Editorial Roundup: Florida

South Florida Sun Sentinel. August 11, 2021.

Editorial: ALEC and the FEC: Did right-wing organization violate campaign law and its own tax-exempt status?

It’s more than coincidence when Republican legislatures throughout the nation all start singing the same right-wing marching songs, as in the frenzy to bar critical race theory from public schools that aren’t even teaching the university-level discipline.

That hysteria, an outlet for pent-up racism, has been fed not just by Fox “News” but also by a spider web of mostly tax-exempt political organizations in which the American Legislative Exchange Council — ALEC for short — is arguably the most significant.

Accurately described as a conservative “corporate bill mill” and as “the back room where laws are born,” ALEC indoctrinates like-minded state legislators at annual conferences heavily subsidized by corporate donors, and it drafts model legislation to be introduced in Tallahassee, Austin and other red state capitals.

Now it’s accused, apparently credibly, of helping Republican legislators win elections in violation of its tax-exempt status. Two Florida lawmakers are named in the complaint.

The “stand your ground” law promoting the use of deadly force was hatched in Florida but eagerly promulgated nationwide by ALEC, doubtlessly to the delight of gun manufacturers. Following the 2012 shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin at Sanford, a boycott campaign prompted Coca Cola and several other corporations to quit ALEC, which announced it would be refocusing on business-friendly legislation rather than hot-button social issues.

But now, it’s back in the culture wars.

“The 1619 curriculum is infecting our schools,” warned an ALEC post last December hyperbolically promoting a workshop on critical race theory. “Diversity training is taking over our workplaces.”

ALEC has also been a fountainhead of voter suppression and anti-union laws, limitations on alternative energy — the petrochemical Koch Brothers were major funders — and pressure to reopen the public marketplace before COVID-19 could be brought under control.

Although ALEC is effectively a powerful mega lobby, it is tax-exempt as an “educational” organization. As such, it’s not supposed to make campaign contributions.

But it does that in a big way, according to complaints recently filed with the IRS and with Florida and 14 other states. The complaints are serious and deserve to be taken as such.

The complaint to the Florida Elections Commission identified Republican state Reps. Spencer Roach of North Fort Myers and Jason Fischer of Jacksonville, ALEC’s two Florida state chairs, as likely recipients of valuable software that’s priced beyond what Florida law allows. Neither has reported any such contribution to their campaigns or responded to e-mails asking for comment. No contributions from ALEC appear in the Secretary of State’s election data base.

Florida law sets a $1,000 limit on contributions to a legislative campaign and requires the reporting of all donations, whether in money or in kind.

According to the complaint filed by the Center for Media and Democracy, one of ALEC’s arch-foes, it distributed election campaign software worth between $2,376 and $5,760 to an unknown number of state legislators as a benefit of their membership. The estimate Is based on the manufacturer’s pricing structure to non-ALEC members.

The software, produced by Voter Gravity, a concern linked to the Republican National Committee, “comes fully loaded with all campaign data and functions,” according to the complaint. Data entered by ALEC members supposedly is added to the RNC’s data base, benefitting the national party as well as local legislators.

The complaint, citing information provided by a whistleblower, contends that the software gives ALEC members “access to party affiliation, ideology, issue interest, income, education, religion, Tea Party support, voter history, precinct information and ‘turnout score’ data for voters in their districts, and services that they can use to create walking lists for door-knocking, set door-knocking and phone calling goals, track supporters, and create election day ‘strike lists’ to maximize the turnout of their supporters.”

That implies massive data mining and goes far beyond the voter lists maintained by Florida election supervisors.

Among other things, the complaint asks the Florida Elections Commission to issue subpoenas to identify all Florida ALEC members who may have received the free software for their 2020 campaigns and determine whether they or their staff used it “on state time or in state offices,” along with the identities of those who funded the program.

