Editorial Roundup: Florida

Palm Beach Post. November XX, 2021.

Editorial: Lake O operating plan about the best option of tough choices

Pity the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Taking on the role of a modern-day Solomon, the federal agency had to come up with new water usage guidelines involving Lake Okeechobee that would somehow satisfy multiple stakeholders with competing interests. What the Corps came up with isn’t perfect, but it is arguably the best option available.

Until work is finally completed on the Everglades restoration projects currently under construction, the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM) simply will have to do.

“If you improve somewhere, it’s going to be at the expense of something else,” Calvin Neidrauer, a hydrologic modeler told The Palm Beach Post’s Kimberly Miller.

Granted, the new management plan won’t please everyone. The farming community got a good allotment of water from Florida’s largest freshwater lake but is suing for more. Environmentalists are grateful more lake water will flow south to the Everglades but had hoped for more. Communities along the estuaries that are the release valves for a bloated lake still have to worry about polluted runoff, a situation that prompted U.S. Rep, Brian Mast to use a profane “cow dung” description to express his feelings about the outcome.

LOSOM is the acronym for how the Corps will manage the lake next year, once work on the Herbert Hoover Dike is completed. A plan that recognizes the many demands on the lake is clearly needed, given that 9 million people in South Florida rely on the lake for drinking water, as do thriving recreational boating and fishing industries, sugar cane and vegetable farmers, the Florida Everglades and Florida Bay.

The new plan has benefits. It cuts the amount of polluted water in the St. Lucie Estuary by 76%, and in Caloosahatchee River by 60%. The amount of water flowing south to the Everglades National Park and Florida Bay will more than triple, and the clear beneficiary in Palm Beach County is the Lake Worth Lagoon, which will see an 83% reduction in algae-contaminated discharges and be treated as an environmentally sensitive estuary.

But the plan can’t fix everything. Owing to improvements to the Herbert Hoover Dike, the plan calls for higher lake levels, which will threaten the lake’s ecology and ultimately fishing, as submerged plants die from lack of sunlight.

The lake provides almost half of the water used by West Palm Beach, through the Grassy Waters Preserve, which also supplies the towns of Palm Beach and South Palm Beach. West Palm officials have said the Corps didn’t adequately model key county areas including the Preserve, the city’s main water source, or consider how the city must provide water to the Loxahatchee River during the dry season. Those questions remain unanswered.

While LOSOM puts greater priority on environmental concerns, it can’t completely eliminate the possibility of lake discharges. The Corps is still responsible for managing lake levels, and if weather or water supply needs warrant it, the brackish discharges will find their way into the Caloosahatchee River and St. Lucie River estuaries.

There have been improvements as part of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) draws closer to reality. Just last week, the C-44 Reservoir and Stormwater Treatment Area, a $339 million Everglades restoration project aimed at cleansing water runoff before it flows into the St. Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon, began operating. Work on a similar reservoir — the C-43 West Basin Storage Reservoir — near the Caloosahatchee River, is progressing and is expected to be completed in 2022.

The recent pledge by Gov. Ron DeSantis to seek $660 million in the upcoming state budget for Everglades restoration, including CERP, the EAA Reservoir Project and the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project, marks Florida’s commitment to play its part in the ongoing state-federal commitment to help restore the famed River of Grass.

More can be done. Building a reservoir to the lake’s south will ensure fewer lake discharges east and west and direct cleaner water to the Everglades. A new reservoir and treatment area north of the lake would curb polluted water coming into the lake and help keep lake levels low enough to maintain fishing habitat. Unfortunately, those projects are years off and money remains an issue.

Last week’s plan offers a marked improvement in the way the Corps manages the lake. Until further Everglades restoration projects come online, this is as good as it gets.

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Orlando Sentinel. November 26, 2021.

Editorial: ‘Anticipated pregnancy’? It’s one of many anti-vax loopholes

Florida’s new surgeon general already had no credibility when it comes to public health. Now the state has turned Joseph Ladapo into a supposed expert on childbearing.

