Editorial Roundup: Florida

Palm Beach Post. June 12, 2021.

Editorial: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis errs in restricting race studies in schools

At a time when Americans are crying out for an honest appraisal and greater understanding of the role race plays in our nation’s development, the Florida Board of Education has plugged its ears. At the urging of Gov. Ron DeSantis, the board this week approved a rule that threatens meaningful discussion of the historic and persistent presence of racial inequity in American society.

“Some of the things that have happened throughout the country in some places, there’s really outrageous things going on by using ‘Critical Race Theory’ to bring ideology and political activism to the forefront of education,” DeSantis told the board. “That is not what we need to be doing in Florida. We need to be educating people, not trying to indoctrinate them by ideology.”

Once again, the governor has created a dramatic solution for an issue that doesn’t exist. Thanks to his diligence, Florida now punishes non-existent sanctuary cities and brings “integrity” to smoothly run elections. And now the state has a rule that plays well in far-rightpolitical circles, never mind that as a practical matter, Critical Race Theory plays no part in Florida’s education standards nor in state-approved curriculum.

School superintendents have said they don’tteach the theory,but that didn’t stop the governor or the board from going after it, The 1619 Project or any instruction that might define American history “… as something other than the creation of a new nation based largely on universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.”

By limiting what can be said about American history in the classroom, by going after any lessons that call attention to race, the governor and board of education have opened the door to what one observer called an effort to “whitewash, cover-up and candy-coat history.”

The rule leaves Florida teachers to grapple with a vague policy. They “may not suppress or distort significant historical events” and can’t express their opinions on the topic, even if asked. When it comes to factual analysis that emphasizes race, the rule prohibits teachers from offering lessons based on a “theory that racism is not merely the product of prejudice but that racism is embedded in American society and its legal systems in order to uphold the supremacy of white people.”

Sound familiar? Just last month, the Palm Beach County School Board provoked a controversy with the disclosure of an equity statement that said the district “is committed to dismantling structures rooted in white advantage.” The statement provoked community outrage, with parents accusing the district of implicitlyusing Critical Race Theory to stoke racial tensions and division. The board promptly voted 4-3 to remove the phrase.

The Florida Board of Education’s war on studies of American history that recognize the deep influence of racism is in line with a national effort by Republicans to ban the approach as divisive. As DeSantis put it in a tweet after the vote: “Critical Race Theory teaches kids to hate our country and to hate each other. It is state-sanctioned racism and has no place in Florida schools.”

That’s just not true, and makes you wonder whether the governor has even read Critical Race Theory.. For the record, it’s based on legal analysis by prominent scholars that showed racism is embedded in America’s judicial systems and in public policies, like single-family zoning that prevents the building of affordable housing and stymies racial desegregation in affluent majority-white neighborhoods. Likewise, the 1619 Project, essays on race published in The New York Times Magazine, has become the latest in a long line of racial dog whistles by the GOP. Its title comes from the year Africans were first brought to America as slaves.

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South Florida Sun Sentinel. June 15, 2021.

Editorial: Get over Obamaphobia and pass Medicaid expansion

Enough with the Obama excuse, Florida Legislature.

In the past 14 months of this pandemic, we’ve seen that access to health care and decent insurance is critical. We’ve seen the virus disproportionately hurt minority and low-income communities, and those inequities have been worsened by the systematic kneecapping of Florida’s own public-health system through years of cuts.

But Republican state lawmakers — who control the Legislature — are continuing to flat-out refuse to help some 964,000 Floridians get insurance by broadening who qualifies for Medicaid because that would mean accepting federal money associated with the Obama administration and its Affordable Care Act.

A financial sweetener offered by the Biden administration this spring as part of the COVID-19 relief package would defray the cost to the state for two years, but the Legislature wouldn’t even consider the idea.

Lawmakers don’t put their callous inaction that plainly, of course. With furrowed brows, they talk of worries about the long-term costs of expansion, of being dependent on federal dollars.

They say they won’t expand Medicaid to more people; they’d rather help them onto “a path to employment, financial resilience and prosperity,” as a spokesperson for House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, put it in an Orlando Sentinel article.

Go ahead, tell that to the person with a medical emergency and no insurance: We’re helping you onto a path to prosperity by saddling you with a whopping medical bill you’ll never be able to pay.

No, Republicans in this state don’t want to expand Medicaid because it’s part of the ACA. And the ACA’s nickname? Obamacare.

