Editorial Roundup: Florida

Tampa Bay Times. March 24, 2024.

Editorial: Florida school principals whipsawed on book bans

Florida, which leads the nation in school book bans, is sending mixed messages to school principals.

Pity the thousands of public school principals who labor in Florida. Two years ago, the state Legislature ordered them to make sure students weren’t exposed to books with objectionable content, kicking off a huge book-banning controversy that has made all Floridians look like a bunch of nutty blue-noses.

Now, at the direction of Gov. Ron DeSantis, who propelled this embarrassing effort because he thought it would help his failed run for president, Florida officials have a new message for principals: You could soon face state penalties if you illegally prevent students from looking at library books in your schools.

Talk about whiplash! First principals are told they can get in big trouble for keeping objectionable books on school shelves. Now the state is considering a rule that would penalize them for taking them off. Remember when principals had more important things to worry about, like educating almost 3 million Florida students?

Confusion is inevitable whenever our Republican-dominated Legislature or state agencies approve a vague rule or law, which they do far too often. The people who are affected have no way to know exactly where new lines have been drawn. That paralyzes the process and infuriates the people who have to navigate through the haze, which seems to be exactly what some Republican culture-warriors want.

Since the book challenges began last year, Florida schools have led the nation in pulling materials off their shelves, according to PEN America, a nonprofit that advocates for freedom of speech. PEN notes that most of the challenged books here deal with gender identity and other LGBTQ+ issues, a good indication of other issues at play.

The new rule proposed this month — a tacit admission that state officials went too far last year — is designed in part to combat a handful of conservative activists who hijacked the challenge process by objecting to too many books at a time. Just two people — a transplanted New Yorker and an Escambia County English teacher — filed about half of the 1,100 complaints made over a recent 12-month period, according to a Tampa Bay Times investigation.

But DeSantis also wants to crack down on principals and other educators who he says are trying to score political points by arbitrarily removing access to entire sections of school libraries. If he gets his way, principals could once again get bitten in the rear, caught between vague and conflicting mandates.

Is enough ever enough for our state government, which is clearly more concerned with ideological red meat than meeting the needs of Florida residents? How does ginning up a book-banning controversy help residents pay for gas, groceries and a place to live? Does it reduce crime or drug abuse? How about our rapidly spiraling insurance crisis, which could force some residents out of their homes?

As we’ve noted before, the simplest solution to this made-up problem is one that has been there all along — having parents who don’t want their children exposed to certain materials “opt out” of any requirement they do so. That would protect their rights, as well as the rights of parents who want their children to read as widely as possible.

DeSantis says he is just trying to return power to parents. It would be better for everyone if he encouraged parents to use the power they already have.


South Florida Sun Sentinel. March 25, 2024.

Editorial: Lawmakers make it easier for corruption to flourish

The Florida Legislature wants to add unnecessary obstacles to investigating politicians for potentially corrupt behavior.

One case in Miami-Dade explains why Gov. Ron DeSantis should veto the Legislature’s attempt ( Senate Bill 7014 ).

The arrest of former Miami Commissioner Alex Diaz de la Portilla on corruption charges last September was the product of a criminal case that began as an investigation of whether he violated local ethics rules.

The inquiry into the commissioner’s behavior began with the Miami-Dade County Commission on Ethics and Public Trust, which the voters created to ensure the integrity of people in government. In the course of an investigation into his potential misuse of office, “it became evident that a violation of criminal law” might have occurred, prompting the commission to refer the case to law enforcement, Executive Director Jose Arrojo wrote in a statement issued after the arrest.

Prosecutors accused Diaz de la Portilla of receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to push a downtown Miami sports complex funded by a wealthy couple. He denies wrongdoing. The Ethics Commission also agreed to charge him with violating the county ethics code for letting a friend use a city car to pick up alcohol and run errands for him. A hearing on that case was delayed last year because of his pending criminal charges.

