Life and politics from the Sunshine State's best city

A round-up of Sunday editorials from Florida’s leading newspapers

in Apolitical/Top Headlines by

A round-up of Sunday editorials from Florida’s leading newspapers:

Tampa Bay Times — Congress should stop undermining Obama’s Cuba policy

Congress continues to be on the wrong side of Cuba policy. The Republican-led House has attached language to a series of appropriations bills that seeks to reverse the progress President Barack Obama and the Cuban government are making to bring the nations closer. These back-door efforts to frustrate diplomacy would ultimately hurt families, stable relations and business in both countries. And they show how far out of synch some in Congress are with reality and public opinion.

The congressional moves are retaliation for Obama’s new course on Cuba. In December, the president announced the United States would expand legal travel to the island, increase the amount of money that could be sent back to Cuban nationals and allow new commercial exports to the island. The president has also moved to re-establish diplomatic ties with Cuba, beginning with removing Cuba from the U.S. list of states that sponsor terrorism. That clears the way for reopening the U.S. Embassy in Havana.

Only Congress can end the 54-year-old trade embargo. But members are now undercutting the president’s executive actions, too, by placing riders on must-pass spending bills for next year. One rider to the bill funding the departments of Commerce and Justice would prohibit doing business with anyone in Cuba who has family in the Cuban military — an overly broad and almost unverifiable prohibition that’s meant to chill trade across the board. A rider to the transportation bill seeks to bar the expansion of travel options to Cuba, from new air flights to ferry service. And the House has proposed legislation that blocks funding for a new U.S. Embassy.

These are the tired salvos from members of Congress who would continue five failed decades of isolation. The world has moved on and so has public sentiment, including among South Florida’s Cuban-American community. Gallup polls show that support for Cuba has increased steadily in the United States over nearly 20 years. A MSNBC/Telemundo poll in April found that 59 percent of Americans, including 56 percent of Latinos, approve restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba. That tracked a poll in March by Bendixen & Amandi, a Miami-based media and public relations firm, that found a majority of Cuban-Americans said they were in favor of normalizing relations. Last year, the Cuba Poll at Florida International University, which is the longest-running research project to track Cuban-American opinion in South Florida, found that two-thirds of those polled favored diplomatic ties, while a majority opposed the embargo.

Times change. The Cold War is over. China is toying with joining a massive, U.S.-led Pacific trade deal. America is Vietnam’s top export market. The United States and Iran are negotiating to put Tehran’s nuclear ambitions under wraps. These monumental changes all started with the understanding that national interests evolve. 

The Bradenton Herald — Tallahassee: The good, the bad and the ugly over the past three months while Senate, House and governor clashed

In the mad dash to complete the state budget ahead of this week’s deadline for the Legislature’s special session, lawmakers have been forced to come together. But the political meltdown and dysfunction in Tallahassee over the past three months truly represents “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” — with a far greater emphasis on the last one.

The major-league failures overshadowed the minor-league accomplishments. The earlier bitter schism between Republicans controlling the Senate and House and the legislative disdain for Gov. Rick Scott’s agenda earned the Capitol the dubious distinction for “the worst political breakdown in decades,” as one Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau scribe put it.

Here are just a few of the highlights and lowlights to date:

The Good

The bill that allowed people with concealed firearms permits to carry guns onto college and university campuses — sponsored by Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota — died. A measure allowing school employees with certain professional backgrounds to carry concealed firearms in K-12 public schools also failed. Cheers to the sanity displayed here.

Manatee County can now put a lien on properties whose owners fail to pay their water and sewage utility bills, joining most other counties with this hammer to better ensure payment. Thus, utility customers won’t be liable for ultimately cover those costs through higher rates. Scofflaws are on notice.

The Daytona Beach News-Journal — Work together on homelessness

It’s not going to be easy to convince leaders in 16 Volusia cities to pledge support for an ambitious plan to serve the homeless at a location in the center of the county.

But without city support, the project will likely never come to fruition. And that will leave all of Volusia County — including its 16 municipalities — bare of new solutions to a humanitarian problem that’s also becoming a threat to this area’s economic well-being.

Homelessness is a county-wide problem, though it can take different forms. In cities like Daytona Beach and DeLand, panhandlers are a part of downtown life — and a real threat to prosperity for the shops and restaurants working to create an atmosphere that attracts customers. In low-income areas like Deltona that lack an identifiable downtown, there might not be as many high-profile “vagrants, ” but that doesn’t include the less-visible people scraping by in hotel rooms or relying on friends or family to provide temporary shelter.