Last week, Republicans passed and Gov. DeSantis signed a bill that makes this an anti-COVID-19 vaccine state. Among many bad things, it undercuts vaccine requirements at private businesses by allowing exemptions not based on science.

Notably, a female worker can seek an exemption on the basis of “pregnancy or anticipated pregnancy.” The first is easy to define. But what is “anticipated?”

A spokesman for the Florida Department of Health, which Ladapo oversees, dodged questions from the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board about details of that second definition. She referred us to the emergency rule the department issued.

The rule says that the exemption applies if “the employee intends to become pregnant” and is of child-bearing age. The exemption “shall remain in effect for the time that the employee intends to become pregnant.”

The rule also says, “Employers shall accept the representations of the employee in regard to the employee’s intent to become pregnant.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, childbearing age runs from 15 to 44. Under the law, a 24-year-old woman can claim that she “intends to become to pregnant” — sincerely or not — and be exempt for two decades from COVID-19 vaccine requirements.

Not only is that dangerously open-ended, but it’s dangerous for women who are pregnant and actually do anticipate having children.

As two professors of obstetrics wrote in the Sun Sentinel, pregnant women who contract COVID-19 are 15 times more likely to die and much more likely to have a premature birth than those who are vaccinated or don’t become infected. COVID-19 also increases the chance of a stillborn birth.

No credible research supports a link between COVID-19 vaccines and female infertility. Credible research supports a link between catching COVID-19 and male infertility and erectile dysfunction.

The loopholes don’t stop there.

The law also allows employees to claim an exemption based on a “sincerely held religious belief.” No verification from a clergy member is necessary. The employee simply can present a “statement.”

No major religion opposes COVID-19 vaccines. Some Floridians may seek an exemption by claiming that vaccines contain fetal cells. That is false.

One fetal cell line was used early to test the vaccines’ efficacy. A similar process led to development of Tylenol, Tums and many other over-the-counter treatments.

In addition, the law allows an exemption “based on COVID-19 immunity.” Many Republicans have embraced the unproven claim that contracting the virus obviates the need for a vaccination indefinitely.

COVID-19 patients have antibodies. Like the vaccines, however, that protection wanes. Antibody levels also can vary, based on age and the severity of the case.

The CDC has found that people who had COVID-19 and didn’t get a booster shot are five times more likely to get a second case than those who got vaccinated. For recovered patients, the CDC says, getting vaccinated provides a strong “hybrid immunity.”

When vaccines became available a year ago, DeSantis prioritized shots for Floridians 65 and over. He appeared at senior-living centers to tout the vaccine.

The DeSantis administration arranged “pop-up” vaccination sites in affluent communities where developers had ties to the Republican Party. DeSantis bragged about the state’s high rate of vaccinated elderly.

But despite recommendations that Americans age 65 and over get a third shot, DeSantis has not made boosters a priority. Far from it. The state ranks 38th in the percentage of seniors who have received a COVID-19 booster.

The governor displayed his recklessness last week, claiming, “COVID vaxxes are not preventing infections, OK? It’s just not.” That is false, as any credible public health specialist or epidemiologist will confirm.

Ladapo has no background in either field. That would explain why he said of the anti-vaccine mandate law, “You control your body. It is your body. God gave it to you. It’s your body.” So why wouldn’t he encourage Floridians to protect it — and to protect others?

It’s bad enough that DeSantis has opposed every measure to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in the state with the third-most deaths. Now he, the surgeon general and Republican legislators are encouraging Floridians to avoid the best solution for finally controlling the pandemic.

So for women in Florida who are anticipating pregnancy and are wary of the COVID-19 vaccine, consider this: You can’t anticipate pregnancy if you’re dead.

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Miami Herald. November 26, 2021.

Editorial: Can we bet on sports in Florida or not? We need a quick decision from the courts

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, the Seminole Tribe of Florida continued to accept wagers on its sports betting app.

Wait, what? We thought that was illegal now. A federal judge ruled Monday that the premise of the gambling agreement with the state was based on a “fiction,” and she tossed out the entire thing.

How can the Seminole Hard Rock Sportsbook app be both illegal and still operating?