But it’s improbable that the Election Commission could do any of that for the near future. It’s presently one member short of a quorum and lacks even a chair and vice-chair. Five seats are vacant, leaving only four members whose terms have long since expired. Gov. Ron DeSantis is responsible for appointing replacements from lists submitted by the Senate president, House speaker and the Democratic leaders of both houses. But he has appointed no one to the commission since taking office in January 2019.

“It’s insane,” said Barbara Anne Stern, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer who had served since 2012 until her recent resignation.

In Washington, the IRS is under new and hopefully improved management. It has often appeared indifferent to organizations abusing their tax-exempt status. The ALEC complaint is a timely and appropriate opportunity to do better.

As for DeSantis, he was a keynote speaker at ALEC’s confab in Salt Lake City late last month, rousing the audience with a diatribe against masking requirements and a “Faucian dystopia.” Although he would seem unlikely to let the Elections Commission have a go at the ALEC complaint, one can always hope. Increasingly in Florida, hope is all that’s left.

___

Miami Herald. August 6, 2021.

Editorial: Welcome to Florida, where COVID-19 is rampant, but mask mandates are the enemy

It’s like the overwrought plot of a B movie.

New COVID-19 cases have reached numbers never seen in Florida since the beginning of the pandemic. Hospitalizations have reached a record high. More children in the Sunshine State were hospitalized with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 infections on Tuesday than in any other state in the country.

The real threat to public health?

The delta variant of COVID-19. That’s what most hospital officials, doctors and epidemiologists have been saying.

But not in Florida — if you look at the recent actions by state officials.

As soon as the virus is exposed to the Sunshine State’s magic dust, something special happens. Guidance about the efficacy of masks to prevent transmission — from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics, among others — might work for other states, but we got our own medical experts here: Gov. Ron DeSantis and the State Board of Education.

They are telling us that the real threat to public health, in particular to children, isn’t the coronavirus. It’s mask mandates. And the villains? Educators armed with disposable face coverings.

It’s a perversion of public health. The playbook turns one of the weapons in the fight against COVID into a threat so serious it requires government intervention. For instance, DeSantis signed an executive order threatening school districts that require masks with funding cuts. But that same government washes its hands from fighting the real threat — you know, the one that has killed close to 40,000 Floridians and put more than 12,000 people in hospitals as of Tuesday.

Friday, the state Board of Education, appointed by the governor, will consider a proposed emergency rule that encapsulates that very attitude. The rule would allow parents to use school vouchers to transfer kids out of schools “when a school district’s COVID-19 health protocols, including masking, pose a health or educational danger to their child.”

The proposal would use the Hope Scholarship program, created by the Legislature to allow children who are bullied to transfer to another public or private school. The rule appears to equate mask mandates with “harassment; hazing; bullying; kidnapping; physical attack; robbery; sexual offenses,” which are some of the types of scary incidents covered by the program.

It’s unclear whether parents who don’t want to send their children to a school without a mask mandate could use the program as well. That would be only fair. The proposal’s language was still being crafted by the Department of Education as of Thursday evening, the Herald reported.

We’ve got to give DeSantis and his troupe credit for their astuteness. They have created the perfect political antagonist: one that is in your face — and on it — easy to understand and spurs freedom-seeking protesters at school board meetings. Yes the masks can be uncomfortable and inconvenient, especially for kids and teens. But the real enemy is microscopic, complex and ever-changing as new variants develop and new data comes out, forcing the CDC to change its recommendations — creating some public mistrust.

The passion that a simple piece of cloth stirs in some people can be easily capitalized in campaign fundraisers and in political rallies with crowds of mask-less supporters.

Why should they listen to the CDC and most pediatricians and epidemiologists? People like Dr. Aileen Marty, an expert in infectious disease and disaster medicine at Florida International University, who has advised the school district and other local organizations during the pandemic?

As Marty told the Editorial Board on Thursday: Masks do protect people, including children.

