Editorial Roundup: Florida

Sun Sentinel. May 21, 2021.

Editorial: Shame on secretive senators for hiding gambling intentions

The new gambling deal between Florida and the Seminole Tribe is for 30 years. That’s an eternity in a state that grows and changes so fast and is severely hindered by a term-limited Legislature that sorely lacks historical perspective.

With such a huge expansion of gambling, it was extremely important that this compact be exposed to as much scrutiny as possible. Lawsuits are inevitable and the federal government must approve. But it was done too hurriedly and rushed to passage in a three-day special session tarnished by a lack of transparency over something as basic as senators’ own words.

Those words are published in the Senate journal, a record of day-to-day happenings that could be definitive in a courtroom. Most of the journal’s details are of scant historical significance, such as the “doctor of the day,” text of a daily prayer and summaries of bills awaiting votes. A recent journal transcribed a ceremonial resolution that honored the Tampa Bay Lightning for winning hockey’s Stanley Cup.

But senators refused to allow their discussion of the implications of more gambling to be made part of the official proceedings in the Senate journal. Pretending it never happened, Republicans voted down a Democratic request that questions and answers about the compact be transcribed and added to the Senate record. The shameful secrecy suggests that Republicans know they’re on shaky legal ground.

So, what do senators have to hide? Well, a journal transcript of gambling’s pros and cons could be introduced as evidence in a legal challenge to the compact to show lawmakers’ motives, known as legislative intent. If it’s not in the journal, it can’t be used to question lawmakers’ motives.

This episode is exactly why people don’t trust the Legislature. Such utter disregard for transparency is an insult to Floridians and more proof of the arrogance that permeates one-party control in Tallahassee.

For less than 20 minutes Tuesday, senators — Democrats, mostly — raised questions about the gambling deal to the bill’s sponsor, Republican Sen. Travis Hutson. Some questions were innocuous and some answers were vague, but if you wanted to read it all, you can’t.

If you could read it, though, among those mundane exchanges, you’d see the questions of state Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Miami, a lawyer and former prosecutor, who drilled down on a key question: Why does this compact allow the tribe to oppose a non-tribal casino only if it’s within 15 miles? Why 15? he asked. Why not 30 miles? After all, he noted, in Tampa Bay, the no-casino buffer around tribal casinos is 100 miles. Pizzo asked this knowing that Donald Trump’s Doral country club lies precisely 15.2 miles from a casino on the tribe’s Hollywood reservation. A casino license in Miami is the answer to many of Trump’s financial problems.

“That was something that was in the negotiations between the tribe, legislature and the governor,” Hutson replied, “and 15 miles was chosen through negotiations.”

Pizzo, who opposes a different potential casino in his Miami Beach district, asked Hutson to accept an amendment expanding the radius from 15 to 30 miles. Hutson said: “That’s the compact. I don’t think you can change the compact.”

The Legislature had already changed the compact by then, removing a portion that would have eventually allowed online casino gambling. Hutson did not want his words memorialized in cold type, and neither did most of his colleagues.

Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point, a lawyer, made a motion to put the exchanges in the journal. Under a Senate rule, that requires a two-thirds vote, or support from 27 of 40 senators, if everyone’s voting. Such votes are usually rubber stamps, but this time, only 16 senators voted for transparency: 15 Democrats and one Republican, Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg. A total of 23 Republicans voted no, and Democrat Randolph Bracy did not vote.

Farmer called it “a black eye on the integrity of this institution” to fail to preserve the basic record, and he’s right.

To further stoke suspicion, Republicans offered up pathetic excuses for their secrecy. Hutson called it “a lot of workload for staff,” and Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, the Senate Rules Committee chairman, said: “It’s all on video.”

So crack open the Senate journal for this year’s special session on gambling. No doubt it will make for thrilling reading on which doctors served as the “doctor of the day” for the Florida Legislature.

But a series of questions and answers about a massive gambling deal that will last for the next 30 years?

No way, senators said. And that’s no way for the Legislature to run our state.

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Palm Beach Post. May 22, 2021.