A pro-corruption bill

Thanks to SB 7014, it will become much harder for ethics agencies in communities across the state to investigate similar cases. This is particularly bad news in places like Miami-Dade or Palm Beach counties, which have instituted local ethics commissions. (Broward County has not created one.)

The legislation would prohibit those entities from initiating their own inquiries or complaints into whether an official committed a violation. The only way a commission could begin an investigation is if someone files a third-party complaint under oath, based on “personal knowledge” of the circumstances.

Common Cause Florida and eight other groups are urging DeSantis to veto the bill, calling the personal knowledge standard “an unreasonably high evidentiary hurdle that has never existed in the 50-year history of the Commission. Instead, complaints should continue to require the filer to certify that the information is true to the best of their knowledge, which already discourages false and frivolous complaints.”

As it stands now, Arrojo’s staff in Miami can comb through campaign finance reports and public records to spot problems. A news article or a citizen’s tip about an official behaving improperly could prompt his team to further investigate a potential ethical breach, Arrojo said.

Arrojo said the requirement for a third-party complaint could also stop law enforcement agencies and state attorneys from referring cases they investigated to local ethics boards. Ethics commissions function as community watchdogs on issues such as whether elected officials or government employees have a conflict of interest between their public duty and private life.

The ‘direct knowledge’ clause

SB 7014 also diminishes the work of the state’s watchdog agency, the Florida Commission on Ethics. Under the legislation, only people with direct knowledge of a violation — and not “hearsay” or, say, a concern based on a news article — could file a state ethics complaint. Whistleblowers likely would have to out themselves in order to bring potential wrongdoing to light, risking political retaliation and even their jobs.

The Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics already has that first-hand knowledge requirement, Arrojo said. But remember: Local commissions, unlike their state counterpart, are currently allowed to self-initiate complaints — an authority neither local boards nor the state body would have if DeSantis signs this legislation.

This bill seems intent on making it harder to spot and investigate public corruption — and it’s the product of lawmakers who themselves are supposed to be held accountable by the ethics investigators they want to kneecap.

State Sen. Danny Burgess, R-Zephyrhills, who sponsored the legislation, has said baseless ethics complaints have been weaponized during elections to tarnish the reputations of candidates.

That may be true in some cases. But Arrojo said it would be “stupid” for his commission to pursue such frivolous cases. His funding relies on support from county commissioners and the public — and it’s also clear that lawmakers in Tallahassee are watching for any missteps.

We don’t dismiss Burgess’ concerns, but are they worth making it more difficult to keep public servants in check?

Miami-Dade voters, after all, created the local ethics commission in 1996 for a reason. They wanted more accountability — not less.


Orlando Sentinel. March 25, 2024.

Editorial: Florida’s budget includes nice surprises, but doesn’t do enough for those in need

One thing remains consistent: Florida leaders know how to bring the drama. Even when it comes to something as seemingly mundane as writing the state’s budget for the coming year, they manage to be extra extra — the $117 billion spending plan for the coming fiscal year is a heap of head-fakes and last-minute script flips.

That’s before Gov. Ron DeSantis gets his licks in — with the full knowledge that this year, House and Senate leaders might not passively absorb the stabs of his veto pen.

But we can’t just regard this budget as entertainment for the politically plugged in. These decisions will make a big difference in the ways Floridians live and work. For many, it will spell the difference between misery and comfort. For some, the difference between life and death.

Here’s our list of takeaways — which are by no means comprehensive:

Florida’s families won surprising victories with a continued commitment to affordable housing, $550 million in rebates to defray skyrocketing property insurance costs, and $717 million to expand access to health care and educate more doctors, nurses and other medical workers. But too much of that housing money still runs through (and sticks to) the hands of private developers instead of going directly to those in need. Leaders also threw away billions of dollars in federal aid that could give low-income working families access to Medicaid.