“When everyone is wearing a mask, even if there’s one individual who has the virus … that person is shedding less (virus) into that atmosphere, and those who are breathing that atmosphere are less likely to get it.”

Listen to Marty. Unlike state leaders, she knows the true enemy when she sees it.

___

Orlando Sentinel. August 6, 2021.

Editorial: Florida faces looming redistricting fiasco, but hope that justices will follow the constitution

The Florida Legislature knew its $3,000 limit on campaign contributions for citizen-led ballot amendments was unconstitutional.

But lawmakers passed it anyway.

Gov. Ron DeSantis knew it was unconstitutional.

But he signed it anyway.

Attorney General Ashley Moody knew it was unconstitutional.

But she defended it anyway.

Everyone knew that targeting one specific type of contribution violated the First Amendment, but literally no one in state government who possesses power lifted a finger to stop it.

Two federal judges saw the law for what it was, and blocked it from taking effect. The law was so bogus that Moody’s office didn’t even bother to challenge the injunction before the appeal deadline expired.

And now, the same Legislature that so casually passed that law is preparing to embark on a once-a-decade effort to redraw state and federal voting districts.

Two constitutional amendments passed by voters in 2010 — by margins of 63% — require those maps to be drawn without favoring incumbents or a particular political party. The districts must be compact and, as much as possible, they must follow city, county and geographical boundaries.

Pretty simple.

But even a decade ago, the Legislature tried its best to violate the state constitution when drawing congressional and state Senate maps.

The state got hauled into state Supreme Court, where it was virtually horsewhipped by justices who concluded their maps did not pass constitutional muster.

A lot has changed since then, and not for the better, as demonstrated by the attempt to crack down on campaign contributions to citizen-led amendments. The Legislature has become even more brazen in its disregard for voter-approved constitutional amendments it doesn’t like.

And, it now has a Florida Supreme Court that’s far more conservative and possibly more likely to cut the Legislature extra slack.

Meanwhile, the complicated legislative process for drawing new maps is woefully behind schedule, largely because the U.S. Census numbers are so late in coming, partly because of the pandemic. The data were supposed to be available last spring, but now aren’t expected to arrive until the end of September.

Months have been lost. Public hearings should be well underway.

The Census delays aren’t in any way the Legislature’s fault, but House and Senate leaders need to be doing everything possible to prime the pump for the data’s arrival.

Our fear is that the shortened window of opportunity will be an opportunity for the process to operate even further outside the sunshine than it has in the past. In other words, more behind-the-scenes, anti-constitutional mischief — safe in the belief that the state Supreme Court will quietly go along with whatever the Legislature decides.

We’re not as certain Florida’s highest court will be as willing as lawmakers to set aside their the oaths to uphold the constitution.

Remember, this is the court that unanimously rejected a DeSantis nominee because she was literally unqualified to serve on the Supreme Court, having not been a member of the Florida Bar for 10 years as required by the state constitution. (Yes, another instance where the governor knew he was doing something unconstitutional but didn’t care.)

“The Governor has not complied with the constitution’s clear commands,” the high court wrote.

If the court is willing to rule for the constitution in that instance, it may be inclined to do so again based on the clear commands of the Fair Districts amendments.

Over on the legislative side of state government, we’re not encouraged by the fact that only 17 lawmakers — all Democrats — out of the 160-member Legislature were willing to sign a pledge basically saying they’ll follow the constitutional Fair District mandate. Dozens of Democrats did not sign, along with every single Republican.

Not great.

The group that circulated that pledge, the Fair Districts Coalition, also is pressing for full transparency in this year’s delayed, time-shortened process.

The coalition, which consists of dozens of advocacy organizations, want the work of drafting maps to be done in full view of the public. They want all the mapping data to be easily available to the public. They want public comments and meeting transcripts made available quickly for anyone to review.

Republican leaders should heed those requests. After all the GOP huffing and puffing after the 2020 election about the need for transparency, it would be a fresh new hypocrisy for them to shroud redistricting in secrecy.

