Editorial Roundup: Florida

Orlando Sentinel. May 1, 2024.

Editorial: Florida should find better ways to stop financial abuse

In the right hands, a power of attorney can make it much easier to manage the finances of someone who can’t make their own decisions, or ensure they get the health care they need.

But too often, these powerful documents fall into what turn out to be the wrong hands — sometimes strangers, sometimes family or friends. That can result in shocking financial abuse, particularly for vulnerable people who lack close connections to provide oversight. Orlando residents are watching this narrative play out in the case against City Commissioner Regina Hill, who has been indicted on seven felony charges related to allegations that she abused a power of attorney that gave her control of a 96-year-old constituent’s finances. Prosecutors say Hill used that power in suspicious real-estate transactions, and to drain $100,000 from the woman’s bank accounts, spending the money on a hotel stay, vitamin injections, plastic surgery and other purchases. Hill (who has been suspended from office) maintains her innocence — and may yet be acquitted. But this story is shining a light on the inadequacies in Florida’s elder-protection laws.

Easy and dangerous

Florida recognizes different types of power of attorney — or POA — contracts. They can grant a limited range of powers or extend over the entire range of a person’s finances. Some expire after a specific amount of time or when certain conditions are met. But others —so-called “durable” power of attorney — don’t expire unless they are canceled by the grantor. Florida also allows for medical power of attorney grants, which give power over health-care decisions to someone else if the grantor can’t make their own decisions.

The thing POAs have in common is this: They are very easy to execute, using standard language found on the internet, and can take force with the notarized signatures of two witnesses. And they can be nearly impossible to challenge if the grantor can’t make their own decisions. Unlike guardianships (which give the guardian total control of another person’s life) they don’t have to be registered with any court and aren’t subject to any oversight. Theoretically, the grantor can override a POA at any time.

This is by design. Having power of attorney can make it much easier and less stressful for those who are caring for other vulnerable people. But it can also put isolated seniors and others at risk of financial abuse.

That leaves Florida with a serious problem. A legislative bill analysis of the 2023 law that forms the basis of several of the counts filed against Hill cites 2021 FBI statistics on financial abuse of seniors, claiming that 92,000 victims over the age of 60 reported claims that year. Among the states, Florida posted the second-worst record in the nation, with 9,645 victims. Not all those cases involved power of attorney abuse, but many did — and it makes sense that many of the reforms aimed at POA abuse would also stop other kinds of fraud.

This leaves lawmakers with a significant challenge: The state has already increased legal penalties for financial exploitation of elders. What more can they do to protect vulnerable Floridians? The best place to start is to look at other states that have adopted innovations Florida has yet to consider. One good example, backed by the American Bar Association, is a process called Supportive Decision Making, a less-restrictive alternative to POA agreements and guardianships which allows a team of friends, family members and professionals to advise a disabled person in making decisions that best reflect their wishes. This process is authorized in 21 states, and it’s something Florida should consider.

The state could also benefit from a suggestion by the Florida Bar: Give state investigators the ability to look into financial records when they suspect abuse. Under current law, those records can’t be accessed unless the POA’s grantor gives permission. That leads to another likely necessity of increased funding for financial-abuse investigations.

There are no easy solutions here, unfortunately. Many cases of financial abuse are likely to go unreported. Public-information campaigns can fight that, but not always successfully. That doesn’t mean Florida’s leaders should give up. In fact, it should strengthen their resolve to protect vulnerable Floridians whenever possible.


Tampa Bay Times. May 2, 2024.

Editorial: Keeping guns out of the hands of Florida’s children

Florida shouldn’t need a law for gun owners to know they should store their weapons responsibly.

Authorities are still investigating the circumstances last month that ended with a 14-year-old St. Petersburg boy killing his 11-year-old brother in what the older child described as an accidental shooting. But the ingredients of this tragedy — a misplaced gun in the wrong hands — are all too familiar. Gun owners can help by better securing their weapons, especially as the summer vacation season approaches.

The 14-year-old told St. Petersburg police he had found a gun in an alley, then brought it home and accidentally fired the weapon while playing with it April 26. The boy who was killed, Amir Williams, was a sixth grader who played running back on the St. Pete Little Devils youth football league. Family members said the brothers were close; school was out that day and the boys were home alone with their 13-year-old sister, according to police.

Authorities said the gun had been reported stolen during a vehicle burglary two days earlier. Police are investigating how the gun wound up in the alley. Authorities also said the boy’s mother, who was not at home at the time of the shooting, didn’t know her 14-year-old had found the weapon and that it was inside the home.