Editorial: Racism is as racism does; DeSantis hurts local voters as he plays politics

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has pulled a fast one by delaying until January a special election to fill the seat of the late U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings.

By keeping the seat empty for so long, DeSantis has given Republicans a sly boost in national politics. For nine months, Democrats will be deprived of one less vote in the U.S. House, where they cling to a razor-thin 218-212 lead for control.

And for all those nine months, the 800,000 constituents of District 20, a jigsaw puzzle piece of Black-majority precincts, will have no vote in the House. By simply stalling the calendar, DeSantis has forced many of Palm Beach and Broward counties’ Black citizens to the sidelines for the rest of this year’s Congressional debates and battles, a temporary form of voter suppression he could accomplish all by himself.

Previous governors have filled previous such vacancies — there haven’t been many — much more quickly. Gov. Rick Scott called for a general election just five months after the 2013 death of U.S. Rep. C.W. “Bill” Young, a Tampa Bay-area Republican who was the only other member of Congress to die in office since 2000. When Democrat Robert Wexler announced in October 2009 that he would resign from his Broward-Palm Beach county seat in January 2010, Gov. Charlie Crist called an election for mid-April, three and a half months later.

But then, neither of those governors was trying to impress Trumpist voters to support a possible 2024 presidential run.

Hastings died on April 6 at age 84. The veteran lawmaker had decided to run for a 16th term in Congress after announcing in January 2021 that he had pancreatic cancer. The choice was unwise. Had Hastings stepped aside for last November’s elections, a successor would now be in place and DeSantis would have had no chance to toy with the district.

His old office remains open and staffed. However, the staff can’t cast votes or participate in budget markups and committee hearings, can’t advocate positions of public policy. Only an elected representative can do that.

As Congress begins to enact new earmarks for community projects, there is an empty chair where once was an outspoken advocate for the 20th district and the state of Florida. Palm Beach County relies on its representatives to secure federal funding for local projects. Hastings was the go-to guy for initiatives in many of the county’s black communities and in the Glades.

For example, the county had hoped to get $2 million for a Living Shoreline Project, an eco-friendly way to bolster parts of Lake Okeechobee. Now, the county can’t compete against other members and their priorities.

Similarly, it will be harder for Palm Beach County to secure new community project funding — a form of earmarks — for Palm Tran. House members are given 10 slots for projects, according to Todd J. Bonlarron, an assistant county administrator. The county had hoped to work with Hastings to obtain money through his slot allotment.

“It’s simple math,” Bonlarron said. “When you go from 30 spots and the number gets reduced to 20, it has an impact.”

As one of Florida’s three majority-minority congressional districts in Florida — specially designed to guard against violations of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — District 20 takes a tortured route from Lake Park and Riviera Beach through parts of West Palm Beach, west to Glades, then south into Broward County.

Now constituents seeking help are encouraged to ask Florida’s two Republican senators — Marco Rubio and Rick Scott. Good luck with that. Imagine Rubio or Scott responding to requests seeking Medicaid expansion, increases to the federal minimum wage, rolling back voter suppression laws or other matters likely to reflect the views and needs of Hastings’ old constituents.

DeSantis claims that by stretching out the time (a primary on Nov. 2, the general election on Jan. 11), he’s helping the many candidates have “enough time to get on the ballot and do what they need to do to be competitive.” We don’t buy it.

Neither does the NAACP, which makes the more believable observation that DeSantis is playing politics at Black peoples’ expense. Said Marsha Ellison, president of the civil rights organization’s Fort Lauderdale/Broward branch: “We certainly want the governor to be the governor of all the people, even those that look like me.”

DeSantis should listen to officials and candidates urging him to speed things up by re-setting the election schedule, for Aug. 31 and Nov. 2. But of course, he won’t. There are few votes for him in the 20th, one of the most Democratic-leaning districts in America. And it can only help him with his base to rile up the libs while weakening House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s majority. The needs of our residents are pawns in a cynical and racist political game.

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Orlando Sentinel. May 21, 2021.