Some local leaders clearly get it. The Volusia County Council has agreed, in concept, that it would be willing to donate land and pay up to $4 million toward construction of a shelter modeled on Pinellas County’s Safe Harbor facility. Daytona Beach, which hired a nationally recognized homeless expert and is driving the current debate, has been coping with the impacts of homelessness for much longer than other cities. Ormond Beach officials, including Mayor Ed Kelley, have been quick to voice support, New Smyrna Beach Mayor Jim Hathaway says his city will “obviously” be a partner, and Orange City Mayor Tom Laputka says he believes some cities are in denial about the countywide problem.

The Florida Times-Union — Eight didn’t do enough to help Floridians

The stubborn refusal of the Florida House to pass a conservative, Republican-oriented Medicaid expansion plan is beyond contempt.

There is a cruel irony, as well, since most of the people who voted no are receiving generous health insurance packages paid by the taxpayers.

Yet they are willing to allow about 800,000 of their fellow Floridians to go without this coverage.

These are not numbers. These are real people.

It’s the roofer working in 100-degree heat.

It’s the construction worker who gets spotty work.

It’s the maid cleaning your room during a convention.

It’s the clerk working two low-wage, part-time jobs.

They are not slackers.

THE WORKING POOR WOULD BENEFIT

In fact, the vast majority of the people without health insurance in Florida (72 percent) already live in a household with a working family member, reports Florida CHAIN, a consumer health advocacy group.

The highest proportion of these workers without health insurance (43 percent) are in their prime years — ages 26 to 45. But there are plenty in other age groups, as well. There are 25 percent in the ages of 19 to 25 and 32 percent in the age group of 45 to 64.

Florida Today – Florida the new high-tech frontier

Silicon Valley is synonymous with global technology, but could Florida be the next frontier? A new high-tech hub being developed outside Orlando will thrust the Sunshine State into the global advanced manufacturing industry, and promises high-skill jobs, new capital and the influence of a multibillion dollar industry.

Central Florida’s newest tech endeavor is a result of the work of the International Consortium for Advanced Manufacturing Research, a public-private partnership between several Florida Universities and business groups. While the state already boasts more than 18,000 manufacturers, the consortium is focused on growing advanced manufacturing in Florida and developing emerging technologies in its Florida Advanced Manufacturing Research Center.

The research center will explore emerging technologies, such as smart sensors, an industry expected to be worth more than $154 billion by 2020. While there are huge financial opportunities for Florida in advanced manufacturing, the industry is already flourishing in the Sunshine State. In fact, four of the top five of Florida manufacturing sectors are considered advanced. The state features aerospace, medical equipment, semiconductor and electronic component manufacturing, which offer high-skill, high-wage jobs to Floridians.

According to a recent Florida TaxWatch analysis, Florida’s manufacturing sector employs more than 317,000 workers, who are paid 100 percent more than the average annual wage of other private industries. However, advanced manufacturing industries boast a 228 percent higher salary than the average private sector workers’ wages. Attracting industries that pay high wages, like advanced manufacturing, results in more economic activity in Florida, since the state economy heavily relies on consumption.

However, the economic impact of expanding advanced manufacturing extends beyond higher wages. Each dollar of manufactured goods results in $1.33 in activity from other sectors, improving the output of all Florida businesses. More advanced manufacturing could also be an opportunity to increase Florida’s high-value exports, positioning the state for more global trade, especially important upon the opening of the Panama Canal expansion.

The Gainesville Sun – ‘Buy local’ laws

A litany of new laws endorsed last month by Gov. Rick Scott contained a measure banning local governments’ “buy local” ordinances on projects funded partly by state money.

It’s a shame since many counties and cities — Gainesville among them — have enacted such laws as a way to boost the hometown economy.

Gainesville has had a local preference ordinance in place since 2004 for purchases and construction projects of $50,000 or more. The ordinance gives companies with an occupational license issued by the city a preference on bids within 5 percent of the total bid price, not to exceed $25,000 for straight dollar bids, or 5 percent of the points when other criteria are used in the evaluation.

Critics denounce such laws as unnecessary and costly protectionism. They believe full and open competition produces the best results for taxpayers. They argue that a local company should have made its best offer at the outset and live with the consequences for failing to do so.

Those are certainly valid points. But proponents counter that little harm is done so long as the local contractor can match the government’s anticipated cost. And throwing business to hometown firms creates local jobs and spurs the local economy, they maintain.

