Editorial Roundup: Florida

South Florida Sun Sentinel. May 24, 2022.

Editorial: Florida’s new elections chief won’t bury The Big Lie

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ new chief elections official, Cord Byrd, could have saved himself a whole lot of justifiable criticism Tuesday if he had simply acknowledged what most Americans know is true — that Joe Biden won the presidency fair and square in 2020.

But he wouldn’t do it. At his very first news conference as Florida’s new Secretary of State, Byrd double-talked his way around a question that persists because our democracy is under siege: Did Joe Biden win the election and the presidency in 2020 fair and square, or not?

A yes or no question deserves a yes or no answer, but Byrd wouldn’t give one, even though his job is to instill public confidence in the reliability of election results.

“Joe Biden was certified by the Congress after counting the electors, and he is the president of the United States,” Byrd said.

It’s a fundamental question, and an easy one after Donald Trump’s baseless claims of fraud were tossed out in more than 60 courts, up to and including the Supreme Court.

To not declare Biden the legitimate leader of America undermines democracy and perpetuates The Big Lie — period. For the chief elections official of the nation’s third-largest state to avoid the question is much worse.

Excess partisan baggage

It is especially important that Byrd, of all people, get this right, because he enters this job weighed down by excessive partisan baggage over his own record, including support for voting restrictions and a racially gerrymandered map of Congressional districts.

Then there’s his wife Esther’s extreme rhetoric in support of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, the Proud Boys, the QAnon conspiracy cult, a reference to future “civil wars” and other fringe claims. Mrs. Byrd is accountable to the people of Florida too, as a DeSantis appointee to the powerful and prestigious state Board of Education.

Byrd, 51, is a lawyer, staunch defender of gun owners’ rights and former Republican House member from the Jacksonville area.

He was DeSantis’ hand-picked choice to replace Laurel Lee as director of the state’s election apparatus at a critical juncture, with his boss running for re-election to the position he hopes will be a launching pad to the presidency in 2024. The latest overhaul of Florida election laws, championed by DeSantis himself and under challenge in court, includes the creation of a 15-member squad of investigators to hunt for election irregularities.

As we said in a recent editorial, Byrd must put his partisan political past behind and be a nonpartisan overseer of elections in a state closely divided between Republicans and Democrats with a long history of exceptionally close elections. He as much as said so himself at his first news conference, held in Sandestin Tuesday at the summer conference of Florida election supervisors.

But as a high-level appointee who reports to the most partisan governor in Florida history, Byrd is in a tight spot. After all, he belongs to a party whose members overwhelmingly cling to the myth that victory was stolen from Trump.

He also works for a governor who clearly has his sights set on the White House that Biden occupies. The governor has referred to Biden by the euphemism “Brandon,” and to Democrats as the “Brandon party,” as he did at a well-attended Broward Republican Party fundraising event last week in Weston.

We asked him twice

For that reason, we stretched the boundaries of press conference norms a bit Tuesday and asked the same question twice, something rarely done.

Did Biden win fair and square — or not? We shouldn’t even be asking that 18 months after the election, after all those legal challenges were thrown out. But The Big Lie persists in part because too few responsible public officials denounce it.

Byrd had a second chance to set the record straight. He demurred again.

“He was certified as the president and he’s the president of the United States. There were irregularities in certain states,” Byrd said before emphasizing that his chief concern is not Wisconsin or Pennsylvania, but in ensuring another successful election in Florida.

On related topics Byrd sent positive signs. He said it’s important for every eligible voter to register. He emphasized the need for consistently strong dialogue with county supervisors, who praised Byrd for his accessibility. He made a very important point, that he’s not a policy maker anymore, but an implementer of policy. “I understand the distinction,” Byrd said.

We challenged Byrd in a previous editorial to prove us wrong, and that we judged him too hastily, by putting aside partisanship and acting on behalf of all Floridians. Tuesday’s platform was his opportunity to do that, but he fell far short of what Floridians deserve.

___

Tampa Bay Times. May 19, 2022.

Editorial: Florida can’t get past ‘duh’ on this simple property insurance reform

The governor has called a special session on property insurance.