We have no doubt that the Legislature will try to play games, using the tried and true gerrymandering methods of cracking (splitting like-minded voters into multiple districts to dilute their power) and packing (cramming like-minded voters into districts to achieve the same goal).

But considering the Legislature’s record, we also have little doubt the maps will end up in court again, even though Florida’s constitution is crystal clear about how districts are supposed to be drawn.

Unless lawmakers surprise us, we will once again have to count on seven justices to ensure the Florida Constitution is followed.

So surprise us, lawmakers.

___

Palm Beach Post. August 6, 2021.

Editorial: Florida is a viral hotspot for COVID. Problem lies with Gov. DeSantis

What happened to the Florida Department of Health? At a time when our state is undergoing one of the worst resurgences of COVID-19, the stature of the agency responsible for addressing public health crises appears to shrink with each day. Blame it on the push to play politics with the pandemic.

The fault isn’t with the many department analysts, nurses, physicians and scientists who find themselves on healthcare’s front lines. “The Florida Department of Health is concentrating on vaccinations,” said Dr. Alina Alonso, the department’s Palm Beach County health director. “This is a pandemic of the unvaccinated. “I’m not being stopped.”

The problem lies with Gov. Ron DeSantis. As the growing numbers of infections, hospitalizations and deaths turn Florida into a viral hotspot, the state’s key healthcare agency remains hampered by the governor who has taken his opposition of mask mandates and other common sense COVID-19 restrictions to the extreme.

A fifth of the nation’s new delta variant cases now occur in Florida, according to the federal Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. While DeSantis has encouraged vaccinations and promoted masks as a matter of “personal choice” instead of an essential tool to deter the virus’s spread, that hasn’t stopped him from cranking out executive order after executive order that hamstring the health department. “In Florida, there will be no lockdowns, there will be no school closures, there will be no restrictions and no mandates in the state of Florida,” DeSantis said in response to the CDC’s recommendation to wear masks in schools.

Unfortunately, the virus isn’t paying the governor any attention. On a single day -- last Tuesday -- Florida reported 16,935 new COVID-19 infections and 140 deaths. An estimated 12,408 beds in Florida’s hospitals, about a 5% jump compared to the previous day, are now being used for patients afflicted with the virus, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services figures released last week.

Give the governor credit for being consistent. Last year, he overturned efforts by local governments to impose fines on businesses and individuals for violating mask and social distance restrictions. As counties and municipalities found other ways to put teeth back into pandemic protections, the governor signed another executive order suspending all local COVID-19 mandates. When cruise operators supported “vaccine passports” to comply with CDC rules, win back customers and restore a key segment of Florida’s tourism industry, DeSantis roiled the industry by successfully suing the CDC for seeking to exercise authority over cruise lines in Florida.

Last month, the CDC changed its guidelines to make wearing masks in schools a requirement and several school districts in Florida, including Palm Beach County, considered mask mandates. DeSantis wasted little time responding. He signed another executive order, this one banning schools from requiring masks, and following that with threats to withhold money from any school district that didn’t comply. The move prompted angst among school officials and many parents. This past week, school boards in Alachua, Broward and Leon counties said they would defy the governor and keep their mask mandates. “The fact that a state government hundreds of miles away believes it knows better than local officials is troubling,” Palm Beach County’s school board Chairman, Frank Barbieri, told The Palm Beach Post.

DeSantis’ hardline stance leaves Florida’s state health professionals in a pickle. The agency, with its a state health office, county health departments, regional offices and public health laboratories at roughly 255 sites, is comprised of healthcare employees trained to follow accepted medical practices to address public health challenges. Unfortunately, it’s the governor and not health officials leading the charge. That became clear last year, after DeSantis’s appointee to lead the department, Surgeon General Scott A. Rivkees, was escorted out of a coronavirus briefing when his remarks apparently strayed too far from the governor’s message.