Those, too, are important considerations and would seem to outweigh the argument against such laws, as long as taxpayers still benefit from getting the project done at an appropriate price.

The Lakeland Ledger — Attention to Guardians Overdue

With a bill signing ceremony last week, Florida took steps toward improving its guardianship system for the elderly. The existing system was supposed to protect incapacitated elders from exploitation, but numerous families found the opposite: seniors forced into guardianships that stripped them of power over their own affairs and subjected them to sometimes ruinous legal expenses. … As wards of the guardianship system, these elders can see their assets sold or depleted to pay for care, nursing homes, attorneys’ fees and more.

House Bill 5, signed into law last week by Gov. Rick Scott, as the Florida Bar summarized it, tightens guardianship statutes, clarifies the duties of state-appointed guardians, includes criminal penalties for exploitation or abuse of a ward, requires more notice of emergency temporary guardianship proceedings, and makes it harder to suspend a family member’s power of attorney during the litigation process.

To be sure, guardianship services are often necessary when people present a danger to themselves or others. Yet there’s a risk that less charitable motives can influence the push for guardianship. Failure to properly inform the ward, or relatives, of the legal process can further thwart an individual’s right to challenge a guardian’s actions.

Fortunately, abuses in the guardianship system are the exception rather than the rule. Many court appointed guardians work admirably and tirelessly for little compensation to help elders who can no longer care for themselves…. Yet it is prudent to recognize the potential for greed to warp the process. At stake are not only human rights but also assets, acquired over a lifetime, that present a temptation for exploiters. … Because wards’ cases are confidential, there is often little independent oversight.

The Miami Herald — Pursue the execs

The U.S. Department of Education has announced that it plans to forgive the federal loans of thousands upon thousands of students who attended Corinthian Colleges, only to be the victims of institutional behavior that left them without certificates of class completion, unable to get jobs and drowning in debt.

It’s the right thing for Education Secretary Arne Duncan to do. So many of these students were unwittingly drawn to the for-profit schools by recruiters’ rosy promises that they would secure their slice of the American Dream by enrolling. Those promises wilted for too many students who were taken in.

But those loans are the only thing that should be forgiven. All others must be held accountable for derailing the dreams of these students while, in all likelihood, defrauding them and the government. For its part, the Department of Education, too, was complicit in this farce.

The Education Department estimates say that, should all 350,000 Corinthian students who attended in the past five years have their loans forgiven, it could cost taxpayers up to $3.5 billion. That’s especially galling when so many students are unable to become employed and contributing members of society as they hoped, even with the debt burden lifted.

The process for debt relief won’t be easy for aggrieved students, and it shouldn’t be a piece of cake. As for-profit schools’ defenders assert, the conditions of enrollment were clear in the contractual agreement. Still.

The Orlando Sentinel — Don’t prolong NASA’s dependence on Russia

At the Group of Seven meeting in Germany this past week, President Obama was talking tough on Russia. He urged his fellow leaders to stand together against “Russian aggression” in Ukraine by maintaining economic sanctions against Moscow.

Meanwhile, a U.S. Senate committee was advancing legislation that would add two more years to America’s extortionate payments to Russia for transporting U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station. Now they’d be flying Putin Air until at least 2019.

NASA has been stuck relying on Russia’s space agency to ferry U.S. astronauts into low-Earth orbit since the end of the space shuttle program in mid-2011. Round trips now go for more than $70 million a seat.

The cost isn’t the only objectionable part of this arrangement. It cedes significant control over the U.S. space program and its access to the station, a $100 billion investment, to Russia and its rogue president, Vladimir Putin. And Russian spacecraft have experienced a series of malfunctions in recent months.

A new generation of rockets built by private U.S. companies with support from NASA was originally supposed to be ready this year to begin blasting U.S. astronauts into orbit, but Congress has failed for years to provide full funding for the program. Meanwhile, the launch date has slipped to 2017.

NASA has awarded contracts to two companies, Boeing and SpaceX, to transport U.S. astronauts to the space station, and based its $1.244 billion request for next year on the terms of those contracts. But the latest Senate spending bill that includes funding for NASA calls for just $900 million, which agency leaders said would push the commercial launch date for manned flights back to 2019.

The Ocala StarBanner — Guardianship law is a positive

With a bill-signing ceremony last week, Florida took steps toward improving its guardianship system for the elderly.

