Editorial Roundup: Florida

Palm Beach Post. September 26, 2021.

Editorial: Broad support needed to ensure student testing change succeeds

Gov. Ron DeSantis likes to highlight the role that personal responsibility plays in managing the pandemic, and he is right. But that’s not an excuse for the state to keep its workers in the dark about COVID-related workplace safety. That’s dangerous to the employees and the public alike and a risk to the continuity of government services. DeSantis and other statewide leaders need to get employees in the loop and state offices on the same page.

Eighteen months into the pandemic, Florida’s state workers are struggling. As Lawrence Mower of the Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau reported, COVID-19 outbreaks have closed departments and offices. And when their colleagues fall ill, some state employees say they aren’t being told. “The workers are very scared,” said Vicki Hall, president of AFSCME Florida Council 79, which represents about 47,000, or nearly half, of state workers. “The governor wants everything open and running.”

Open and running is one thing. So is opposing mask and vaccine mandates in the workplace. But agencies under DeSantis’ control began ordering employees back to their offices last October. And since then, agencies have said little publicly about how their employees have fared. On Facebook, Department of Revenue employees have publicly complained of not knowing when their coworkers fall ill. “They don’t tell us when people have been in the building sick,” one Department of Revenue employee wrote. “We have to hear through the grapevine that someone is in the hospital or dead. If we complain, we are offered demotions.”

It’s no surprise that COVID has impacted the operations of state agencies as it has affected other public and private employers. One Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission office was closed this summer because of an outbreak. Employees at the departments of State, Economic Opportunity and Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles have complained to their union that they were not notified about infected colleagues until weeks after an employee was sent home.

Leaving employees uninformed makes it impossible for them to make sensible decisions about their personal safety. When the Times/Herald asked for information on safety protocols from the offices of the governor and the three Cabinet members — Attorney General Ashley Moody, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis and Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried — only Fried’s office responded. But none provided data on how many of their employees have fallen ill. Fried’s office said it doesn’t track COVID cases out of employee privacy concerns.

But tracking the outbreak across the state’s workforce doesn’t require compromising privacy. Industries already track vaccination rates across their professions. School districts across Florida have published online dashboards for weeks showing infections and quarantines of students and staff — without revealing names or other personal details. Tracking the numbers for state employees would be a tool for improving workplace safety.

State agencies need clearer and more standardized policies for employees to work from home or satellite locations. And employees need timely notice of when colleagues are infected. Much of the angst here can be resolved by having more open lines of communication at state offices and by managers removing any fear employees have in discussing COVID-19.

Floridians have an interest in state employees showing up for work, and in these employees feeling valued and respected. Workplace morale is a key factor in any operation’s success. And the public deserves to know if the state government managing this crisis is setting the right example.

___

South Florida Sun Sentinel. September 29, 2021.

Editorial: Hastings’ last political wish: If it’s an endorsement, why didn’t he tell us?

No politician in the history of Florida knew the power of the spoken word like the late U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings. He was never shy about sharing his opinions about anyone or anything.

In his first run for Congress in 1992, he said of his opponent and later his colleague, Lois Frankel: “The bitch is a racist.” He called Texas a “crazy state” during a hearing on Capitol Hill. At a Plantation rally in 2016, he likened Donald Trump to a “pile of excrement.”

You always knew exactly where Hastings stood, to put it mildly. So it’s wildly inconsistent that what might have been his last political wish is now very murky and hotly contested by some of his closest friends, including the people who want to succeed him. That’s why Democratic voters are strongly advised not to believe everything they hear about endorsements in this race.

Hastings died in April. His would-be successors in the 20th Congressional District are falling all over themselves promising to continue his legacy as a supporter of racial justice and economic fairness. But only one claims to have Hastings’ endorsement: Broward County Commissioner Dale Holness, whose campaign signs in Broward and Palm Beach counties flatly declare: “Endorsed by Alcee Hastings.”

But is it true?

Not according to Merriam-Webster’s definition of “endorsement,” which is “a public or official statement of support or approval.” Hastings never publicly endorsed Holness as his successor and never put anything in writing.

