Editorial Roundup: Florida

South Florida Sun Sentinel. February 2, 2024.

Editorial: State-sanctioned bigotry targets transgender people

It’s cruel. It’s vicious. It’s state-sanctioned bigotry.

Using the flimsy pretense of modifying the insurance laws, intolerant Florida legislators want to deny the legal existence of transgender people by requiring their driver’s licenses to list only their sex at birth — not their gender identity.

The bill (HB 1639), which also applies to state-issued ID cards, requires health plans to cover the widely discredited practice of conversion therapy, even at higher costs to transgender patients.

The legislation would codify a recent abrupt policy reversal by the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles that rescinds its two-year-old policy that allowed transgender people to update their gender markers when they got a replacement license.

‘No legal authority’

In a Jan. 26 memo, a senior agency official, Robert Kynoch, said the state had no legal authority to allow people to update their gender markers in the first place. The agency is headed by Dave Kerner, a former Palm Beach County commissioner and state legislator.

“Permitting an individual to alter his or her license to reflect an internal sense of gender role or identity, which is neither immutable nor objectively verifiable, undermines the purpose of an identification record and can frustrate the state’s ability to enforce its laws,” Kynoch wrote to Florida tax collectors, who issue most driver’s licenses.

That reversal is equally outrageous. It’s further proof of how the DeSantis administration policy of marginalizing minority groups — and the LGBTQ community in particular — is now embedded in the bureaucracy in ways that could harm Floridians’ everyday lives.

This is truly scary, and it’s the logical result of state-sanctioned bigotry and intolerance at the highest levels of government. “In Florida, you do not get to play identity politics with your driver license,” Highway Safety spokesman Molly Best said in an email to the Sun Sentinel.

On a party-line vote of 12 to 6, with Republicans voting yes and Democrats voting no, the House Insurance and Banking Subcommittee advanced this terrible bill Thursday.

Who’s behind this?

The sponsors are Republican Reps. Doug Bankson, a pastor from Apopka in suburban Orlando, and Dean Black of Jacksonville, who, without data or evidence, proclaimed that “many, many people” who are trans have regretted it, and deserve insurance coverage for what is known as de-transitioning.

“We need to make sure that they’re covered,” Black said.

This from a Legislature that shows no interest whatsoever in expanding Medicaid to cover about 800,000 uninsured Florida residents.

The lawmakers plowed ahead despite pleas from advocates, family members and clergy that such a law could put transgender people at risk of violence for something as simple as using their license to buy a bottle of wine.

What happens if people don’t comply? We have a lot of questions, as does the ACLU of Florida.

Will their license be revoked? Will they no longer be able to hold a valid license? If they drive with a license that indicates their gender and not their sex assigned at birth, will they face criminal penalties?

These aren’t hypothetical questions. Another Black-sponsored bill, HB 1233, provides that trans individuals’ licenses will be revoked and not renewed if they do not indicate sex assigned at birth.

A manufactured problem

In the midst of a statewide property insurance crisis, the Insurance Committee should focus on real, not manufactured, insurance problems.

But for two hours, Republicans instead talked about “genitalia at birth,” “the laws of nature” and becoming transgender, which they described as “medically mutilated.”

The ranking Democrat on the panel, Rep. Christine Hunschofsky of Parkland, forcefully criticized Black’s use of the “mutilation” language, telling him: “Words matter. How we talk matters.”

Joining Hunschofsky in voting no were Reps. Marie Woodson of Hollywood and newly elected Tom Keen of Orlando.

Some people awoke as early as 3 a.m. and made the long drive to Tallahassee to testify, and were given a maximum of two minutes to speak.

Ray McClory of Sanford, whose transgender daughter came out as an adult after years of depression and whose life improved, fought back tears as he warned legislators that they were making a catastrophic mistake.

“What is the purpose of this bill?” McClory told legislators. “Think of how many people it’s going to hurt.”

This is government overreach at its absolute worst, and an abuse of political power.

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Tampa Bay Times. February 1, 2024.

Editorial: The worst-kept secret on many major construction sites: undocumented workers

It’s time to change a system that we know is broken. The solution is obvious.