Florida has a property insurance problem. Rates are already high and headed higher. The issue is so pressing that the governor has called lawmakers back to Tallahassee for a special session that starts Monday. There is no single solution to this complex challenge, but one vein to mine: Dig deep into why so many insurance companies have failed in Florida recently. “Well, duh,” you might say. “That’s too obvious.” Maybe so, but unfortunately on this important question, Florida hasn’t moved past “duh.”

The last hurricane hit Florida in 2018. Since then, seven property insurers have gone belly up, four of them in the last 13 months. A few others are on shaky financial footing. As required by law, the Department of Financial Services writes a report on each insurance company that fails. But as the Times’ Lawrence Mower reported this week, the department often doesn’t release those financial autopsies until years after the company went under. The Times asked for reports on five of the insurers that had failed since 2014. The department had finished only one. The framers crafted the U.S. Constitution in 116 days. Stephen King wrote “The Shining” in less than six weeks. Can the state not release a report about an insolvent insurance company in less than a year?

Worse yet, few people know about the reports — people who should know. Multiple insurance trade groups including the Federal Association for Insurance Reform told the Times they didn’t know the reports existed. Only two state lawmakers — Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, and Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach — request or were sent the reports, a spokesperson for the Department of Financial Services said.

Florida Insurance Consumer Advocate Tasha Carter said last year that she wasn’t aware of the reports, and her spokesperson did not answer questions last week about whether that had changed. That’s right. The state’s insurance consumer advocate — whose website says the office is “committed to finding solutions to insurance issues facing Floridians” — hadn’t as of last year read any of the reports which could provide clues on how to carry out that mission. We’d like to think that this is just a lack of awareness, and not indifference or negligence.

This isn’t about pushing paper; the reports provide valuable insights on how to close loopholes and where the state needs to better enforce existing laws. For instance, the report on Jacksonville-based Sunshine State Insurance Company’s failure showed how the CEO received a $200,000 bonus months before the company was liquidated. Sunshine State’s parent and sister companies also took millions of dollars out of the company through written and “verbal” agreements, including $708,830 in two separate oral agreements in the 10 months before the company liquidated, the report said. Florida law requires such agreements to be in writing and pre-approved by the Office of Financial Regulation. One wonders what valuable nuggets about other failed companies are in the reports that haven’t been released.

With a deeper understanding of why insurance companies fail, lawmakers could enact better policies and insurers could avoid the pitfalls that ruined their competitors. As it stands, the failures take a bite out of our pocketbooks. Orlando-based St. Johns Insurance Company went under this year, which forced the Florida Insurance Guaranty Association to pay off the company’s outstanding claims. The 1.3% fee hits every policy sold in Florida, from homeowners’ insurance to flood and malpractice policies, the Times reported. That’s just the cost of one company going under.

The Department of Financial Services said it would begin posting the reports online before the special legislative session on Monday. That’s a good start. But how about promoting them, too? The state sends out news releases encouraging Elon Musk to move Twitter’s headquarters to Florida and for the latest appointment to the board of optometry. How about doing the same for the insolvency reports? At a minimum, send them to every insurance company and trade association in the state. Of course, more of the reports need to be completed in a timely fashion. It would also help if more lawmakers and state leaders actually read them. Sen. Brandes has pushed for requiring the board of directors of failed insurance companies to hold public hearings about what went wrong and how other companies can avoid a similar fate. After all, their failure costs us money. And should they profit from their own mistakes?

There is a lot more to the property insurance crisis than reports on failed companies — rampant litigation, reinsurance costs and building requirements top many lists. But writing and distributing these reports is low hanging fruit, low cost and easy to do. On this important issue, let’s at least get beyond “duh.”

___

Palm Beach Post. May 20, 2022.

Editorial: Mental health begs priority treatment

Romen Phelps’ death-by-mental-health-crisis at the Alexander W. Dreyfoos School of the Arts brought terror to students fleeing the campus and hiding behind locked doors.