The fast-moving legal case is continuing to unfold — and that includes an emergency motion filed by the Tribe on Thanksgiving Day, asking the federal appellate court in the District of Columbia to issue a stay that would prevent the previous decision from being enforced until a full appeal can be heard.

And that has left the whole matter in utter turmoil.

A QUICK DECISION

It needs to be resolved quickly, though, because the longer the Hard Rock Sportsbook is operational, the more confusion will ensue. Floridians should know if they are participating in a legal betting operation or not.

We sure do understand why the Seminoles want to keep taking bets: There’s a ton of money at stake. According to the emergency motion, the Tribe, through Seminole Hard Rock Digital, “has invested over $25 million in its online sports betting efforts and expects to invest $45 million in total by the end of the year.” The motion says the Sportsbook app already is generating millions of dollars a week, but the motion also noted that the court battle has had a “chilling effect” on operations.

And that’s not the only financial incentive at play. The Tribe also said it has invested “hundreds of thousands of dollars and hired scores of employees in preparing to launch craps and roulette,” as part of the now-invalidated agreement with Florida. The Seminoles also have made two payments to the state of $37 million each as part of the agreement — monthly payments, they point out, that would dry up if the sports betting deal and its related expansion of gambling at Hard Rock sites are halted for real.

CHASING THE DOLLARS

The blame here lies with Gov. Ron DeSantis and the GOP-led Florida Legislature. With dollars signs dancing before their eyes, they pushed for a concocted legal strategy where they tried to get us all to pretend that this online betting wasn’t actually an illegal expansion of gambling in Florida because the servers were located on tribal land.

Federal Judge Dabney L. Friedrich, in the District of Columbia, rightly called that a “fiction,” and deemed the resulting agreement illegal earlier this week. She followed that by rejecting an appeal by the Tribe on Wednesday, leading to this latest emergency motion in another court. The suit was originally brought by plaintiffs that include the owners of Magic City Casino in Miami-Dade County.

Obviously, there are a lot more important things in the world right now — like a new COVID variant — than whether you can bet on Saturday’s college football games on your phone. But this still needs to be settled quickly by the court in Washington, D.C.

Too bad the leaders of our state once again let money blind them to common sense.

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Tampa Bay Times. November 30, 2021.

Editorial: Want to preserve lands in Pinellas County? Pay for them

Florida’s most densely populated county needs a more robust program for land conservation.

As conservation efforts go, the Gladys Douglas property was a success story; the Anclote River project was not. But both showed this year that Pinellas County needs a robust funding source for acquiring environmental lands. It’s not enough to demand that the government kill or restrict development proposals. If residents want sensitive lands preserved, they should be prepared to pay. And that requires a ready source of money and smart conservation planning.

Pinellas County commissioners and activists celebrated in May when Dunedin officials signed a mock deed to celebrate the city’s purchase of the 44-acre Douglas property for a public park. Though local governments had explored the possibility of buying the property, they hadn’t acted quickly enough or assembled the necessary funds. But the public outcry sparked a collaborative effort between local government and private donors, who met the $10 million purchase price for what will be called the Gladys E. Douglas Preserve.

But activists lost a fight in November when the Tarpon Springs City Commission voted to approve the final site plan for 404 luxury apartments on the east side of U.S. 19 along the banks of the Anclote River. Opponents had successfully stalled a proposed Walmart at the site years ago, but as Commissioner Connor Donovan said in approving the application: “We can’t hold the property owner’s land hostage from them until they bend to our will of, ‘Hey, I want it to be a park.”

Pinellas voters approved several land conservation programs in the 1970s and 80s, acquiring thousands of acres of environmentally-sensitive lands. In recent years, Pinellas has committed funds from the “Penny for Pinellas’ sales tax for environmental purchases. But only $15 million is budgeted for acquisitions for the 2020-2029 cycle. The Douglas purchase alone would have consumed two-thirds of what was available.

Hillsborough County voters have also approved several conservation programs, but the budget is far bigger. The current program provides up to $200 million for land purchases. As of 2019, the program had preserved approximately 61,980 acres, and of the $200 million in the latest round of funding, approximately $67 million is still available for acquisition. As importantly, Hillsborough has received more than $87.1 million in joint funding for acquisitions, which shows the potential for leveraging such a big pot of money.