You’re likely to find undocumented workers on most major construction sites in the country. They swing hammers, pave roads and connect bridges. They are here illegally, but we need them. They are integral to getting the jobs finished on time and on budget. Their presence is one of those worst-kept secrets. Everyone knows, but the pretense continues — with the occasional obligatory political bluster, of course. The current system fails the undocumented workers, the companies that hire them and the taxpayers who pay for the veneer of enforcement. It’s time that changed.

Let’s get something out of the way. Yes, many undocumented workers broke the law to come to the U.S. Yes, companies that knowingly hire them or accept obviously phony identification are also likely breaking the law. But there’s a good reason the system so often looks the other way: Construction is big business — a major contributor to tax coffers and the economy as a whole.

Workers are a large part of the construction business and the supply often runs short. Talk to contractors or home builders and many will say they are having trouble finding enough people to do the work. Paying higher wages doesn’t always help, especially if the work can’t wait or demands more than rudimentary skills. It takes time to build homegrown skilled labor. For instance, an apprenticeship in pipefitting can take three to five years and at least 1,500 hours of on-the-job training.

The labor shortage can be particularly acute in growing states like Florida, where we can’t put up homes and repave roads fast enough to accommodate the influx of new residents. This has been an issue for years, which undermines the oft-cited idea that undocumented workers are “stealing jobs” from American citizens. If Americans really wanted all of those jobs, more of them would have figured out a way to get in on the action. But they haven’t for several reasons, including that construction can be physically difficult and dangerous.

Take the (tragic) examples from the massive Gateway Expressway project where two roadways are being built to connect Interstate 275 with U.S. 19 and the Bayside Bridge. In 2021, a concrete pillar weighing 18,500 pounds hanging from a crane pinned a man against a wall, crushing him. His wife told authorities he was in the country illegally, the Times’ Emily L. Mahoney and Justin Garcia reported this week. In 2022, an undocumented worker operating a front-end loader struck and killed a Pinellas sheriff’s deputy who was directing traffic. The incident appears to have been an accident, though the worker then fled the area, authorities said, and now faces a felony charge of leaving the scene of a crash involving death. Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri is right to pursue answers about what the contracting companies knew about hiring workers that were in the country illegally. But why do we put up with a system that everyone knows isn’t working?

The solution is simple, though politically fraught. Expand the immigration visa system to allow more workers into the country legally to work on construction projects. Pay them the going rate and ensure they are treated in accordance with the law. When the economy is humming and we need more construction workers, let more in, particularly the ones with the most in-demand skills. When the economy cools — or more Americans start filling the jobs — pull back on the reins. Do a basic background check including criminal history and make the visa temporary, something that must be renewed every few years. Improve or replace E-Verify, the federal online system that checks the immigration status of employees, but currently has too many holes to be effective. After that, crack down hard on rogue companies that continue to hire workers who are here illegally. No more excuses. Make the punishment hurt, and not just when it’s politically convenient.

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Miami Herald. February 5, 2024.

Editorial: Florida lawmakers should pass bill that could open Jeffrey Epstein’s grand jury records

One more batch of sealed court records must be made public in Florida to fully understand how Jeffrey Epstein, a politically-connected Palm Beach millionaire, was able to operate a sex-trafficking ring and abuse underage girls with impunity.

A bill in the Legislature, HB 117, sponsored by Rep. Peggy Gossett-Seidman, R-Highland Beach, and SB 234 co-sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, seeks to encourage the release of Epstein grand jury evidence from 2006 by expanding the circumstances under which such records can be made public.

“Florida has a chance to fill the missing chapters of the story,” said Gossett-Seidman. The bill is currently in the House’s Criminal Justice Subcommittee.

Did money, influence or prosecutorial misconduct play a role in allowing Epstein to continue to lure victims long after the grand jury took testimony? The victims deserve to have the full facts out in the open. So does the public.

Epstein initially faced allegations of sex crimes against minors in Palm Beach in 2005. By 2006, the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami had taken over the investigation, prompted by public criticism from then-Palm Beach police chief Michael Reiter regarding the handling of the case by Barry Krischer, the state attorney for Palm Beach County at the time.

Reiter told the Editorial Board that he supports opening grand jury records. He remains troubled by the handling of Epstein’s case by Palm Beach prosecutors.

“The bill in the Florida Legislature that would make the Epstein grand jury record public should be passed and enacted, “ Reiter said. “These records are some of the last documents that could explain why Epstein was treated so minimally in the Palm Beach prosecution.”