President Joe Biden singled out DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott this week, urging them, if they can’t help, to at least “get out of the way” of people who are doing the right thing in addressing COVID-19. As if on cue to have the last word and a new talking point for campaign fundraising, DeSantis crudely fired back, blaming Florida’s mounting pandemic problems on the President and the nation’s unresolved immigration crisis.

Florida deserves a governor who marshals all available resources to stem the virus, not a petulant pol playing to his base at the public’s expense.

___

Daytona Beach News-Journal. August 8, 2021.

Editorial: Volusia, Flagler, St. Johns leaders must prepare for a coming storm of evictions

She was one person, standing in front of the Volusia County Council Tuesday with a calm poise that must have covered a feeling of desperation. In low, even tones, she described her situation: She’d been evicted — not due to non-payment of rent, she said, but because she was on a month-to-month lease that her landlord had chosen not to renew. She started her search for help, she said, with a “whole packet of resources.” One by one, they failed her, even though she had a teenage son sick with COVID-19.

“What do we do? Where do we go? We don’t have any answers. Yes there’s money, but how do we get it? It’s sad because now we’re homeless,” the woman said, adding that she was forced to close a restaurant her family owned. “It’s sad that we go from good people trying to make a living to this situation and there’s no resources. What do we do? Sleep in our cars? What do we do?”

She was one person, and Tuesday, she might have gotten a bit of a lucky break. Dona DeMarsh Butler, the county’s community assistance director, was lingering in the back of the council chambers. County Chair Jeff Brower asked Butler to see what she could do.

But this was just one person. Just in Volusia, Flagler and St. Johns counties, there are hundreds — possibly thousands — more facing eviction for non-payment of rent due to the coronavirus outbreak. Many of them have no hope of clearing months’ worth of back rent and late fees that accrued through the months when evictions were stayed. One analysis, from nonprofit health research firm Surgo Ventures, puts Florida’s at-risk households at around 360,000. It also estimates local numbers:

— In Volusia County, 8,317 households owe $29.6 million in back rent, an average of $3,548 per household.

— In Flagler County, 1,122 households owe nearly $4.7 million in back rent, for an average of $4,170 per household.

— In St. Johns County, 1,949 households owe more than $8.7 million in back rent, an average of $4,595 per household.

Behind these jaw-dropping numbers are people — seniors, single parents with children, desperately low-income individuals. Undoubtedly, some of them took advantage of COVID-era rules to avoid paying rent despite an ability to pay. But many others were genuinely struggling. And they slipped very close to disaster this month, with the fleeting expiration of a federal ban on evictions July 29.

They got a temporary reprieve when the Centers for Disease Control — citing public-health considerations — put a new moratorium in place. But nobody knows how long that will last, in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that only Congress can extend the moratoriums.

So here’s the real question: What have state and local governments done to get ready — really ready — for the wave of desperation that’s about to break in communities across Florida? And how did they let it get this bad? Throughout the pandemic, Florida has received billions in federal funds meant, in large part, to provide rental assistance. The vast majority of that money remains unspent. It’s baffling, given that for every renter who can’t pay their monthly tab, there’s a landlord who isn’t getting the money they are owed.

Florida wasn’t handled an impossible task. Texas has managed to spend more than half its money, the New York Times reports.

The CDC moratorium is one last chance for Florida’s state and local officials to get their act together. Disbursing funds to keep people in their current housing makes the most sense; a wave of evictions coming as coronavirus variants ravage the state is a humanitarian disaster in the making. But there also needs to be a plan to help those people who are about to be forced out, or are already homeless.

Toward the end of the Volusia Council meeting, Butler was able to report back that she’d helped the woman who spoke hours earlier. But the woman was one person. There are legions lined up behind her.

“I know you guys have prepared yourself for this day, but it’s not been prepared for enough,” she told the council. She’s right.

END