‘He verbalized it’

For those reasons, Holness’ rivals have their doubts, which they expressed in a Sun Sentinel Editorial Board interview. We do, too.

According to Holness, he had a conversation with Hastings about two weeks before he died in which the congressman gave his full support over the phone while the ailing lawmaker’s wife Patricia and son Jody were with him.

“He verbalized it to me in the presence of his wife and his son,” Holness told the editorial board. “He supports me, he endorsed me, he wants me to be his replacement.”

The son later publicly endorsed Holness at his campaign kickoff. (Jody Hastings did not return a call seeking comment). Alcee Hastings also has publicly supported Holness in his past County Commission campaigns.

Like any member of Congress, Hastings had a publicity staff that could have put out a statement for him, but they didn’t. Under state law, it’s illegal for a candidate to claim an endorsement unless it’s in writing, but elections experts say the requirement only applies to state and local races.

“If that’s what he (Hastings) wanted, he would have said that,” said a rival candidate, Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Lauderhill.

“It’s not a recognizable endorsement,” said candidate Barbara Sharief, a Broward County commissioner.

‘Endorsement by hearsay’

Another candidate, Rep. Omari Hardy, D-West Palm Beach, called it “endorsement by hearsay” and used it to attack Holness’ integrity, calling him “someone who is willing to do anything and say anything” to win an election. “You are above this,” Hardy told Holness in our group interview.

It’s plausible that Hastings wanted his preference made known to a select few but did not want to offend two other candidates, Thurston and Rep. Bobby DuBose, D-Fort Lauderdale. Both men were not only allies of Hastings, but were Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity brothers, too.

Dr. Dorsey Miller, a long-time friend of Hastings, said Hastings called him about three weeks before he died and told him he wanted Holness to succeed him. In a Sun Sentinel interview, Miller said: “He said he wished I would consider supporting Dale.”

Miller said Hastings described Holness as the elected official who was most consistently supportive of his agenda, and prodded by Hastings’ phone call, Miller endorsed Holness. “That’s how I made up my mind,” said Miller, who wrote a personal note to Holness explaining his decision.

Generally speaking, endorsements are overblown in politics. But they still matter. If they didn’t, politicians wouldn’t waste time coveting them and promoting them. And if Hastings’ support wasn’t seen as especially important in this special election, other candidates wouldn’t be casting doubt on Holness’ story as a way of undercutting his credibility.

The whole point of an endorsement is to do it publicly so everyone knows it. That did not happen, and for one of the few times in his life, Alcee Hastings was too quiet, and left his intentions in doubt. Holness may have won Hastings’ support, but he can’t prove it.

___

Orlando Sentinel. September 24, 2021.

Editorial: Be a hero, Sen. Gruters, and stop the scourge of dark money in politics

“Everyone says that they’re for open and transparent elections and campaign finance. But in reality, what we legally allow makes a mockery of the current system.” — Joe Gruters

Joe Gruters is no wild-eyed liberal. He’s the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida and a powerful conservative state senator.

But Gruters recognized the danger of dark money when he first ran for the state House of Representatives.

“I was targeted in my 2016 campaign for the Florida House by about $100,000 in attack mailers from obscure political committees,” Gruters wrote on his website. “But I did not know — and still do not know — who was behind those attack ads because special interests are allowed to launder their campaign dollars through multiple committees to hide their identities.”

Preach it, brother!

As a representative, Gruters introduced bills in 2017 and 2018 that would have made it illegal for political committees to contribute money to other political committees or political parties. The ability to do that in Florida is central to the money laundering scheme that Gruters denounced after his election.

Both bills went nowhere, dying quiet deaths in committee. The same fate awaited the same bills he introduced in 2019 and 2020 after being elected to the state Senate.

We’re glad to see Sen. Gruters fulfilling his pledge that this issue is “not something that I will give up on.”

But really, it’s time to treat this idea as a much, much higher priority, something Gruters needs to spend more political capital on.

Florida needs this reform now more than ever, especially now that we know the role dark money played in manipulating at least one state Senate seat last year, maybe others.