In a nation rattled by endless shootings, this May 13 event in downtown West Palm Beach — and a day later, the racism-fueled murder of 10 in a Buffalo supermarket — left Americans to wonder, once more, “What’s wrong with us?”

What almost certainly played a role in West Palm Beach was the deteriorating mental state of the 33-year-old Phelps, The Palm Beach Post learned from his friends and former schoolmates.

A Palm Beach Gardens resident who once attended Dreyfoos, Phelps loved the school and was recognized for his contributions to student dramatic productions. But somewhere along the line, his mental stability faltered, friends said. In recent days he continued that downward spiral, was hospitalized but released. That Friday he smashed his van through the school gates, fought with an off-duty police officer who raced to the scene and, while students fled amid shouts of “Code Red!,” the officer ended Phelps’ life with a bullet.

Questions remain over the shooting that led to Phelps’ death but one thing is clear: The safety net for those falling to mental illness in Florida has many gaps.

For one, says Susan Stefan, a former University of Miami law professor who has written extensively on mental health treatment, we depend heavily on crisis intervention by police and hospital emergency rooms while, as individuals, we hesitate to listen with compassion early on. One recent study of 25 states showed Florida had the highest rate of involuntary psychiatric detentions — 966 per 100,000 people, compared with the lowest, Connecticut, with 29.

“What everyone wants to know is, ‘Who do I call?,’” Stefan says. ‘What stranger do I call to get this person off my hands?’” That sentiment is part of the problem when the troubled person who needs help already fells like nobody cares about them, she said.

Friends and family should try, without offering advice, to get a troubled person talking — and listen, says Alan Mednick, board member in Boynton Beach for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Many programs in our area offer professional help but treatment can be expensive and insurance often won’t cover it. Under federal law, insurers are supposed to cover mental illness on a parity with other kinds of illness but in Florida the state oversees the insurance industry and does not require it. In a perfect world that would change and there’d be money for people who need it to obtain mental health care, in Mednick’s view.

Public awareness also is lacking, into the pervasiveness of the need and into the programs and providers available. Education is one way to address that, and to teach the general public how to respond appropriately to people in need, experts say.

Prevention is the most effective remedy. The Center for Child Counseling, for one, addresses mental health issues before a child is even born, by working with pregnant women, notes CEO Renee Layman, who is based in Palm Beach Gardens. The organization also addresses factors that contribute to community environments and other stressors that can lead to mental health being passed from one generation to the next. Scientific studies show that children living with daily trauma, domestic violence, poverty, or who witness gang shootings, for example, are subject to toxic stress that can change the physical architecture of a developing brain.

Another challenge is that, just as the economy and pandemic have left hospitals struggling to staff-up with nurses, people trained for mental health work also are in short supply, Layman says.

Officials called the Buffalo shooting a hate crime, committed by a white supremacist. Race might or might not have played a role in the Dreyfoos event, in which yet another white cop shot and killed yet another unarmed Black man — but we can’t know that yet, as details remain veiled by an ongoing investigation.

But at the very least, the terrifying day at Dreyfoos should signal to all of us that mental health treatment is a priority that demands understanding and action.

The events of Friday, May 13, did not take on the dimensions of a Parkland, Columbine or Sandy Hook. But someone’s child was killed and more might have been. Rather than wonder what’s wrong with us, now is the time to convene a task force on this multifaceted set of problems, to come up with a comprehensive plan.

What’s already on the table wasn’t enough to help Romen Phelps and others who may follow. Unless we work toward a solution, our society will stay on Code Red.

___

Orlando Sentinel. May 19, 2022.

Editorial: DeSantis, GOP lawmakers turn the wrong shade of red

Last week, Gov. Ron DeSantis held an event in Miami to announce that Nov. 7 would be observed as “Victims of Communism Day” across Florida, dedicated to lamenting the evils of authoritarian regimes that stripped millions of people of economic liberty and the right to self-expression.

A week later, he was in Sanford, describing his plan for the special district created more than 50 years ago as the cradle for Walt Disney World, the state’s largest single-site employer.