The existing system was supposed to protect incapacitated elders from exploitation, but numerous families found the opposite: seniors forced into guardianships that stripped them of power over their own affairs and subjected them to sometimes ruinous legal expenses. In hearings, they were told that the guardianship system can be rife with conflicts of interest, because of the money to be made from administering these cases.

Cases were identified in which elders were swept into a court system (often with little or no warning) that quickly deemed them “incapacitated,” taking away their ability to control their own lives.

As wards of the guardianship system, these elders can see their assets sold or depleted to pay for care, nursing homes, attorneys’ fees and more.

Rep. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, responded by sponsoring House Bill 5, signed into law last week by Gov. Rick Scott. As the Florida Bar summarized it, the law tightens guardianship statutes, clarifies the duties of state-appointed guardians, includes criminal penalties for exploitation or abuse of a ward, requires more notice of emergency temporary guardianship proceedings, and makes it harder to suspend a family member’s power of attorney during the litigation process.

The Pensacola News-Journal — Sam Champion is still angry

Sam Champion is still angry. The Weather Channel anchor who was working for “Good Morning America” five years ago, wants BP to not only make good on its promise to restore the Gulf, he wants plans in place to guard against future leaks.

During a recent telephone interview, Champion recalled his weeks covering the spill. (In a troubling coincidence, he had just been covering the May 19 oil spill in Santa Barbara. One report said an estimated 97 miles of coastline had been affected by up to 101,000 gallons of crude.)

“It brought back a lot of memories of the Gulf spill and the anger,” he said.

He’d been diverted to Louisiana from an exclusive interview with Elton John. His crew set up operations at a fishing camp. He would cover the disaster on the water and via plane and helicopter.

“What was striking about those first days were statements about where the oil would head,” Champion said. “They said it wouldn’t continue to travel and we found out it was just the opposite.”

He was broadcasting live on Pensacola Beach on June 3, 2010, the morning the oil reached shore. He had been out there before dawn.

“The sunlight was coming up and I remember the tarballs and the gooey consistency of the oil,” he said. “Our hearts sank when we realized it had made it this far.”

He walked with cleanup crews and saw fishing boats covered with oil: “I knew they would need a degreaser.”

After several failed efforts to stop the leak, BP decided to use dispersants to reduce the oil’s impact.

The Palm Beach Post — Too early for county to be talking property tax rate cut

Roads that thousands of Palm Beach County residents and tourists drive on daily need resurfacing. Bridges that they travel across need to be replaced. And light fixtures at dozens of county ball fields are older than most of the people using them.

Years of belt-tightening have led to a deplorable drop-off in some of the most basic services and amenities residents should expect for their tax dollars. That’s not so much county administrators’ fault, as it was an economic downturn that obliterated their budget.

That situation is turning around, however. The county is looking at a fourth straight year of rising property values, according to estimates from the Property Appraiser’s Office. And that translates into more dollars for the 2015-2016 budget — about $57.5 million more, or an 8.6 percent increase.

As expected, there have been calls for a property tax rate cut from some in the community — especially business groups, whose constituency would bear the brunt of the rise in property values.

County Administrator Robert Weisman, as expected, is not recommending a rate cut. “We need every one of those dollars to meet the requests of the sheriff, demands for Palm Tran (bus service), the courts,” he told The Post last month. “We were still trying to close a substantial gap between revenue and the demand for services. This will help with that.”

We agree. The county commission could cut the current tax rate from $4.78 per $1,000 of taxable property value to $4.48 and maintain the same level of revenue as this year. But given the infrastructure needs and growing demand for services, that approach would appear a bit short-sighted.

The Panama City News-Herald — Universal voting an idea worth debating

Universal voter registration is one of those ideas that makes some sense if you set aside politics and think about what voting means to both our country as a whole and each citizen as an individual.

It hasn’t happened, of course, because of politics. But it’s an idea worthy of debate.

Sadly, the kind of debate it is receiving revolves around political ideology and not the merits of the idea.

One reason it’s politically charged at the moment is because last week Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton gave a speech supporting the idea.

In the speech, Clinton called for federal legislation that would automatically register citizens to vote at age 18 and mandate 20 days of early voting in all states. The first mistake we see here is tying two controversial ideas into one issue: the mandate on early voting does not find the same favor here as the idea of being automatically registering to vote at age 18.

Clinton also assailed Republicans, including several running for president, for “systemically and deliberately trying to stop millions of American citizens from voting.” With that kind of rhetoric Clinton achieved what it probably was she was after in this first place: a media fight with Republicans rather than a healthy debate.

So it was no surprise that is exactly what she got.