Editorial: Florida’s rigged economy is responsible for a working-class eviction crisis

How badly is Florida’s economy rigged against the working class?

If you work in the low-wage service economy, as many Floridians do, it’s unlikely you can afford to buy a home.

Which means you have to rent.

But if you fall behind on your rent payments — as many service workers did during the pandemic — you have just five days after getting a legal summons to pay the landlord what’s owed.

Five days to come up with possibly thousands of dollars. Otherwise, you’re automatically in default and facing eviction.

Contrast that with homeowners, who have far more time to make good on what they owe before losing their homes.

That inequity was among the findings in the first installment of “Locked Out,” a three-part Orlando Sentinel special report detailing the conditions that have turned Florida into possibly the least friendly state in the nation for renters.

The first “Locked Out” article told the heartbreaking story of the Bennett family, a hardworking mom and dad with five kids who were evicted from their apartment last year when COVID-19 shut down the economy. Now they’re living in an Orlando hotel room, all seven family members sharing two beds.

A second installment in the series focused on Bathsheba Collingwood, who’s struggling to avoid eviction, an outcome that’s far more likely to befall Black families in Florida.

Our state has loads of vulnerable renters, the casualties of laws and policies that encourage a low-wage economy while depriving low-income, working-class families the safety net they need when things go bad.

State and local governments spend millions upon millions of dollars every year to promote and subsidize the leisure and hospitality industry and the low-wage jobs they generate. Florida’s addiction to tourism is a significant reason why Florida remains mired in the bottom tier of states for household income.

According to the website Governing.com, Florida was one of just seven states where — with inflation factored in — the median hourly wage actually fell during the nine-year period from 2007-2016. It’s true the state’s minimum wage in Florida has increased $2.50 since 2005, according to the Sentinel’s report, but that averages out to an increase of just 17 cents extra per hour per year.

While wages stagnated or fell, the inventory of rental units costing less than $1,000 per month dropped. Today, about one in every four renters pays more than half their salary just to keep a roof over their heads. Imagine if 50 cents out of every dollar you earned went exclusively to shelter, before child care, clothes, food, transportation and utilities.

Meanwhile, the goal of buying a home instead of renting one is becoming more unattainable with each month that housing prices continue their insane rise. In April alone the median value of a metro Orlando home jumped by $10,000, from $285,000 to $295,000.

Rents skyrocket. Homes prices get farther out of reach. Wages languish.

None of this is sustainable. But Florida’s Republicans, who control state government top to bottom, not only refuse to even acknowledge there’s a problem, they’re making a fundamentally flawed system worse by tearing off the few economic Band-Aids that keep things together.

A new law passed during this year’s legislative session will permanently cut in half the amount of money from a trust fund that’s supposed to be fully dedicated to affordable housing that might have helped families like the Bennetts leave their hotel room and move into a real home.

Another new law extends the state sales tax to include online purchases, but every nickel of that new money will go toward a tax break for businesses, not to help families.

And the Legislature just completed a special session to pass new gambling laws that will generate some $500 million a year, but lawmakers refused to consider dedicating even a portion of that money to housing or aiding the poor once the money starts coming.

Such systematic neglect of Florida’s working-class population keeps with the tradition of previous legislative sessions, where the well-being of working families is sacrificed to create laws that benefit business and moneyed special interests.

Laws like the one that gives renters just five days to pony up back rent or face eviction so landlords can make room for new tenants.

The most significant boost for the working class in recent memory came not from politicians but from voters, who changed the constitution last year to raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2026.

An increased minimum wage will help. Some.

But it does nothing to repair the structural flaws in Florida’s economy that force working class families to constantly live on the financial edge.

If evictions in Florida feel like a crisis now, just wait. The federal funding that’s helping some families make rent payments to landlords will eventually dry up. The federal eviction moratorium will end. Unemployment payments will stop.

And unlike the state, local governments don’t have the financial means to take up the slack when that happens.

Thousands upon thousands of families could find themselves homeless, unprotected by Florida law and evicted from their rental spaces by landlords who, having suffered financial hardship themselves, are eager for a return to normal.