Florida’s anti-expansionists, though, are actually in the minority in the United States these days. Florida is one of just 12 holdout states still refusing to expand Medicaid, the state-federal insurance program for the poor.

Expanding the program was envisioned under the ACA as a way to bridge the gap between those who can purchase insurance on ACA exchanges and those who are already covered by Medicaid, primarily pregnant women, poor families and young children.

In Florida, the gap is huge: About 964,000 people with no insurance could be covered in 2022-23, according to the Florida Policy Institute.

The feds don’t pick up the entire cost for this — but they will pay for 90%, forever. And just having more people covered by insurance will likely lower costs for the rest of us. The costs of uninsured care — which usually means using the emergency room without the ability to pay for it — are passed on to consumers and the state.

Over time, most states, even Republican-led ones, have decided to go forward with Medicaid expansion for reasons of financial common sense or because their voters stepped in.

Not Florida, though. Rick Scott was governor when the issue first arose. And though he was initially for expanding Medicaid — a glimmer of compassion there — he changed his mind later on.

Then came Ron DeSantis. He’s made his career on Trump values and demonizing Democrats.

Both of these Republicans have managed to duck from the knowledge that Obamacare is wildly popular in their state. In 2020, a record 870,000 Floridians bought their insurance through a federal ACA insurance exchange. Miami-Dade County has consistently had some of the highest Obamacare sign-up rates in the country.

The ACA has been law for more than a decade now. It seems like the only people who don’t like it are the politicians in Tallahassee.

The Biden administration, trying to make the last handful of holdout states an offer too good to refuse, has included in the American Relief Plan a provision that allows states like ours to get an extra 5% in federal reimbursement money for every person already on Medicaid until 2025. In Florida, that would cover the state’s cost of expanding Medicaid in that time period. The Florida Policy Institute notes that other states have actually saved money when they expanded Medicaid.

But neither Sprowls, the House speaker, nor Senate President Wilton Simpson would entertain the idea during the legislative session. Simpson, a Republican from Trilby, said he worried about “the long-term, recurring costs associated with Medicaid expansion.” DeSantis also remained opposed.

It may be valid to worry about costs down the road, though most analyses have predicted the state would wind up saving money.

Perhaps it would be good for the state to have a public discussion along those lines, exploring the merits of expanding Medicaid. It’s even possible that Sprowls and Simpson and DeSantis actually have the best interests of the state at heart, rather than venal politics. But we doubt it.

And in the end, where does that stiff-necked, Obama-allergic refusal leave the 964,000 people in Florida who might benefit from Medicaid expansion? Back in the emergency room.

Apparently there’s no amount of money from the Biden administration that can buy a dose of compassion for poor people from the Republicans running this state.

“After this icing on the cake is handed to us from the federal government ... and we still don’t do it. It’s so sad because we’re playing with people’s lives,” Miami Sen. Annette Taddeo, a Democrat, told the Orlando Sentinel.

She’s right, unfortunately.

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Miami Herald. June 15, 2021.

Editorial: Rubio calls it “crazy nonsense.” To Black and brown people, health inequity is dead serious

In one short tweet Tuesday, Florida’s senior senator, Marco Rubio, managed to dismiss the idea that racial and social inequities exist in healthcare in this country.

And he did it during a pandemic that has disproportionately harmed minorities. Talk about tone deaf — and hurtful.

“The American Medical Association has fallen victim to the pandemic of crazy nonsense,” he wrote, as he retweeted an article by the AMA about how the organization plans to address racism and social justice in medicine.

Of course, it’s all part of the culture wars and his attempt to recast himself from unsuccessful presidential candidate to warrior against the “woke” as he faces a potentially competitive reelection contest next year. Apparently, he’s even trying to create a 2.0 version of Republicans’ attacks on Democrats as socialists — which succeeded among many voters in Miami-Dade County — except for 2024 he’s going after Communist China, with his campaign sending targeted emails to specific anti-China voters, according to Axios.

HIGHER RATES OF INFECTION

But the idea of inequities in medicine is not some wild — or even new — idea, despite Rubio’s flippant Twitter rejection. Inequities have dogged the medical community for years and became even more apparent in the COVID-19 pandemic, when more Black, Hispanic and Asian people had higher rates of infection, hospitalization and death than white people.

Access to healthcare, good insurance, transportation to the doctor, underlying conditions, lower socioeconomic status — all of these things play a role in who gets medical attention and who has delayed care or none at all.