Back in 2006, federal investigators had identified over 30 alleged underage victims and crafted a 53-page indictment against Epstein, carrying the potential for decades of imprisonment upon conviction. In the end, though, Epstein was allowed to enter into an agreement that meant he served just 13 months of an 18-month sentence, with lenient work release privileges enabling him to spend up to 16 hours a day at a West Palm Beach office building and his home in Palm Beach.

The sweetheart deal for Epstein was approved by Alexander Acosta, the U.S. attorney in Miami at the time. His role in the plea deal eventually led to his resignation as U.S. labor secretary in the Trump administration.

Epstein was arrested on federal sex-trafficking charges in 2019, after Miami Herald reporter Julie Brown’s investigation, Perversion of Justice. Epstein committed suicide in a New York prison before being tried.

“By enacting this legislation, it forces the criminal justice system to learn from the failures of this case and reduce the chance something like this will ever happen again, “ Reiter said.

The legislative proposal would open up the possibility disclosing the grand jury records in the Epstein case by allowing the disclosures under certain circumstances: when the subject of the inquiry is dead, the inquiry is related to criminal or sexual activity with a minor, and the testimony was previously disclosed by a court order.

Enough with the secrecy in this case. The Miami Herald has sued to release other records, with thousands of documents released last year. The Palm Beach Post has also sued to get the documents released. The release of all the records is a matter of public interest and could help prevent similar injustices in the future.

It’s possible there is new information in those files, too. Did Palm Beach prosecutors, on Epstein’s behalf, somehow mislead or constrain the grand jury? If so, that’s an abuse of power that must be exposed, Reiter says.

Without access to the full record of what happened in the now-notorious Epstein case, the public’s faith in the judicial system is at risk.

The Florida Legislature should pass this bill and allow the public to see the whole truth about this disturbing case. And then maybe we can finally close the book on despicable Jeffrey Epstein.

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Orlando Sentinel. February 1, 2024.

Editorial: Bill is bad news for bears – and for Florida

Florida’s lawmakers should know by now that nothing riles their constituents up more than legislation impacting animal welfare. They’re certainly old enough to remember what happened in October 2015 — the last time the state decided it was OK to shoot bears.

It was an ugly 48 hours. In that short time span, nearly 300 bears were slaughtered. And the sound of gunfire was easily drowned out by the howls of Floridians grief-stricken and disgusted by the carnage.

And now a bad idea is back — only much worse.

Florida doesn’t need a “stand your ground” law for bears; it already knows there’s a better way to deal with them. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has worked hard, in conjunction with local officials, to support community efforts to educate the public about ways to coexist peacefully with Florida’s largest native species. That’s the only real solution; as many communities have come to realize, bears are going to go where the food is. And because the scrublands, pine plantations and wild forests they used to roam have been bulldozed, more bears are roaming the winding streets of subdivisions.

Florida officials can do better. Below, we’ll talk about one step they are considering to deal with dangerous dogs, which are far more likely to attack, and even kill, humans.

Bears in big trouble

Already, opposition is piling up to a bill titled “The Taking of Bears” (HB 87/SB 632) that would allow bears to be killed year-round by anyone with a gun, in any situation where they can claim to be defending themselves or their property. That could amount to an open season on bears that in almost every case, pose no legitimate threat to human beings. Many thought the legislation would never gain enough traction to become law. But it’s lumbering its way through committee hearings and inexplicably, getting a pass each time.

At Tuesday’s meeting of the House Infrastructure Strategies Committee, the sponsor of the legislation — Rep. Jason Shoaf, R-Port St. Joe — paints a picture of bears crashing through kitchen doors and attacking helpless dog-walkers on a crisis-level basis. “There’s this huge black bear … digging through your refrigerator, putting you and your children and your pets at risk,” he said. “Today, you can’t shoot it. You have to sit there and blow a whistle, hope you have some bear mace and call FWC and pray.”

