A round-up of Sunday editorials from Florida’s leading newspapers
Tampa Bay Times — Florida Legislature foolish to ignore medical marijuana
The Florida Legislature is making a serious mistake by refusing to take up legislation that would legalize medical marijuana. Lawmakers are conveniently forgetting a constitutional amendment to legalize marijuana for medical use was nearly approved by voters last year, and their inaction leaves supporters with no recourse but to go back to the ballot next year with a revised amendment. If they keep dodging the issue, it won’t be reasonable in 2016 to argue this issue is better addressed in state law written by the Legislature than in a constitutional amendment that will be difficult to adjust later.
Bills introduced by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, and Reps. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, and John Wood, R-Winter Haven, would allow for the broad use of medical marijuana for a range of maladies. Both bills ably address many of the concerns raised by opponents of the 2014 proposed constitutional amendment, including closing the loophole on qualifying conditions and tightening criteria for caregivers. But neither proposal has been scheduled for a committee hearing, a critical step if a bill is to advance to the full Legislature. Lawmakers could still push the issue forward, but that would require courage, common sense and leadership, each of which has been in short supply in this session.
Legislators who think their reluctance to pass responsible medical marijuana legislation will scuttle the drug’s legalization are placing bad bets. Twenty-seven states and the District of Columbia have legalized some form of medical marijuana or decriminalized its use. Marijuana for medical use will eventually be legal in Florida, if not by legislative statue, then most certainly by constitutional amendment.
Ignoring the issue until next year’s legislative session is another potentially disastrous choice. Dismayed by inertia in Tallahassee, medical marijuana proponents are already galvanizing support and collecting voter signatures for another amendment. This time they will likely get the votes they need to place medical marijuana in the state’s Constitution. That route robs legislators of the chance to shape medical marijuana rules in a way that best serves Floridians and to make changes to legislation as needed.
The real losers in this standoff are sick Floridians. While legislators dither, people in pain continue to suffer, use traditional medicine that provides little relief or attempt to score marijuana on the street, a dangerous act when the opportunity to offer a legal remedy exists. There is still time for legislators to take action on medical marijuana this spring. But if they fail to move forward, voters’ patience will understandably go up in smoke.
The Bradenton Herald — Just a few thoughts: on traffic, Bradenton Beach, land sales
Reality cannot be denied, though we enjoy complaining about certain aspects that bedevil us. Like all those doggone cars slowing us down.
Isn’t the only solution to traffic congestion fewer vehicles on Manatee Country roadways? That’s not going to happen. The Sarasota Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization said so this week in delivering the region’s 2040 Long Range Transportation Plan.
The upshot? We cannot build our way out of gridlock, the study concludes.
Anyone who even attempts to drive to Anna Maria Island during snowbird season on any afternoon should expect an hour or more crawling down either Manatee Avenue or Cortez Road over the bridges.
The whole idea here is simple: Let’s be patient. Let’s understand this is the new reality. Let’s not get crazy and do the angry motorist thing.
We see drivers often waving others into traffic, not blocking intersections and showing commendable courtesy. Pay it forward. That next guy is going to let you in.
How about we all stop complaining about traffic, take a deep breath and enjoy paradise?
Bradenton Beach sits on the cusp of solving four lawsuits that have mired this wonderful city in an awful knot for years. Mayor William Shearon, himself the subject of a recall bid, proposed a “global settlement” of the four cases.
The Daytona Beach News-Journal — Wagner bites off more than county can chew
If a path exists to solving the contentious issue of driving on Volusia County beaches, it’s not one that will be strewn with logs.
County Councilman Josh Wagner recently proposed a “grand bargain” on beach driving in which he promised to throw his support toward eliminating vehicles on the sand in the core tourist district of Daytona Beach — from Silver Beach Avenue to University Boulevard — but only if fellow councilmembers would support several of his key issues: providing money and land for a homeless shelter; putting on the 2016 ballot a voter referendum on increasing the local sales tax to support transportation; and amending state law so as to require voter approval for any new beach driving restrictions.
That’s old-fashioned log-rolling, the legislative equivalent of “I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine.”
It can be an effective strategy of breaking gridlock and getting laws passed — although it’s easier to accomplish when it involves issues that one side is less concerned about than the other, and thus is more amenable to a reciprocal vote.
Wagner’s logrolling, however, involves a forest of mighty timber.
The politics of any one of those issues taken separately are daunting. Connecting them to each other isn’t asking someone to scratch your back. It’s like requiring them to donate a kidney.