And that’s true not just during pandemic times. For years, maternal mortality rates for Black women have been higher than for whites — two to three times higher, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Congress, of which Rubio is a part, has even taken up the issue as part of a package of legislation nicknamed the “Momnibus.”

THIS FROM A LEADER?

Of course, expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act might help with that, with one study finding that states with expanded Medicaid eligibility had lower maternal mortality rates compared to non-expansion states. But Florida’s GOP-led government has repeatedly refused to expand Medicaid.

Florida’s own Republican House Speaker, Chris Sprowls, issued a statement last week in an Orlando Sentinel story about Medicaid saying he didn’t want to expand it but that he “expressed a strong desire to address disparities in maternal healthcare for low-income women.” That’ll be Black and brown women he’s talking about.

And yet, despite all of that, Rubio couldn’t resist the urge to try to score cheap political points on social media with a quip about a deadly serious topic: inequities in medical care. Is that really the kind of senator we want?

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Orlando Sentinel. June 14, 2021.

Editorial: A Supreme Court ruling means a rare win for public records rights in Florida

The Florida Supreme Court has handed down an important — but increasingly rare — open records win that’s going to mean faster access to information not just for the state’s press corps but for all Floridians.

The court last week finalized a new rule that no longer requires clerks of courts across Florida to be responsible for redacting confidential information from civil court documents. That responsibility used to fall — as it should — on those who file the documents, not those who store them.

Many readers might understandably ask, “So what? Why should I care?”

Here’s why: The 10-year-old rule forcing clerks’ offices to examine documents for private information had turned access to public information into a slow-motion proposition.

Clerks’ offices are the repository for legal documents in Florida’s 67 counties. Their ability — or inability — to efficiently process those documents and make them available has a direct effect on the public’s ability to see those documents, a right guaranteed by the Florida Constitution.

The old rule created by the court was gumming up the works to the detriment of the public’s constitutionally guaranteed right to public records, a shortcoming this court’s justices weren’t going to continue tolerating.

The rule required clerk’s offices to peruse documents for confidential information that’s exempt from the public records law, like Social Security numbers and bank account information. According to Carol Jean LoCicero, an attorney representing a coalition of media organizations — including the Orlando Sentinel and the South Florida Sun Sentinel — Florida and Vermont are the only two states in the nation that force clerks to examine documents for such information.

Many of those exemptions to Florida’s public records law exist for a good reason. Court documents shouldn’t become a means for criminals to steal someone’s identity or money.

The thing is, it’s the responsibility of the person who files those documents — almost always attorneys and judges — to shield that information from public view, not the clerks who largely serve an administrative role.

But the court’s old rule had done just that: Shifted that burden from the document filers to the document administrators.

In arguing against a rule change, Brevard County Clerk of Courts Rachel Sadoff wrote to the court, “Filers have come to rely on the clerk to remove confidential information as a public service and safeguard.”

Exactly. That’s just the problem. These filers had come to count on someone else to do their work for them.

That’s not how it’s supposed to work, and that’s why so many documents are getting held up from public release so often.

In contrast to Sadoff, the Florida Bar correctly argued that the new rule “removes a burden from clerks and may also help remind all filers of their obligations to ensure what they file does not contain confidential or protected information.”

LoCicero recounted a 2018 experiment where two journalists visited 19 county courthouses across Florida in an attempt to obtain that day’s legal filings. About 75% of those courthouses would not provide the journalists with any civil complaints that had been filed that day. Employees in the clerks’ offices often cited the redaction requirement as the reason for the delays.

Broward County’s clerk of courts, Brenda Forman, warns right on her website that it could take up to two weeks to get court records.

It’s not just reporters who have to wait days at a time to get their hands on documents, to the detriment of the public. It’s nearly everyone.

For example, an association of attorneys that represents low-income clients on housing matters pointed out to the court’s justices that Florida’s already tight deadlines for evictions was made worse by the delays in getting documents from clerks’ offices.

This new rule from the Supreme Court, which takes effect on July 1, probably strikes many readers as an esoteric, administrative exercise.

It’s more than that. It’s removing a barrier to the press and the public getting timely information at a time when public institutions, ranging from the Florida Legislature to the clerks of courts, seem interested in erecting new barriers, creating more delays and secrecy.

In an atmosphere like that, we’ll take the win.

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