The state would seize control of the Reedy Creek Improvement District, DeSantis said with relish. The coup would eradicate Disney’s ability to manage development, provide utilities and pay for other services on what is, mostly, its own property. Also implied: Confiscating more of Disney’s profits than it currently pays. Workers would benefit, he promised, in a nod to the special district’s 200-plus firefighters “who should be making more money.” Meanwhile, the state would presumably assert its dominion over the district’s assets — ignoring the fact that all of them were paid for with Disney’s money.

So tell us again, governor: Communism is bad, right?

A different shade of red

The reason behind the seizure of power? The governor had noble words about level playing fields and stripping Central Florida’s economic powerhouse of “special deals (and) special privileges.” But the reality has been well-known for the past month, and the governor barely bothered to deny it. Disney is being punished for criticizing — albeit weakly — a DeSantis-dictated bill passed in the recent legislative session that threatens classroom discussion of sexual preference or gender identity.

The attack on Disney was the continuation of a blatant propaganda campaign: In the days after HB 1557 passed, DeSantis and his apparatchiks pretended that the legislation only applied to grades 1-3 and painted dissidents as deviants, claiming that opponents were actually “groomers” seeking to abuse children — a Putin-worthy smear campaign.

The governor will surely argue that we’re twisting the ideology behind his attack on Disney. But after his behavior over the past two years, we don’t think so. Nominally a Republican, DeSantis has been cementing his authoritarian stance while brutally hacking at some of the GOP’s most prized principles. He’s targeted Republicans’ reverence for the freedom of businesses to set their own course with minimal governmental interference (and to make as much money as they can and then give big bundles of it to politicians with “R” after their names.)

He’s even raged against business efforts to protect customers and employees from deadly disease. The governor’s initial attacks on corporate autonomy were launched during the first year of the COVID pandemic, against businesses who required masks on their premises. Later he’d go after corporations that wanted their employees vaccinated — insisting he was promoting freedom, while stripping companies of the right to protect their customers and workers.

Some GOP leaders tried to object, and were steamrolled. The principles of property rights and limited government sagged like deflated balloons.

The DeSantis-led revolution hit its peak in this year’s legislative session. In addition to the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, lawmakers passed a ban on what they’re describing as critical race theory, but could conceivably be applied to any discussion of racism in modern life. That bill (HB 7) tagged as the “Stop Woke Act,” covers public-school policies as well as corporate training. Not surprisingly, Disney’s anti-racism curricula (including material the company says it never used) was brandished as Exhibit A as the bill advanced. Lawmakers were also instructed to pass legislation that made it easier to challenge and ban books from public schools.

At every move, lawmakers acted more like a puppet assembly, with DeSantis pulling the strings.

And while lawmakers must have been bewildered by the sudden shift away from traditional GOP principles, many of them fell in line. Now most of them are facing re-election in the fall with strings of anti-business, pro-authoritarian votes to explain.

The Reedy Creek attack

DeSantis’ move on the Reedy Creek district (HB 3-A) launched during a four-day special session on redistricting, was a much less polished affair. (Perhaps the governor didn’t want to offend the proletariat with a bourgeois exhibition of education and competence.)

We’ve said before that lawmakers should consider taking a look at the Disney-controlled district’s powers and responsibilities. It’s definitely unnerving to see a private corporation running not one private government, but three (the cities of Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista are also run by Disney). But this wasn’t anything close to a thoughtful discussion. In fact, as limited debate unfolded, it became clear that lawmakers hadn’t done nearly enough to familiarize themselves with the district they were about to abolish.

They didn’t seem to realize, for example, that the district structure allowed Disney to levy property taxes on itself at a significantly higher rate than most local governments. The district’s most recent tax rate, $13.52 for every $1,000 in taxable property value, is easily the highest in Orange County and may be the highest in the state ― making DeSantis’ claim that the company should “pay its share” bizarre.

DeSantis and lawmakers also didn’t seem to have read the documents backing several series of district-issued government bonds totaling about $1 billion — or they would have seen the clauses that put the state on the hook for repayment if it abolishes the district.

During his Sanford press conference, the governor rejected the idea that the services now covered by Reedy Creek would fall on Orange and Osceola taxpayers. But he refused to reveal details of his own plan — possibly because he doesn’t really have one yet.

