Editorial Roundup: Florida

Sun Sentinel. May 8, 2021.

Editorial: OK, Florida Legislature, try not to torpedo the gambling deal

The Seminole Tribe’s revenue-sharing agreement with the state has run its course, Florida is getting nothing from the piles of cash the Seminoles are raking in and suddenly, lo and behold, the governor announces a new deal with the tribe has been reached, and our state will benefit to the tune of billions of dollars.

That was the headline a couple of weeks ago when Gov. Ron DeSantis announced he had reached an agreement with the Seminoles, subject to ratification by the Florida Legislature.

It was also the headline six years ago when then-Gov. Rick Scott announced precisely the same thing.

Scott’s agreement then withered on the vine as, year after year, the Florida Legislature tried and failed to approve the agreement, unable to untangle a Gordian knot of not only pro- and anti-gambling forces, but also an array of competing interests within the pro-gambling contingent, from the Seminoles to pari-mutuels to out-of-state casino moguls anxious to put a glimmering, beeping, whirring slot machine haven right on Biscayne Bay.

It wasn’t as though the Legislature didn’t have capable hands who wanted to get a deal done. For two of the years in which Scott’s deal was on the table, the Senate President was Republican Bill Galvano of Bradenton, who also served as president of the National Council of Legislators from Gaming States.

And yet, the Legislature managed to lose out on a gambling agreement worth $3 billion, which is a significant amount to lose in any casino, much less the Seminole Hard Rock.

This time around, with the agreement only just announced, the Legislature has come farther than it ever has before with a special session lined up to begin May 17 that will deal entirely with ratifying the gambling deal.

The Florida Legislature needs to get this done. This year’s $101.5 billion budget was only made possible through $10 billion in federal funds through the well-meaning but profligate Biden administration. That money won’t be there forever. Additional revenue streams are needed. And since the Legislature in this year’s session took an extra $1 billion in annual sales taxes and, rather than using it for essential programs instead turned it around into a corporate tax cut, those revenues are needed more than ever.

The new DeSantis-Seminole gambling deal would bring legalized sports betting to the state in a partnership between pari-mutuels and the tribe, a measure that helps ensure these two work together instead of being at loggerheads. And the deal brings sports gamblers in from the cold, so that this illegal but widespread activity is properly taxed and regulated. According to the American Gaming Association, sports betting is already a multimillion-dollar industry in Florida, despite its illegality, and legalizing it could mean more than $100 million a year for the state.

Aside from that money, the agreement would allow craps and roulette at Seminole Indian casinos, and would permit an expansion of those casinos near the tribe’s already-iconic guitar hotel. Pari-mutuels would be allowed to keep the designated-player games that were the source of a tribe-backed lawsuit under the terms of the last successful gambling agreement, signed in 2010 under then-Gov. Charlie Crist. And those big out-of-state moguls could get a piece of the action too, as moving around gambling licenses would not violate the agreement, so Jeffrey Soffer, the billionaire owner of both the Fontainebleau and the Big Easy casino in Hallandale Beach, could move his casino enterprise from the latter location to the former.

And under the 30-year deal, the state gets about $2.5 billion in the first five years, plus millions more under a revenue-sharing agreement.

Everybody wins — well, everybody who doesn’t have a problem with gambling. And there are parts of the agreement that are certainly a bridge too far. Tucked away on page 70 of the 75-page agreement, under the unassuming headline “Miscellaneous,” the agreement calls for the state and the tribe to, within three years of the agreement being approved, negotiate in good faith to allow the tribe to offer slots, table games and all its other gambling offerings over mobile devices.

It will be hard for the state to negotiate in good faith over this, in that no price is high enough to justify allowing Floridians throughout the state to play the Seminoles’ slot machines over their phones from the comfort of their own couches. That recipe for disaster would bankrupt every gambling addict in the state before they even had a chance to seek help.

Such a massive gambling expansion across this state should kick in 2018′s Amendment 3, which made further gambling expansions across the state subject to a vote of Floridians. Because it’s an add-on whose removal won’t sink the whole agreement, the Legislature should strike down this “miscellaneous” addendum. But it should be very careful about changing what’s in the meat of the agreement.

We do not believe Floridians get a vote on expansions of more games or more casinos if they are on tribal land, but neither do we believe, as the agreement maintains, that gambling on mobile devices falls within the purview of gambling “on tribal land” because the tribe’s computer servers are sitting on Seminole property.

If the state should allow an expansion of casino licenses, or even move them from Broward to Miami-Dade, that too should mean we, the voters, get a say.

Whether this entire agreement amounts to enough of an expansion of gambling that it requires a referendum of Floridians will likely be the subject of a court battle, with the state and the tribe on one side and anti-gambling advocates on the other. No Casinos, the group behind the 2018 constitutional amendment, has already said it will sue.