Former Florida GOP lawmaker Frank Artiles has been charged with bribing a no-party affiliation candidate to run in the District 37 Florida state Senate race in Miami to aid the Republican candidate, Ileana Garcia, who was not implicated in the scheme.

The NPA candidate, Alexis Pedro Rodriguez, had the same last name as the Democrat running in District 37, who lost by a measly 32 votes. Alexis Pedro Rodriguez, who got more than 6,300 votes, surely siphoned off more than that margin simply by confusing voters.

Since Artiles’ arrest in March, Orlando Sentinel reporters have produced a remarkably detailed picture of how political committees used dark money and NPA candidates to influence not only in that race but in others, including a state Senate race for a seat that covers Seminole County and part of Volusia.

The web of deceit is complicated but it’s bound together by campaign contributions that can’t be traced to the original source — thus the dark money designation.

Keeping the donors secret is essential to the deception. If the donors are revealed, so might their motives be exposed.

In the Seminole County Senate race, NPA candidate Jestine Iannotti didn’t bother campaigning but her candidacy was nevertheless helped by mailers paid for by a political committee called “The Truth,” which got its money from a dark-money nonprofit called “Grow United.”

Gruters recognized the problem back when he first ran in 2016, and he had an elegant solution, which was to “block the transfer of money from one political committee to another political committee, which would be a big step towards full transparency.

“This simple fix to a loophole in our campaign finance laws would help bring much needed sunshine by ensuring that all voters have the ability to see who is funding the support or opposition to a candidate running for office,” Gruters wrote.

Exactly! Well said!

It’s as if he was channeling conservative hero Antonin Scalia, the late Supreme Court justice who believed in more freedom to contribute politically, but who also wrote this in 2010: “Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed. For my part, I do not look forward to a society which, thanks to the Supreme Court, campaigns anonymously … hidden from public scrutiny and protected from the accountability of criticism.”

But that’s precisely what’s happening in American politics. Dark money — anonymous money — is what Scalia was warning us about. It’s what corrupted at least one Florida election last year.

Both parties, including the Florida GOP now headed by Gruters, are going down the road Scalia warned us against taking.

Don’t give up, Sen. Gruters. We don’t agree with you on much, but we couldn’t agree more that a functioning democracy needs the kind of transparency your bills have called for.

Now is the time to raise your voice, call in favors, twist arms, make deals, use whatever power you have to persuade colleagues to finally shine some light on dark money.

Show us you mean it.

___

Miami Herald. September 29, 2021.

Editorial: Florida gaming deal goes to court. One verdict is in: Lawmakers’ contempt for voters

Two Miami business leaders went to court this week in Washington, D.C., in an effort to stop the expansion of gambling in Florida — and to stand up for voters, since the Legislature and governor are doing just the opposite.

Developer Armando Codina and auto retailer Norman Braman, two of the state’s fiercest and most well-heeled gambling opponents, filed suit — along with the group No Casinos — against U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland. The suit accuses the federal government of allowing Florida to circumvent the state Constitution when it approved a new gaming deal this year — including off-reservation sports betting — with the Seminole Tribe. The suit also contends that Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature violated federal laws by authorizing gambling outside of Indian lands, among other claims.

We believe there’s little doubt that lawmakers and gambling interests crafted the deal precisely to get around the 2018 constitutional amendment that voters approved — by an unheard-of 72% margin — that specified the electorate must determine if there are more casinos in Florida. For years now, the Republican-led Legislature has shown such contempt for the will of the voters, especially when it comes to constitutional amendments, that lawmakers can no longer enjoy the benefit of the doubt on that point. (That doesn’t make it more acceptable, of course.)

GAMBLING EXPANSION

But Republicans play the long game — just look at the courts — and this is no exception. Not only are they betting they’ll win the current contest, they’re clearly leaving the door open for more casinos here: specifically, in Doral and Miami Beach.