Pinellas’ need for a better funding source was highlighted again last week. As the Tampa Bay Times’ Tracey McManus reported, activists are trying to save 14 acres on the suburban border of Tarpon Springs and Palm Harbor from becoming another housing development. In June, the owner of the property, Pinellas County Schools, agreed to sit on offers from developers to give the nonprofit West Klosterman Preservation Group until July 1, 2022, to come up with $3 million to buy the land before opening it back to the private market. With seven months to go, the nonprofit has raised $350,000, about 10 percent of the $3.2 million goal.

More money makes these and other purchases more possible. And ready access to cash would enable Pinellas to maneuver when properties land on the market. Depending on bake sales and big private-donor checks won’t cut it in built-out Pinellas as the climate warms, the sea rises and as these properties slip further out of reach.

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South Florida Sun Sentinel. November 30, 2021.

Editorial: Remembering Carrie Meek, a champion with compassion

Carrie Meek was the first Black woman elected to the Florida Senate since Reconstruction, and that’s no small achievement when you consider her roots. She grew up in a time and place when Blacks were not allowed to walk on the grounds of state buildings.

The time: the 1930s. The place: Tallahassee, where she was born in 1926 to hard-working parents who were sharecroppers and was the granddaughter of a woman born to slavery. Nicknamed “Tot,” the youngest of 12 children, Meek became her high school valedictorian and a standout track and field athlete at Florida A&M University. But she had to leave home for the University of Michigan for graduate studies in public health because Black students were barred from Florida grad schools.

Meek, who died Sunday at 95, was an outstanding Floridian with a lovable tenacity. She repeatedly shattered racial and gender barriers throughout a long and busy life devoted to education, community work and public service. She never lost track of her roots and lived for many years in the same house in the Liberty City neighborhood in Miami, where a memorable political career was born in 1979.

Her first political opportunity came about literally by accident after a friend’s personal tragedy. When Gwen Cherry, the first Black woman ever to serve in the Florida House, died in a car accident, Meek entered the special election and became her successor.

A pivotal Democratic primary in 1979 reveals just how much politics has changed in Florida — and not for the better, either.

Collecting “nickels and dimes” from hundreds of friends and neighbors, Meek scraped together about $9,000 over a three-week period, and that was enough to finance a successful campaign. But it was never about money. Rather, it was about Meek’s determination to make life better for others.

“I had no fear of losing,” Meek told supporters at her victory party, according to a story in The Miami News. “But I did fear letting you down. I would have been hurt to the bottom of my heart if I let you down.”

Known for her distinctive, high-pitched voice, Meek would never be silenced, and she’s remembered as a compassionate champion of the poor, the homeless, the sick and the elderly. She worked tenaciously to make Florida a better place, first in the Legislature and for a decade in Congress.

Meek’s many causes included affordable housing, free adult and vocational education for the homeless, rehabilitation programs for prison inmates, expanding work opportunities for welfare recipients such as serving as census-takers, and making stalking a crime.

In a 1979 Orlando Sentinel interview, and employing the slang of the period, Meek said she was “hung up” on equal opportunity. It sounds quaintly anachronistic today, but it was what she believed.

It was one of many convictions that defined a four-decade career in Tallahassee and Washington. Meek was 66 when she won a seat in Congress in a redrawn district in 1992, and joined Alcee Hastings and Corrine Brown as the first Black members of Congress from Florida since Reconstruction.

“She has a velvet glove, but sometimes she can have a fist in it,” former U.S. Rep. E. Clay Shaw of Fort Lauderdale told The Miami Herald in 1999. “She’s so likeable that it’s sometimes disarming.”

As a freshman, she audaciously sought a seat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee. She got it, too, but two years later, Newt Gingrich and the Republicans took control.

A decade later, when she retired, she waited until a couple of weeks before the filing deadline before stepping away so that her son Kendrick could succeed her.

The younger Meek was also an accomplished politician, but it’s easily explained. He could not have had a better role model. Carrie Meek was one of a kind.

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