We harbor no illusions that Florida’s political leadership, after years of neglect, will suddenly give a damn about the hardship of eviction, and the unfairness of Florida law for those facing eviction.

But something has to give. Florida’s political leadership cannot keep kicking the affordable housing can down the road.

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Miami Herald. May 22, 2021.

Editorial: A year after George Floyd’s murder, Florida lawmakers inch toward police reform. Do more

No argument. American policing has changed since George Floyd’s murder a year ago this week in the hands of Minneapolis police. Not nearly enough, of course. But the tragedy got attention in high places, where it had been missing.

In Florida, departments from Miami and Miami-Dade to Jacksonville to the Panhandle have faced calls of defunding the police, of the firing of the bad apples, or heightened accountability. That’s good. But now we need better.

Florida became one of 30 states that enacted new policing laws since former police officer — and now convicted felon Derek Chauvin — snuffed the life out of Floyd, under his knee, on May 25, 2020. The incident, caught on video, ignited a mass national, then global, movement to end police violence against Blacks and intensified calls for systemic change in policing.

LOCAL CHANGES

In Miami-Dade, several police chiefs have been open-minded to those demands. Coral Gables Police Chief Ed Hudak kneeled with Black Lives Matter demonstrators; when he was police chief in Houston, where Floyd is buried, Art Acevedo — now head of Miami’s department — marched with BLM protesters. And Miami-Dade Police Director Alfredo “Freddy’ Ramirez quickly ended his officers’ use of chokeholds after Floyd’s death. We are fortunate to have law enforcement leadership willing to bend.

“As we mark the first anniversary of the death of George Floyd, Americans from all walks of life should pause to reflect on what his death, and our own reactions to it, says about us as individuals,” Acevedo told the Editorial Board.

More than ever, we need police chiefs who listen, but also prosecutors who send the message that violent policing will be punished by law.

A year ago, Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle — who has been criticized for not being harder on violent officers — along with a bipartisan group of legislators, pushed Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature to pass significant police reform. In the end, House Bill 7051 was hijacked by the GOP leadership and watered down.

“While HB 7051 did not go as far as I and others would have liked, I am pleased that so many joined our call for action and that an impactful bipartisan compromise was reached,” Fernandez Rundle wrote in her newsletter.

But state Sen. Shevrin Jones, an African-American Democrat, told the Board, “Florida had the prime opportunity this legislative session to acknowledge that police violence against men and women in Black communities is also a pandemic that needs to be addressed, but to no avail.”

“One year after the death of George Floyd, Florida is still in the same position — quiet!”

SIGN HB 7051, GOVERNOR

It will be a long and arduous fight for real reform. Still, police officers in Florida, from now on, must follow these solid mandates:

▪ Apply proportional use of force; consider alternatives to force and, most important, adopt de-escalation tactics. Stopping a Black driver for a broken tail light shouldn’t automatically turn into a police-involved shooting. It doesn’t for white drivers.

▪ Use a chokehold only in situations involving the immediate threat of serious bodily injury or death.

▪ Police officers must consider it their duty to intervene if another officer uses excessive force. There should be no “blue wall of silence.”

▪ It is a duty to render medical aid to a person who needs such attention. Officers, jaded or heartless, can no longer just do nothing.

▪ Recognize and act appropriately when dealing with a person whose anti-social behavior is rooted in mental illness.

Gov. DeSantis has yet to sign this legislation into law. He should do so with the same urgency with which he signed HB 1, which unfairly cracks down on protests, specifically those demanding social justice. Let’s call it “balance.”

HB 7051 also mandates independent reviews of use-of-force incidents in which someone dies. This last mandate is proving to be a major disappointment in Miami-Dade.

REVIEW PANEL STALLED

Despite great opposition, former Miami-Dade Commissioner Barbara Jordan revived the county’s Independent Review Panel, a vehicle for those who think they have been unfairly treated by police officers to have a neutral board hear their complaint. Such citizen panels are crucial in any community. The panel had been dormant for 11 years.