That’s just nonsense. Though Shoaf implies that multitudes are being prosecuted for defending themselves against an ursine army of marauders, state game wardens don’t arrest people for defending themselves against bears when they are truly threatened. And we couldn’t find a case where a bear went any further than a front porch, though there have been plenty of recent incidents of bears being caught by doorbell cameras, including one Lake Mary trick-or-treater who dipped into a stash of candy; a three-legged bear nicknamed “Tripod” who has been spotted several times in Seminole County, including one occasion when he helped himself to three White Claw seltzers; the Orlando bandit who swiped a food-delivery package and of course, the famous Eola bear who was spotted throughout downtown over a multi-day span last year.

If Shoaf’s legislation passes, it would be open season on those porch pirates. The resulting videos would be far more grim than the ones that currently make the rounds on social media.

Most Floridians in bear-intensive zones have learned to live with — yes, even chuckle at — the occasional sighting of bears. The FWC has worked hard, in conjunction with jurisdictions like Seminole County, to educate the public about safe ways to avoid human-bear violence and prevent home invasions, such as blocking access to outdoor refrigerators and securing trash cans. (To that end, we’d like to pass on a request from Seminole County Commissioner Lee Constantine: Please send more money for bearproof trash containers and lid locks.

These programs work. Encounters where humans might feel truly endangered have plummeted in Seminole County.

Several Seminole County residents made the trek to Tallahassee to testify against the bill, including clean-water activist Chuck O’Neal. They made one more important point: This bill is likely to put humans in far more danger. The obvious threat is that someone attempts to shoot a bear in their subdivision and instead hits a neighbor’s house or another person. It can also be pretty tough to kill a 400-pound bear with the kinds of guns many Floridians keep at home, and a pain-maddened animal is far more likely to attack.

“I’ve seen bears from one end of the state to the other,” said Sanford resident Joseph Humphries, identifying himself as an NRA member and hunter. “We have just as many bears as you do, and I can tell you for a fact this is a dangerous bill to the majority of the state.”

A more dangerous predator

As we noted above, there’s another bill pending that would address the threat animals present to human beings: HB 873 / SB 1156, which would create a “dangerous dog” registry, require owners to confine dogs with a history of attacks and purchase insurance to cover potential future aggression. It includes penalties for irresponsible pet owners, including felony charges for the worst offenders.

It’s a moderate step that avoids targeting specific breeds of dogs. And it’s more than justified: An average of 600 Floridians are hospitalized each year by dog attacks. Each year, at least two people die of those injuries.

Compare that to FWC’s statistics on incidents where humans have come into physical contact with bears: for 2023, they counted four. In 2022, 12. Not all of those encounters caused significant personal injury. And nobody has ever died of a bear attack.

That takes the air out of Shoaf’s argument. And it should spur more Central Florida residents to reach out to their local lawmakers and let them know: The prospect of more bears slaughtered is unsupportable — yes, unbearable.

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Palm Beach Post. January 31, 2024.

Editorial: Florida wants to deploy state troops to Texas. Will this lead to civil war?

Gov. Ron DeSantis wants to send troops to Texas to defend the southern border — supposedly to stem an immigration crisis but more obviously to obstruct the federal government. The Florida Legislature seems eager to oblige. It’s moving a bill that would give the Governor power to send the Florida State Guard anywhere he pleases.

“The states being able to step up, ensure the sovereignty of their territory and the sovereignty of our country,” DeSantis said last week during a press conference in Osceola County. “It’s something that’s appropriate. It’s something the founders envisioned if you had a derelict executive in the federal government.”

Shades of Fort Sumter. The Governor’s remarks come one day after he signed a letter joining 24 Republican governors supporting Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s use of razor wire along the U.S.-Mexico border as a “constitutional right of self-defense.” So, now Florida is taking a stand on a GOP-greased slope that threatens a second Civil War.

Texas has already defied both the Biden administration and the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled the federal government can remove that state’s’ barbed wire barriers to allow federal law enforcement access to the border. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick vowed to continue erecting more fencing and razor-wire barriers. He also threatened a “confrontation” if the Biden administration sent federal Border Patrol agents to remove any of the state barriers.

GOP state lawmakers in Tallahassee seem all-in, too. HB 1551 and SB 1694 remove the requirement “that Florida State Guard be used exclusively within (the) state.” The House bill’s sponsor, Rep. Mike Giallombardo, R.-Cape Coral, confirmed that the bill would allow deployment, based on mutual agreement, to a border state, such as Texas.

The stars are lining up for a confrontation that would make Jan. 6, 2021 seem like a picnic, or worse, a precursor.

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