At least one of Wagner’s colleagues already is cold to the idea.
Councilwoman Joyce Cusack, who served in the Florida House, said she never liked to support “bills that are loaded” with different items. This beach-driving proposal has so many attachments, it looks like a Christmas tree.
The Florida Times-Union — Exploding the myths involving climate change
Since geochemist Wally Broecker described changes in the Earth’s climate 40 years ago, the field has been beset by public misunderstandings.
Yet in the intervening four decades since Broecker published his groundbreaking paper on a warming planet, much has been learned.
For instance, 2014 was Earth’s warmest year on record, reported the National Climatic Data Center, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Average temperatures over land and oceans were higher in 2014 than any year since 1880 (when record-keeping began).
And the most recent reports indicate that sea-level rise due to climate change has been accelerating.
A Harvard study said that new estimates show the rate of sea-level change over the past 25 years was significantly more than previously thought.
That’s a frightening thought as it means we’ve quite probably underestimated how quickly our sea levels here in Jacksonville and in Florida will rise in the future.
Closer to home, there is too much coastline in Florida to put our heads in the sand about the possible impacts of a long-term change in climate.
Let’s review what has been confirmed by credible scientists and dispel some of the more common myths and misunderstandings.
Florida Today – Right way to subsidize Melbourne stadium
Imagine watching a Brevard Manatees baseball game or Florida Tech football in anew, intimate stadium overlooking Crane Creek.
I can already feel the spring breeze and hear the snap of a catcher’s mitt. In the fall, I’d stroll New Haven Avenue in search of food or friends after watching the Panthers beat Valdosta State. I might even shop for a condo nearby.
But from a taxpayer’s perspective, there’s a wrong way for government to help that happen — and a right way.
And now is the time to say so, following the City Council’s 6-1 vote Tuesday to start talks with the team, landowner and university and with no firm proposals yet.
The wrong way? That would involve handing cash to a developer and professional athletes from tax funds meant to cure urban blight or that might otherwise have paid for police and roads countywide if not sequestered in a community redevelopment district.
The right way, on the other hand, would:
Get the stadium built fast, with a big break on cost and a minimum of political strife.
Keep the stadium privately owned, with the landlord and tenants in charge of facilities.
Keep taxpayers off the hook if the Manatees bolt someday for more modern digs.
Keep subsidies and public spending “on mission” — granting them for reasons the people intended.
The Gainesville Sun – Cheers and Jeers
State Sen. Don Gaetz said it best this week: ” ‘No’ is not a health care policy.”
His fellow senators appear to be heeding those words. Will our state representatives follow suit?
Cheer: The Florida Senate Appropriations Committee, for passing a budget plan Wednesday that would use Medicaid expansion money from the Affordable Care Act to help lower-income residents buy private insurance. Now the Senate has to negotiate over the issue with the House, which has its own plan absent of such a measure.
Jeer: The House Education Committee, for passing a bill that allows high school athletes to operate like free agents.
The bill would let students attend one school but play sports at another and could lead to the replacement of the Gainesville-based Florida High School Athletic Association. Rep. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville and committee vice chair, voted for the measure.
Cheer: State Sens. Thad Altman, R-Rockledge, and Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, for filing amendments that would steer more money to the Florida Forever land-conservation program than the miniscule amount in the Senate’s budget.
They withdrew the amendments but the issue is supposed to be further considered in budget talks.
Jeer: Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, Rick Scott and other politicians who use private email accounts to conduct public business.
Bush released several hundred thousand emails this year from an address he used as Florida governor, firstname.lastname@example.org, but the Associated Press reported this week that he also had another, previously undisclosed email address.
An aide to Scott told the Orlando Sentinel this week that the governor has now quit using any email for state business. How about just trying transparency?
The Lakeland Ledger — Funding Under Threat: Saving Affordable Housing
Florida lawmakers are not making many new friends these days with their handling of Amendment 1, the constitutional measure designed to promote the conservation of the state’s increasingly fragile natural resources.
Supported by three of every four voters in last year’s election, the amendment’s language allocates 33 percent of tax proceeds from real estate transactions — projected at roughly $700 million a year — for the acquisition or preservation of environmentally sensitive lands.
But proponents don’t see the Legislature living up to that, especially since the state Senate allotted only $2 million for Florida Forever, the state’s main vehicle for purchasing property for conservation.