Unless the courts stop this deal, more casino gambling will be allowed at existing facilities. The Seminole Tribe’s Hard Rock casinos in Broward and Hillsborough counties would be able to morph into full Las Vegas-style casinos with the addition of roulette and craps. No Casinos calls this the biggest gambling expansion in Florida history.

Yet, that’s not all. Even more alarming is the part of the deal where the Seminole Tribe says it won’t object to any new casino license as long as it’s at least 18 miles from its Hard Rock Casino near Hollywood.

Guess what? Both the Fontainebleau hotel and resort in Miami Beach and Trump’s National Doral Miami golf resort — both have indicated they would like to see a new law that would let them transfer a gambling license from an existing parimutuel to their properties — fall conveniently outside that magic 18-mile boundary line.

As Codina told the Herald, “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see how this movie is ending.”

Agreed.

Back when DeSantis signed the agreement to add so much betting in Florida — and the Legislature basically rubber-stamped it — Codina and Braman vowed to file this challenge. The 72% of voters who tried to clamp down on gambling expansion should thank them. The owners of Magic City Casino in Miami-Dade County and Bonita Springs Poker Room in Southwest Florida have also sued.

But even if the courts rule against the state — and we certainly hope that’s what happens — it is clear that, for this crop of politicians anyway, the voters don’t matter. And there’s only one cure for that.

Are you registered to vote? Now’s the time.

___

Tampa Bay Times. September 28, 2021.

Editorial: Florida’s state workers deserve more information about COVID infections

Employees in several state departments have complained about how little information they get about COVID cases spreading in their workplaces.

Gov. Ron DeSantis likes to highlight the role that personal responsibility plays in managing the pandemic, and he is right. But that’s not an excuse for the state to keep its workers in the dark about COVID-related workplace safety. That’s dangerous to the employees and the public alike and a risk to the continuity of government services. DeSantis and other statewide leaders need to get employees in the loop and state offices on the same page.

Eighteen months into the pandemic, Florida’s state workers are struggling. As Lawrence Mower of the Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau reported, COVID-19 outbreaks have closed departments and offices. And when their colleagues fall ill, some state employees say they aren’t being told. “The workers are very scared,” said Vicki Hall, president of AFSCME Florida Council 79, which represents about 47,000, or nearly half, of state workers. “The governor wants everything open and running.”

Open and running is one thing. So is opposing mask and vaccine mandates in the workplace. But agencies under DeSantis’ control began ordering employees back to their offices last October. And since then, agencies have said little publicly about how their employees have fared. On Facebook, Department of Revenue employees have publicly complained of not knowing when their coworkers fall ill. “They don’t tell us when people have been in the building sick,” one Department of Revenue employee wrote. “We have to hear through the grapevine that someone is in the hospital or dead. If we complain, we are offered demotions.”

It’s no surprise that COVID has impacted the operations of state agencies as it has affected other public and private employers. One Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission office was closed this summer because of an outbreak. Employees at the departments of State, Economic Opportunity and Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles have complained to their union that they were not notified about infected colleagues until weeks after an employee was sent home.

Leaving employees uninformed makes it impossible for them to make sensible decisions about their personal safety. When the Times/Herald asked for information on safety protocols from the offices of the governor and the three Cabinet members — Attorney General Ashley Moody, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis and Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried — only Fried’s office responded. But none provided data on how many of their employees have fallen ill. Fried’s office said it doesn’t track COVID cases out of employee privacy concerns.

But tracking the outbreak across the state’s workforce doesn’t require compromising privacy. Industries already track vaccination rates across their professions. School districts across Florida have published online dashboards for weeks showing infections and quarantines of students and staff — without revealing names or other personal details. Tracking the numbers for state employees would be a tool for improving workplace safety.

State agencies need clearer and more standardized policies for employees to work from home or satellite locations. And employees need timely notice of when colleagues are infected. Much of the angst here can be resolved by having more open lines of communication at state offices and by managers removing any fear employees have in discussing COVID-19.

Floridians have an interest in state employees showing up for work, and in these employees feeling valued and respected. Workplace morale is a key factor in any operation’s success. And the public deserves to know if the state government managing this crisis is setting the right example.

END