Unfortunately, red tape and delays from commissioners in naming their appointee to the panel, have stalled its launch. According to a county spokeswoman, the panel will likely not meet for the first time until June or July. It was formed in August of 2020. That’s unacceptable.

Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava recently told the Board she is “disappointed” by the slow pace in launching the panel.

We would add that it’s a disservice to residents, who have been promised they have a place to air their grievances.

A year after Floyd’s murder opened our eyes, we cannot afford to avert our gaze now. There is too much work still to be done.

A previous version of this article had an incorrect name for the Miami-Dade Police director. Alfredo Ramirez is the director of Miami-Dade Police Department.

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Tampa Bay Times. May 21, 2021.

Editorial: For students learning American history, what does just ‘the facts’ mean?

Which facts should be taught? And in what context?

Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran says the teaching of history in Florida public school classrooms comes down to a simple proposition: “Teach the facts.” Okay, here are some facts about American history. Which ones should be taught? And in what context?

Thomas Jefferson was a primary author of the Declaration of Independence, the foundational document of the United States. He was also a slave owner who almost certainly fathered several children with a slave named Sally Hemings. He never freed her.

On July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was adopted, setting up the newly independent colonies as an example to the world. Of course, the new nation counted approximately 700,000 enslaved people not many years later. Black slavery had begun in what is now the United States more than 150 years earlier, and a majority of the signers of the Declaration — not just Jefferson — actually owned other human beings.

Cotton was king in the mid 19th century. By 1860, cotton had become the most important American commodity and made up two-thirds of the global supply. At the time the Constitution was written in 1787, the nation produced almost no cotton but by the outbreak of the Civil War, enslaved Black people produced more than two billion pounds a year. But enslaved Black people were the most valuable property: “In 1860, slaves as an asset were worth more than all of America’s manufacturing, all of the railroads, all of the productive capacity of the United States put together. Slaves were the single largest, by far, financial asset of property in the entire American economy,” according to the Yale historian David W. Blight.

President Woodrow Wilson was a foreign policy progressive who pushed for the League of Nations, an early version of United Nations, and laid out a proposal for a fair peace to end World War I in his Fourteen Points plan. He also supported the Ku Klux Klan, called Black people “an ignorant and inferior race” and re-segregated the federal civil service workforce after winning the presidency in 1912, reversing the practices of earlier presidents.

September 1, 1939. Germany invaded Poland in a blitzkrieg, starting World War II. Poland fell, then Denmark and Norway, then France — most of western Europe, save Britain. The United States, the land of democracy and exceptionalism, stayed out of the war for more than two years while Adolph Hitler controlled much of Europe and began the mass murder of Jewish people.

December 7, 1941. Japan launched an aerial assault on Pearl Harbor, bringing the United States into World War II. But even then, the United States declared war only on Japan. It did not declare war on Germany until Hitler first declared war on the United States days later.

The United States played a major role in winning the war in Europe and the Pacific, and defeating fascism. However, the United States also helped firebomb Dresden in Germany and remains the only nation to have used nuclear weapons, dropping atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and then Nagasaki in August 1945. But in the war’s aftermath, the forward-thinking and globalist Marshall Plan also spent billions of U.S. tax dollars to help western European nations — including West Germany — rebuild their shattered economies.

Wernher von Braun was literally a rocket scientist. He designed the Saturn V that shot Neil Armstrong and his Apollo 11 crew to the moon, winning the “space race” against the Soviets and bringing the Earth’s inhabitants together in awe when Armstrong spoke of “a giant leap for mankind” from the lunar surface. Von Braun also had been a Nazi who worked for Hitler in pioneering the V-2 rocket. “V” stood for “Vergeltungswaffe,” which means reprisal or vengeance, and that is what the weapon wreaked on Britain toward the end of World War II.

So what’s the lesson of these scattering of facts from America’s past? History is complicated. Facts need context. And teachers need the freedom to raise the difficult questions that prod our next generation of citizens to think about what it means to be a Floridian — and an American.

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