So there’s Florida’s governor, hell-bent on humiliating, alienating and punishing one of the state’s most essential employers, a company that redefined Florida tourism all by itself. And doing it, apparently, by the seat of his pants.

When will Florida’s GOP lawmakers and other Republican leaders wake up and smell the abandonment of cherished GOP ideals? So far, they’ve served as nothing but a rubber stamp to DeSantis’ increasingly bizarre demands. They must realize, by now, that Florida’s headline-grabbing chaos has become a glaring red flag to other corporations that might be considering a move here. In fact, it’s emboldening other states to court Sunshine State corporations.

The most popular theory is that DeSantis is posturing for national attention and prepping for a 2024 presidential bid ― that he’ll abandon Florida and leave his supporters to explain his folly.

Republicans need to reclaim their wits and rein in their runaway governor. Otherwise, they could face valid questions about all the decisions that betrayed principles of conservatism and good government, the vulnerable Floridians they marginalized and the messes they made that could take years to clean up, in service to the dictates of their self-appointed Dear Leader.

___

Miami Herald. May 25, 2022.

Editorial: Did Florida Rep. Randy Fine just threaten the president’s life? Secret Service better find out

Rep. Randy Fine, a Republican member of the Florida House with a proven lack of impulse control, common sense or human decency, tweeted what sounds like a threat against the president.

The Secret Service should take it seriously. We don’t know Fine’s true intent, and his denial is more muddying than clarifying, so the authorities must find out.

Here’s what Fine said on Twitter: “I have news for the embarrassment that claims to be our president — try to take our guns and you’ll learn why the Second Amendment was written in the first place.”

He made this wretched comment after President Biden responded to the horrific massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on Tuesday, in which 19 children and two adults died.

The president said, in part: “When we passed the assault weapons ban, mass shootings went down. When the law expired, mass shootings tripled. The idea that an 18-year-old kid can walk into a gun store and buy two assault weapons is just wrong.

“What, in God’s name, do you need an assault weapon for, except to kill someone? Deer aren’t running through the forest with Kevlar vests on, for God’s sake. It’s just sick.

“And the gun manufacturers have spent two decades aggressively marketing assault weapons, which make them the most and largest profit.

“For God’s sake, we have to have the courage to stand up to the industry.”

Angry words from a decent man weary of having to offer national solace again and again — this time, right on the heels of a fatal shooting at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, in which 10 people were killed.

Nowhere in Biden’s complete statement did he say, ”We’re going to come for your guns,” as Fine glibly accuses in his TV interview about his tweet. There was no “hatred on the left for the Second Amendment” from the president. There was mention of it at all, in fact.

Fine, himself, is a piece of work — a public servant, purportedly. After Tuesday’s school shooting, he did tweet: “I will never forget presenting a bill on the floor as I watched my colleagues become frenetic as we learned about Parkland. I think of how heartbroken we were — and are — as we pray for those children, staff and families in Texas. May the murderer spend eternity in hell.”

In 2018, Fine, indeed, did vote for a massive package of school safety and gun control reforms after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, in which 17 students and faculty members died. Just a few weeks after that vote, though, Fine said he wanted to repeal the legislation’s gun-control measures, including a three-day waiting period, a higher minimum age to buy guns from a dealer and a ban on the possession and sale of bump stocks.

In February, Fine evaded criminal charges after a Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation into allegations that the state representative committed corruption via threats against a public servant, cyber-intimidation, voter fraud and stalking. Though Brevard County prosecutors ultimately said Fine’s actions didn’t rise to the level of criminal behavior or were permitted by state law, State Attorney Phil Archer said that: “I am concerned that the continued use of heated rhetoric on social media and public statements by both sides could produce a volatile and dangerous escalation we should all seek to avoid.”

Fine, obviously, has ignored this grave concern, as evidenced by his repugnant tweet. But the Secret Service cannot ignore Fine’s words, which indeed could “produce a volatile and dangerous escalation” among the most easily swayed among us.

END