This chain of events was a preventable tragedy. As Mike Kovacsev, the St. Petersburg police department’s assistant chief of investigations, said: “Kids make poor decisions occasionally.” Add a firearm to the mix and “it’s a deadly decision,” the assistant chief said. “You can’t take it back. You can’t put the bullet back in the gun.”

Stolen guns, especially from unlocked vehicles, have been a recurring problem throughout the Tampa Bay area for years. St. Petersburg police said about 250 guns were reported stolen in the city last year. In Tampa last year, four out of every five auto burglaries were to vehicles that were left unlocked. And nearly 200 guns were stolen from those unlocked vehicles.

Responsible gun owners don’t unnecessarily leave their firearms in vehicles — locked or unlocked. This is an invitation to every burglar canvassing the neighborhood and jiggling door handles after midnight. When it’s absolutely unavoidable to leave a gun in a vehicle, it should be placed in a lockable gun case or lock box.

While Florida law requires gun owners to store their weapons safely away from children 15 and younger, the law covers only homes and buildings — not vehicles — and is so hedged and ambiguous to make it difficult to enforce. The safety statute also doesn’t apply in cases where a minor “obtains the firearm as a result of an unlawful entry by any person,” creating an accountability loophole for tragedies involving stolen weapons.

Bills filed in the Legislature over the years to hold gun owners responsible for losing their weapons have gone nowhere. As Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said: “Where do you draw the line in criminalizing innocent behavior? Say you forgot the gun in the car. Do we want to make that person have a criminal record?”

But the sheriff also says gun owners must be responsible. To that end, the Pinellas sheriff’s office has aired public service announcements over local cable channels urging gun owners not to leave weapons in their vehicles, akin to similar warnings that government agencies make about not leaving children or pets in cars.

Don’t expect the Legislature to toughen criminal penalties anytime soon for mishandling weapons; law enforcement and the public are struggling to define what constitutes an innocent mistake versus outright irresponsibility. But even without any new law, gun owners can help by being conscientious about securing their firearms. That includes not leaving them in cars. With summer around the corner, promising its usual uptick in juvenile crime, there’s no better time to recommit.


Palm Beach Post. May 3, 2024.

Editorial: Government cooperation, not political propaganda, needed to help those in economic pain

For the record, inflation is at 3.48% now, down dramatically in less than two years and not far off the Fed’s target of 2%.

There’s a new Big Lie going around, that the economy’s in terrible shape.

You’ve heard that lie so much lately from Republican leaders in Florida and around the nation, that you’d almost think there was an election coming up. And that they were trying to distract us from how badly they’re polling on reproductive rights or diversity issues – or from the fact that the economy’s actually in pretty good shape.

To be sure, many of us are hurting. Efforts to jumpstart the pandemic-stalled economy with government spending inevitably sparked inflation up to 9 percent in 2022, and though the rate has come down, food prices remain high. The Fed’s reaction, to dampen inflation by jacking up interest rates, meant interest rates on mortgages, autos and other big ticket items also would rise, making those purchases more expensive.

But a little less hyperbole is in order. When people say inflation is near historic highs — an op-ed piece submitted here last week said exactly that — it’s nowhere close to true. For the record, we’re at 3.48%, down dramatically in less than two years and not far off the Fed’s target of 2%. And the Fed is keeping the downward pressure on, by holding off on bringing interest rates back down. So we’re close, and we’re getting there, though it’s taking a little longer than expected to hit that target. But we’re almost where we need to be.

For perspective: For most of the past two decades, inflation has toggled roughly between 2% and 4%. The historic high, during World War I, was 17.84%. So, no, we’re not near a historic high. Even at 9%, we weren’t.

Meanwhile, wages are rising, unemployment is low, there are jobs to be had, consumers are spending and the tech and once-ailing manufacturing sectors are making strides.

As for those elevated mortgage rates, at 7% they have more than doubled from the 3% lows of the pandemic, which is hard for people shopping for homes. But 60 percent of homeowners are sitting pretty, locked in at rates below 4 percent that they secured during the 2008 recession or 2020 pandemic, according to a Redfin analysis reported in The New York Times this week.

If you’re among the 70% of Americans who contribute to a 401(k) or other retirement plan, have you looked at your rate of returns lately? That money’s invested in a stock market where the Dow Jones and other performance indices are near historic highs. Far from being in dire straits, you’re making money for nothin’.

For some of the work on economic repair, Biden can take little credit. The Fed, for one, acts independently in adjusting interest rates. On other scores, Biden also is owed little of the blame: Other officials’ reluctant and delusional responses to the pandemic (horse medicine, anyone? ) delayed recovery, worsened the recession and made Biden’s infrastructure boost all the more pressing and the resulting inflation less avoidable. At the state level, meanwhile, issues the Florida legislature failed to resolve, such as soaring property insurance rates and insufficient workforce housing supply, have compounded the cost pressures we’re experiencing.