Consumers will get about $288 million worth of sales-tax “holidays,” including breaks on disaster-prep supplies and breaks on back-to-school expenses. This will, undeniably, help low-income families who often scrounge for the dollars to pay for notebooks, pencils and shoes. But it will also boost the benefit to parents who can throw down their platinum cards for designer duds.

Big business interests lost tax-cut giveaways that many expected to be slam dunks, including a doubling of the exemption on so-called “personal property,” a $113 million boost in the kickback to businesses that collect state sales tax and a $309 million cut in business rental taxes. But it’s way too soon to rule out back-door benefits that have yet to be revealed, and lawmakers didn’t plug a hole in the way Florida calculates business taxes that allows corporations to dodge billions of dollars worth of obligations.

On school vouchers, lawmakers finally accepted reality and acknowledged the $4 billion of public education dollars leaking into unaccountable, shadowy “schools without rules.” (Last year’s budget undercut that cost by at least $3.2 billion. Maybe lawmakers need to allocate funding for their own remedial math classes.) That giant hole could have been sutured a tiny bit by a demand to restrict the use of voucher dollars to pay for theme-park visits, kayaks and big-screen TVs. But even before the impact of that shift could be calculated, a last-minute move watered that down to a spending study by the state Department of Education. Don’t hold your breath for big changes.

Floridians with disabilities will see about $50 million to take people off the waiting list for in-home services, some of whom have been waiting for decades. It sounds like a lot, but in reality it will barely cover the increase in demand. Meanwhile, low-income working families who lack access to affordable child care got a little more help, but again, not nearly enough.

And DeSantis’ budget priorities got a much-needed haircut — but not the smack upside the head they really deserved. Lawmakers pared back his budget requests, giving him less than half of what he asked for toward his private state militia and ridiculous stunt to “defend the border” against undocumented immigration. But that’s still about 100% too much.

As previously noted, this drama has at least one more act to play out — DeSantis could slash billions of dollars with his line-item veto. However, he has to be aware that House Speaker Paul Renner and Senate President Kathleen Passidomo could easily assemble enough votes to call the Legislature back into session and override him.

In a year this chaotic, don’t be surprised if there’s more drama to come. We just wish lawmakers had been more focused on the needs of average Floridians, and less obsessed with political games.


Palm Beach Post. March 26, 2024.

Editorial: Urgent fix needed for South Florida condo owners as climate threatens structures

Florida condominium owners are getting buffeted from every direction and it’s starting to hurt. Flooding, hurricanes, soaring insurance premiums, and now a new state law designed to protect residents physically but which could kill them financially, are intensifying into a powerful storm of consequences of past inaction.

The state needs to help condo owners through this storm. But more importantly for the long term, Florida must launch a concerted effort to strategize not just condo repairs but the whole collection of crises that threaten to make life in paradise miserable.

This effort needs above all to include leadership in counteracting global warming trends, by ending reliance on fossil fuels, to such an extent that we serve as an example to other states and nations. These temperatures rises are increasing the frequency of floods and force of hurricanes. Sea walls won’t cut it. Science makes it clear there will be no Florida if we don’t reverse course.

The warming has been melting glaciers, and not just raising seas to levels that flood South Florida streets and negate all drainage, but providing the Atlantic with the heat from which hurricanes draw their strength. The weather, in turn, finds an easy target in weak construction, the result of construction industries resisting tougher building codes, and of consumers resisting the outlays that construction improvements would require.

At the same time, Florida lawmakers have failed to create an environment where insurers can thrive without see-sawing between gouging on premiums and deserting the state altogether. Over the past year we’ve seen our Legislature hand the industry an anti-consumer law that makes it extremely hard for customers to sue insurers who don’t perform, and which gave consumers nothing in return in the way of price restraints. Instead the Legislature needs to consider innovative solutions, like the one described in these pages recently, that would split hurricane insurance from other types of claims and have the state itself handle the hurricane coverage.

