.

Lawmakers have a choice. They can continue to dance at the governor’s bidding. Or they can stand up for the Florida Constitution and its separation of powers. For rational debate that takes this decision seriously, as it deserves to be. For the people of the state of Florida. For their own dignity. We think the choice is clear. We hope lawmakers and Floridians agree.

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South Florida Sun Sentinel. April 29, 2022.

Editorial: A net gain for consumers as DeSantis saves rooftop solar

Gov. Ron DeSantis does things on his terms, as Floridians know all too well. And every so often, the result is positive for the people of this state.

That’s definitely the case with DeSantis’ decision to veto a bill that would have decimated Florida’s rooftop solar energy industry. To the pleasant surprise of many, he vetoed HB 741, which was championed by the behemoth utility Florida Power & Light, among others, and enjoyed overwhelming support of Republican members of the Legislature — and, sadly, too many Democrats.

In a brief veto message, DeSantis did not directly address the pros and cons of the program known as net metering. Rather, he justified the veto on the grounds that inflation is out of control and that the bill would have allowed public utilities to reach into consumers’ pockets yet again and impose higher fees to recover revenues lost to homegrown solar systems on residential rooftops.

Those new charges, the governor wrote, would be “speculative and would be borne by all customers.”

“Given that the United States is experiencing its worst inflation in 40 years and that consumers have seen steep increases in the price of gas and groceries, as well as escalating bills, the state of Florida should not contribute to the financial crunch that our citizens are experiencing,” DeSantis wrote.

Opponents warned that the bill would have crippled a growing rooftop solar industry and eliminated tens of thousands of jobs. The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy called it an attack on “energy freedom” for 8 million customers that would have led to higher utility bills.

“No monopoly utility owns the sun,” the group said.

The right decision

The veto message’s reference to inflation sounded like more backhanded criticism of President Joe Biden, and DeSantis missed a golden opportunity to state the case for energy independence. But regardless of his reasoning, the veto was the right decision.

The initial version of this bill was drafted by a lobbyist for FPL, as The Miami Herald first reported. It was another example of the outrageous level of access that rich and powerful special interests have to the levers of power in Tallahassee — in this case, the largest investor-owned utility in the state.

Some readers fault this newspaper for being excessively critical of DeSantis and his policies that are divisive, nakedly partisan and bad for the state. Whether readers approve or not, we will continue to call them as we see them.

But when DeSantis is right, we will say that, too, as he was in this case. Thousands of people flooded the governor’s office with calls for a veto, and this gives Floridians a ray of hope that someone in the Capitol is still listening.

FPL issued a statement after the veto that said: “We remain committed to finding a more equitable net metering solution for all Floridians. FPL is leading the nation’s largest solar expansion and we will continue to advance solar that is cost-effective for all our customers.”

After numerous public hearings and despite a huge outcry from consumers and environmental groups, the bill passed the Senate, 24-15, and the House, 83-31. At a hearing in February, dozens of people were denied the right to testify after driving long distances to Tallahassee.

South Florida voters should take special note of the fact that 13 Democratic legislators were on the wrong side of this attack against Florida consumers and energy independence.

Remember how they voted

Democrats who voted for this bill and who are seeking re-election in November included Sen. Bobby Powell of West Palm Beach and Reps. Joe Casello of Boynton Beach, Michael Gottlieb of Davie, Anika Omphroy of Lauderdale Lakes and David Silvers of Lake Clarke Shores, according to roll call votes online.

Broward’s lone Republican legislator, Rep. Chip LaMarca of Lighthouse Point, also voted yes.

Hold these elected officials accountable for siding with FPL over their own constituents. Remember how each of them voted when they ask for your vote this fall and tell you they’re on the side of working Florida families.

When it really mattered, it turned out that Democrats could rely more on a Republican governor than some of their own party’s leaders. The governor trusted his instincts, and he was right.

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Gainesville Sun. April 29, 2022.

Editorial: Push back against political interference at UF by Gov. DeSantis

University of Florida alumni and students need to push back against political interference in university operations if they want to protect the value of their degrees.

UF’s spring commencement ceremonies mark the end of an academic year in which university administrators repeatedly bowed to political pressure from Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Republican-controlled Legislature. UF’s independence and the academic freedom of its faculty have suffered as a result, hurting the university’s reputation right after it had been ranked among the top schools in the U.S.

UF is now being sued by professors and its accreditation is being reviewed, for banning faculty from testifying in court against laws backed by DeSantis and GOP legislators. UF officials have also succumbed to political interference in other ways, such as fast-tracking the hiring of COVID-19 skeptic Joseph Ladapo as a professor to pave the way for DeSantis to appoint him as Florida’s surgeon general.

Voting charges against Alachua County inmates show system designed to fail

DeSantis made clear his intent to continue strong-arming the state’s colleges and universities by recently signing SB 7044 into law. The measure forces state colleges and universities to periodically change accreditors and requires the tenure of professors to be reviewed every five years.

At a bill-signing ceremony in The Villages, DeSantis declared that professors need to be held accountable while also bragging about the quality of Florida’s higher education system.

“University of Florida is ranked No. 5 amongst top public universities in the entire country and many of our other universities have improved dramatically, so we’re proud of that and I can promise we can keep that going,” he said.

The law and other moves by DeSantis are more likely to have the opposite effect. U.S. News and World Report ranked UF among the nation’s top five public universities for the first time last fall. But the ranking is based in part on surveys of UF’s reputation, which DeSantis has damaged.

The new law will further impede the free speech rights and academic freedom of faculty, eroding tenure’s protections against them being fired if they do or say something that upsets state officials. The measure will only serve to scare away top-notch faculty, undermining a hiring push that helped boost UF’s ranking.

DeSantis used the bill-signing event to make another announcement, which showed that he won’t hesitate to torch a major Florida institution’s reputation if it helps him politically as he pursues reelection and possibly the presidency. DeSantis announced his intent to eliminate laws benefiting the Walt Disney Co., whose officials had criticized the “Don’t Say Gay” bill that the governor signed into law.

By going after Disney, which has long been Florida’s sacred mouse, DeSantis demonstrated he would likely do the same with the Gators if UF fails to follow the Republican Party line. The governor fails to see the contradiction as he criticizes UF and other state schools for supposedly forcing leftist beliefs on students.

A state-mandated survey of campus political beliefs was distributed this spring, with the results slated to be released in the fall just as DeSantis’ reelection campaign will be heating up. He previously threatened to cut the funding of schools found to be “indoctrinating” students.

With UF President Kent Fuchs stepping down from the job, the search for his successor will provide another test of whether political pressure dictates university decisions. UF’s independence will take another hit if DeSantis forces UF to hire a far-right ideologue such as outgoing Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran into the position.

All of these efforts will further damage the ranking and reputation of UF and other state schools. UF students who are receiving degrees this spring, along with alumni who have already earned degrees and students working to do so, must speak out to protect the value of their diplomas. Let DeSantis know that he’ll lose your vote if he continues to trash UF’s reputation to further his political ambitions.

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