These days the word Bidenomics gets tossed around the way Obamacare once was, as a pejorative. But just as millions benefited and continue to benefit from the Affordable Care Act, millions will benefit from the righting of the economy in progress.

Regardless of to whom one is inclined to attribute the current state of the economy, it should be clear that what makes it worse is Congress’ and the Florida legislature’s inability to work across party lines — and indeed, the intent by many to weaponize our pain for political gain. Rather than propaganda, what’s needed is urgent, concerted effort to ease the short-term pain of those still hurting at ground level — through food support, housing programs, lower-cost health care, credit card and student loan rate relief – whatever it takes – while work continues toward a soft landing for all.


South Florida Sun Sentinel. May 6, 2024.

Editorial: A race to the bottom in Florida teacher pay

Give dunce caps to the Florida Legislature for flunking one of life’s most obvious lessons.

It’s this: Experience really is the best teacher. That goes double for teachers themselves.

There’s no college prep or other shortcut to knowing what works best with each student and with a classroom as a whole. Teachers learn that only from their students. It takes time. Like almost anything else, it gets better with practice.

And yet Florida has just placed next to last — 50th out of 51 — in the annual nationwide teacher pay rankings compiled by the National Education Association (NEA), which include all states plus Washington D.C. That’s how poorly Tallahassee values experience.

It’s two places worse than last year, when Florida could boast of being at least better than Mississippi.

Now, only West Virginia stands between Florida and rock bottom.

Sinking fast

Florida’s average teacher pay is $53,048, some $11,000 less than neighboring Georgia and way below the nationwide average of $69,544. Overall, teacher pay in Florida increased by a meager 3% last year compared to 4.1% nationally.

While pumping lots more money into starting salaries, which is good as far as it goes, Florida has taken experienced teachers for granted, allowing their income to fall further behind inflation.

It’s no coincidence that Florida posts the nation’s highest number of teacher vacancies at 5,294. That’s 10 times as many as in California, which has twice as many K-12 students but pays teachers the nation’s highest wages, almost double Florida’s.

We asked a retired teacher with 44 years of classroom experience, mostly in Florida, what she learned from her students.

“You get a better understanding of how to work with people in a particular age group,” she said, “so that all of them can benefit from the knowledge you’re imparting. You learn to be compassionate, because there are things that go on outside the classroom that impact their lives. You learn what works and what doesn’t work academically. You learn to be flexible in your lesson plans, because what sounds great on paper doesn’t always work.”

Serious burnout

A 2022 Gallup survey revealed that K-12 employees have the highest burnout rate — 44%— of all industries nationally.

The reasons belie the insidious myth that teachers have it easy because they keep bankers’ hours and have summers off. In reality, it’s more like an 80-hour week with papers to grade and lessons to plan at home and constant emails and texts from students and their parents.

“I worked seven days a week,” said the retired Florida teacher. “It’s never out of your head if you do the job properly. You can’t go in there and wing it. It’s one of the toughest jobs there are.”

Florida’s Department of Education has responded to the NEA report by calling it “bogus,” saying it fails to account fairly for the starting salary increases or for state-by-state cost-of-living variations. Predictably, the response attacked the NEA over collective bargaining, which the NEA credits for higher wages in states where it prevails.

Florida’s Constitution protects the right of public employees to bargain collectively, but Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature have deliberately made it more difficult for teachers, and some other unions, by eliminating payroll deduction for dues and requiring local bargaining units to be recertified.

While doing that, they exempted police, firefighters and correctional workers. Those public safety unions commonly support Republicans while the teachers favor Democrats.

Culture war damage

Florida is deliberately making teaching more difficult.

DeSantis’ culture war legislation has made faculties fearful of teaching honestly about the history and influence of racism.

He has signed a new state law specifically forbidding teacher training courses and continuing education from teaching “identity politics” or anything based on “theories that systemic racism, sexism, oppression and privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States and were created to maintain social, political and economic inequities.”

Read strictly, that would bar prospective teachers from learning how the South conceived Jim Crow laws to keep Blacks poor and powerless for a century after the Civil War ended slavery, and how the consequences persist.

The bill DeSantis signed, House Bill 1291, passed the Republican supermajority legislature along partisan lines.

“If you are planning for a year, sow rice,” says a Chinese proverb. “If you are planning for a decade, plant trees; if you are planning for a lifetime, educate people.”

Florida’s Legislature prefers to plant seeds of ignorance.