The state and its municipalities also need to rethink their continued permitting of houses and high-rises along defenseless, eroding shorelines. Equally obvious, those who chose to live in such locations must bear the bear the consequences and not expect the government to bail them out.

The building inspection and reserve account requirements taking effect this year, in the wake of Surfside’s Champlain Tower South collapse of 2021, make perfect sense. As noted in an op-ed piece March 23 by Miami lawyer Joseph Hernandez, these requirements could force steep repair costs and major increases in monthly maintenance fees. Thousands of condo owners across Florida might be left with have no choice financially but to sell out to developers for the land value of these shoreline sites and flee for the hills — while new condos get built in place of the old ones and the cycle continues.

All of these crises can be tied to one cause: Floridians’ failure to accept reality, over decades.

But for Florida’s 1.5 million condo owners, it should be increasingly clear that there’s more to this than a quick fix. The owners, the Legislature, and the construction and insurance industries must now join to find solutions that reflect the urgency of these times.


Miami Herald. March 20, 2024.

Editorial: Florida might be MAGA country but some Republicans sent a strong message to Trump

Florida might be MAGA country, but a contingent of Republicans made a point this week of showing that Donald Trump is not their candidate.

In Tuesday’s presidential primary, one in five Republicans voted for someone other than Trump, who is a Palm Beach resident, the Herald reported.

Trump still won Florida by vast margins — 81.2% of the votes, according to preliminary results — but that’s still less than the 93% he received in 2020 and what he got in other states this year. Given he’s the only major candidate left in the race, it appears some Republicans wanted to send a message. As of Tuesday evening, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley had a small lead in three Miami-Dade County precincts despite dropping out of the primary weeks ago.

Haley came in second with almost 14% followed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in distant third place at less than 4%. DeSantis dropped out in January after the Iowa caucuses but that’s still not a good showing for him in his own state — and probably a blow to the ambitious governor who has refused to step back from the spotlight.

We have to be careful not to read too much into Tuesday’s numbers. This was a primary where the outcome wasn’t in question. Some Republicans voted for candidates other than Trump, yes, but there’s zero doubt he commands the GOP, which he has reshaped from the party of small government and free trade into one that coddles a leader who gushes over authoritarians, accuses immigrants of poisoning the blood of the country and who warns that if he loses in November, the U.S. is never “going to have another election.”

Trump-backed candidates performed well in other states in crucial races on Tuesday, such as Ohio’s U.S. Senate primary. And it’s possible that almost 20% of GOP voters in Florida were motivated to go to the polls to oppose the former president while, at the same time, some of his supporters stayed home because he already amassed enough delegates to be the presumptive Republican nominee.

But these protest votes matter, especially because Florida, unlike other states that voted on Tuesday, has closed primaries. Only registered Republicans voted, so no Democrats or independents could have influenced the results.

Whether that translates into any kind of advantage for Democrats in the fall is a different question. Republicans who object to Trump might put party affiliation first and still cast a reluctant vote for him, instead of for President Biden. At the same time, Democrats have cut back on their investment in the state as Florida becomes increasingly out of reach for them. The GOP’s voter-registration lead over Democrats has reached a whopping 851,000, the largest gap between parties since 1988, the USA Today Network reported.

Tuesday’s results still show that a sizeable — or, at the very least, vocal — minority of GOP voters remain unconvinced that Trump deserves another chance at the White House. Their votes are a rebuke of Trump’s lies about the 2020 election, his inflammatory rhetoric, his inciting of hatred and the violence that took place on Jan. 6. It might be that some conservatives actually aren’t comfortable dismissing the disturbing things Trump says as nothing more than hyperbole. They may not be buying into his claims that his indictments are witch hunts, as many Republicans have had to do to justify their unwavering loyalty to the former president.

There’s hope that the Republicans who refuse to go along with the toxicity of the MAGA GOP are holding out. Democracy needs them.