That day in court will come. But in the mean time, when the Florida Legislature meets on May 17, it should try not to mess this up as so many legislatures have before. It’s a good deal, and too much mucking with it could make the Seminoles fold their hand.

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Palm Beach Post. May 12, 2021.

Editorial: County schools must repudiate use of Baker Act

Questions abound about the Palm Beach County School District officials’ troubling use of the Baker Act to handle unruly children — so flagrantly misusing the statute that in a recent four-year span they shipped 5-year-olds to psychiatric facilities eight times. Fifty-nine times, they Baker Acted children under 8.

We need more answers than, “Trust us. We took care of that already.” But that’s all we’re getting.

In March, when a respected advocacy group, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), released a blistering report on Florida’s dismaying habit of sending school kids in handcuffs to psychiatric facilities — and highlighting Palm Beach County in extra detail — Superintendent Donald Fennoy dismissed the exposé as out of date.

According to Post reporter Andrew Marra, Fennoy told the School Board, incorrectly, that the report was from “three, four years ago.” Since then, he said, his administration had worked “to refine all those processes to make it accurate and smoother.”

Oh? In what way? Last week, district officials declined an interview request from Marra. And several weeks before, they canceled a promised public workshop on their use of the Baker Act, citing “the potential for future litigation.”

That potential is real. On the heels of the SPLC’s report, released in mid-March, a coalition of advocacy groups including Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County, Disability Rights Florida and the National Center for Youth Law and two law firms sent a letter to the district demanding negotiations to agree on serious reforms or they’d push forward with a federal lawsuit.

The district said no. Once again, according to the Post’s reporting, officials said they’d already made some changes and are working on others. But as before, they offered little in the way of specifics.

This obstinancy can’t stand. The district is acting as if its casual abuse of a tool for emergency mental-health situations is nobody’s business but theirs. They couldn’t be more wrong. In far too many cases, school officials — in particular, school police — are doing harm to children far out of proportion to the kids’ alleged offenses. The public must stand up for its youth.

The Baker Act, the Florida law that allows for involuntary psychiatric commitments, is supposed to be used only in rare emergencies: when a person is truly an imminent danger to him- or herself or others because of a mental illness.

Given this definition, it is very hard to imagine that a child who is talking back to the teacher or picking a fight with other students — acting, in other words, like certain kids in every classroom that has ever been — can be confidently judged to have a mental illness, let alone pose so serious a threat to themselves or others that they must be removed from school, often in handcuffs and in a police car, as if criminal suspects. They’re taken to a psychiatric facility, often over the objection of their parents, where they can legally be held up to 72 hours. The experience could traumatize even adults.

Yet, in Florida, this intended rarity is commonplace. More than 37,000 children are Baker Acted here each year. No other state has anything like Florida’s excessive rates of involuntarily holding and examining children in psychiatric facilities, the SPLC reports.

Palm Beach County schools fall right in line. From the school years 2016-17 to 2019-20, the district Baker Acted 1,217 children. One-fifth of those, 254 children, were elementary school kids. That’s a rate of 170 Baker Acts per 100,000 students. “Like the excessive rates statewide, these rates are far higher than epidemiologically established rates of child suicidality or psychosis,” the SPLC said.

Many children are Baker Acted because their behavior was caused by a developmental disability, like autism. That’s illegal; the Baker Act law explicitly excludes such disabilities from the law’s criteria, and mental health facilities aren’t equipped to deal with them.

And — as with so much else in our society — Black students get treated this way in disproportionate numbers. In the 2019-20 school year, 40% of the 323 children Baker Acted in Palm Beach County schools were Black, though the Black share of the school population is 28%. Worse, “40 out of the 59 children who were 5, 6, or 7 years old when they were Baker Acted over the last four years were Black children — consistent with data that shows adults routinely...perceive them as older and more threatening,” the SPLC states.

Superintendent Fennoy should be voicing a robust repudiation of this outrageous practice and promising a prompt overhaul. All we’re hearing are lame attempts to keep controversy quiet. The School Board should waste no time in demanding major change.

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Orlando Sentinel. May 12, 2021.

Editorial: Filming police interactions isn’t obstruction, it’s ensuring justice

Let’s say you are cruising down John Young Parkway, and you see a police officer with his knee on the throat of a Black man laying by the side of the road, gasping for breath.

You whip out your cellphone, prepared to go all Darnella Frazier on the officer — remember that young Ms. Frazier recorded the death of George Floyd with a video that became the key piece of evidence in the murder trial and conviction of a Minneapolis police officer.

Your finger is on the video’s “start” button. But, wait! This is Florida, not Minnesota. You’d better think again.

Judges of the 4th District Court of Appeal last week made it a wiretapping offense to record the actions of police in a public place without an officer’s permission. And for heaven’s sake, don’t talk while you film because you could be charged with obstructing justice, too.