The South Florida Sun Sentinel – Frightening mother-in-law? Not a chance

This was frightening to the max, kind of like Stephen King on steroids.

On my first date with a particular woman — that is frightening enough by itself — I met her mother. Sort of.

What I saw was a woman standing by a balcony in her West Broward condo, arms folded menacingly in front of her, along with a right-through-you stare. The last time I had been this petrified, a drill sergeant was standing over me, yelling at me to drop and give him 20.

I have now been married to that woman’s daughter for 26 years. As for the drill sergeant mother, I learned that the mother-in-law from hell stories I had always heard from friends were ridiculously false.

Lorraine, I discovered, was the warmest woman you could hope to meet. She was not outgoing and friendly to everyone. But once you were on her good side — I’m pretty sure you didn’t want to be on her bad side — you were there forever.

Over the years, I found out how this woman survived polio. How she survived cancer and open heart surgery and countless other maladies. How she became a widow too young.

She did not tell those stories about herself willingly. Sometimes you had to drag them out of her. It took awhile, but it was an incredible lesson in survival.

She drove me nuts calling hot dogs “frankfurters,” but I forgave her. At first, she talked with too much of a New York accent for me. I forgave her.

She thought her daughter wasn’t feeding me well enough, so she would often cook us fabulous meals to last a few days. The only charge to me was I had to call her and tell her how much I enjoyed it, often making a stupid rhyme out of my response. It usually wasn’t funny, but Lorraine would always laugh.

Mother-in-law horror stories? No way.

The Tallahassee Democrat – Let Uber compete

Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christiansen coined the phrase “disruptive innovation” in 1995 to describe new technologies, products or services that disrupt an existing market and also might displace a current technology.

Wal-Mart disrupted department stores. The telephone disrupted the telegraph. MP3 players disrupted CDs/records.

Another hallmark of the idea of disruptive innovation is the qualifier “good enough.”

Back to Wal-Mart, it decided that fancy tiles and piano music weren’t what drove retail behavior – it was cheap stuff and a massive inventory.

Wal-Mart might not give you the warm glow of a high-end retailer, but it’s bulk purchasing and low labor costs mean most things cost less there than somewhere else, and a shopper can find things in one stop that might otherwise require more.

In short, easier and more convenient.

Which brings us to the City of Tallahassee’s consideration of Uber.

If you are a millennial, you are likely very familiar with the Uber app. Call it up and see the exact location of available vehicles along with other information such as capacity, car type, etc.

Oh, and it’s usually cheaper.

This has turned the app into a phenomena for consumers and a headache for the taxi cab industry, which has long enjoyed a monopoly over urban transportation.

Historically, the taxi cab lobby has turned the stifling of competition into an art. And we’re not talking external competition – we’re talking about other cab operations trying to enter and compete in an existing market.

As recently as 2010, a new taxi cab license (called a medallion) in New York City cost more than $600,000! Boston medallions have gone for more than a quarter million, while in Philadelphia and Chicago they were a relative bargain at $50,000-$70,000.

This was nothing short of an evil, monopoly-enabling partnership between governments and a service industry.

The Tampa Tribune — A huge taste of Tampa coming to TIA

Tampa International Airport deserves cheers for following the lead of other airports and dramatically boosting the number of local restaurants and retailers that will be represented when the airport completes its $1 billion renovation project.

Columbia Restaurant, Four Green Fields, Mise en Place and Guy Harvey’s RumFish Grill are among the uniquely Tampa area restaurants were part of a highly competitive and, in one case at least, controversial process that the airport’s five-member board should now review.

The airport had been moving in this direction. A few local establishments had opened satellite restaurants and bars inside TIA, offering a break from the chains you find in every other airport. But last week the airport’s board awarded major concessions contracts for food and beverage establishments and retail and duty free shops, with an emphasis on recruiting a local flavor.

Concessionaires lined up to land the coveted airside and terminal space that will be available when the airport completes its nearly $1 billion renovation in two years. In the end, bids with a number of Tampa icons won out. Those unique establishments will greet travelers with a taste of real Tampa. A bar with a replica pirate ship, ala Raymond James Stadium, is planned.

The process puts Tampa’s dining scene front and center for travelers, many drawing their first impression of the city. Some, like the Columbia, offer a lesson in Tampa history along with the food.

As the Tribune’s Yvette C. Hammett reports, more than 40 percent of the food and beverage concessions was set aside for the local operators. One terminal, busy Airside C, will be entirely local.

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Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.

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