Never mind that most of the officers are recording you with their dashboard or body camera during any given random encounter nowadays. Never mind that you’re in a public place where nobody with a scintilla of sense expects privacy.

In a 2-1 vote last week, the appeal court in West Palm Beach upheld the arrest of a woman named Sharron Tasha Ford who filmed Boynton Beach officers detaining her minor son after he sneaked into a movie theater without paying for a ticket. Officers told her several times to turn off her camera, and she refused.

The decision against Ford, who is Black, comes in the midst of a recent series of deadly police encounters with young Black men that were caught on camera by average citizens.

“I thought if I had the camera, everyone would be honest and truthful,” Ford said during sworn testimony.

But judges Melanie G. May and Edward L. Artau wrote in the majority opinion that Ford “obstructed their investigation and processing of her son’s detention — a lawful execution of their duty.”

The decision raises a chilling question: What if a police officer had told Darnella, 17, to shut off her camera as Floyd agonizingly died during her 9-minute recording of former Officer Derek Chauvin with his knee jammed on Floyd’s neck? Should she have had to inform police that they were not “lawfully” doing their duty in order to continue filming? Would Chauvin have been convicted without Darnella’s disturbing evidence?

Ford’s ordeal started one evening in 2009 when police called her to come pick up her son at the Muvico Theater in Boynton Beach. Ford said later in sworn testimony that she didn’t want to “be a victim” of police brutality so she brought a digital camera.

When Ford arrived, she began filming and loudly asking questions, but she never got physical with officers and did not put herself between them and her son.

Still, she was arrested and charged with obstruction of justice and a wiretapping offense called intercepting oral communications after officers stated that she did not have their permission to film the incident, which took place on the street outside the theater with 20 to 50 people milling around.

Judge Martha C. Warner, who dissented from the other two, argued that police had no “reasonable” expectation of privacy in a public place and that the mother had done nothing wrong by filming.

She warned that the off-base ruling would mean “everyone who pulls out a cellphone to record an interaction with police, whether as a bystander, a witness or a suspect, is committing a crime.”

Warner perceptively noted that “Given how important cellphone videos have been for police accountability across the nation, I do not believe that society is ready to recognize that the recording those interactions, which include audio recordings are somehow subject to the officer’s right of privacy.”

Warner is spot on. The state attorney did not prosecute Ford, but she filed a false arrest lawsuit against the police department, and last week’s flawed ruling came in that case.

Talk about setting bad precedent. Granted, Ford was loudly asking questions. But in this land of free speech, that’s not a crime.

Citizens being able to film police officers provides a layer of accountability the public wouldn’t have without the ubiquitous smart phone — and the courage of those who despise injustice. Police should welcome being recorded — it protects them from suspects who lie about brutality.

This ruling shouldn’t be allowed to stand. Ford’s lawyers should take this misguided decision to the Florida Supreme Court.

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Miami Herald. May 7, 2021.

Editorial: State of Florida should mind its own business. Let Norwegian require COVID vaccines on its ships

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ escalating drive for more state control may have just run into a cruise ship-sized boulder.

During an earnings call on Thursday, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings CEO Frank Del Rio threatened to take the company’s ships elsewhere if Florida won’t allow the company to require COVID vaccinations for passengers and crew.

Coming days after DeSantis signed a bill that bans businesses, schools and government entities in Florida from asking anyone to provide proof of a COVID-19 vaccination, Del Rio’s remarks were a clear and public rebuke to the governor.

And his words have economic weight. According to a Miami Herald story, Norwegian is the world’s third-largest cruise company. Miami-Dade County spent $263 million building a terminal for Norwegian at PortMiami.

What Del Rio’s company wants to do is reasonable and right. He wants to protect the people on his ships. Can any of us forget the horror of ships with sick passengers and crew last spring? Dozens of ships were stranded across the world. And once passengers went home, thousands of crew members remained in cruise ship limbo, trapped at sea for months without pay.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can’t require 100 percent vaccination. It’s leaving that decision to cruise companies. But it does recommend that all crew members, passengers and port workers be vaccinated.

No industry was harder hit by the COVID-19 pandemic than the tourism industry, with travel bans and warnings in place across the globe for more than a year. For the 60,000 South Floridians who work in the cruise industry, reopening cruising is critically important.

And it’s not like other cruise lines in other places aren’t already requiring vaccines. Royal Caribbean Group and Carnival Corporation have said they will require 100 percent vaccination for upcoming cruises in other countries such as the United Kingdom and Israel.

If Norwegian wants to be sure its ships are safe — which is the right thing to do for its customers and for all of us — why on Earth is the government of Florida getting in the way? Republicans claim to value local control, decentralization and private enterprise. But the actions of this governor and Republican-controlled government say just the opposite.

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