Sen. Alan Hays, a Umatilla Republican who has questioned whether too much land already rests in public hands, has become the favorite punching bag for concerned environmentalists and other unhappy Amendment 1 supporters who believe the law’s intent is being gutted. “There is such a thing as too much,” he recently told The Ledger’s Tallahassee correspondents.
But there is an important sidebar to the Amendment 1 debate that is occurring. And so not everyone is discontent with the current trajectory of the policy-making regarding Amendment 1.
Those real-estate tax proceeds, otherwise known as documentary (or doc) stamps, amount to about $2 billion annually overall. Which means that after allowing for Amendment 1’s 33 percent, about $1.3 billion was leftover for other growth-related spending. Fretful over how Amendment 1 would be implemented were advocates of affordable housing.
The Miami Herald — Sweet deal
Florida lawmakers may be on the verge of making a mistake of historic proportions by letting a splendid opportunity to aid Everglades restoration and clean up waters east and west of Lake Okeechobee slip through their fingers this session.
This may sound like hyperbole, but it isn’t.
If anything, it understates the stakes involved for Florida’s environmental future as a deadline to buy land that could be used as a reservoir to store and clean polluted water gets nearer while the state dawdles.
▪ The land is available. The state has an option to buy 46,800 acres from U.S. Sugar under an agreement reached in 2010, when land values were low because of the housing collapse and the recession. The deal calls for a base price of $7,400 per acre or fair market value, whichever is higher.
▪ The acreage is a key piece of the Everglades restoration puzzle. The low-lying areas south of the lake would serve as reservoirs to filter out pollution and renew the flow of cleaner water that historically fed the River of Grass. Also: It would reduce the need to release polluted discharges east and west through the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers that wind up fouling coastal estuaries on both the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.
▪ For once, it’s not about the money. When they approved Amendment 1 by 75 percent last year, Florida voters said (shouted, actually) that they want to buy land for conservation purposes and created a fund with more than enough money to pay the estimated $350 million purchase price.
▪ The clock is ticking. The option to buy from U.S. Sugar expires in October. Realistically, the money must be allocated earlier to leave time for proper valuations and all the other details involved in such a massive land purchase.
▪ Politics is getting in the way. U.S. Sugar, a powerful lobby in Tallahassee, is no longer interested in selling. Once, when the corporation needed cash, they thought it was a great idea; now they say it’s a waste of money. The Legislature, as a result, isn’t making the purchase a priority. A Senate proposal on how to spend Amendment 1 money, released on March 19, includes no funds for that purpose. Neither does a House proposal unveiled two days earlier. (It does include money for purposes other than buying land, which would seem to thwart voter intent, but that’s fodder for another day.)
The Orlando Sentinel — Their Take: Rebel plate
On Monday, the Supreme Court heard arguments about the state of Texas’ refusal to issue a specialty plate to the Sons of Confederate Veterans because it would feature the group’s logo, which includes the Confederate Battle Flag. Many people see the flag as an emblem of white supremacy, but the veterans group sees it as a symbol of the Confederate soldiers’ sacrifice and argues that its First Amendment rights were violated …
Our view is that once a state decides to turn license plates into metallic bumper stickers reflecting various drivers’ views about everything from abortion to the environment, it can’t pick and choose which viewpoints will be allowed …
At Monday’s argument, the lawyer for Texas warned that if specialty license plates were treated as a public forum, the state would have to permit pro-Nazi or pro-al Qaida messages simply because it offered a license plate that said “Fight Terrorism.” To which Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. replied, “Well, but there is an easy answer to that, which is they don’t have to get in the business of selling space on their license plates to begin with.”
That’s not a statement about constitutional law, but it does point to a common-sense solution if states are worried that ugly or offensive messages will find their way onto license plates … [G]o back to basics and limit the content of license plates to letters, numbers and maybe a noncontroversial slogan or image chosen by the state. If motorists wanted to make a political statement, they’d have to buy a bumper sticker.
The Ocala StarBanner — Prison blues
The Florida House of Representatives has proposed a partial solution for the state’s broken prison system. But the part left undone is the most important part of all.
The House prison reform bill focuses on more funding for the system, including $16 million to close an operating deficit and hire new officers, $15 million for capital improvements and an increase of $11 million for food services.
More money is certainly needed. Florida has historically underfunded its corrections system, despite a tough-on-crime sentencing structure.
The Department of Corrections has more than 100,000 inmates incarcerated, with 115,000 other offenders on community supervision. The DOC is the state’s largest bureaucracy, with an annual budget exceeding $2 billion.
Yet, the problems with Florida’s prison system go far beyond the lack of funding.
Testimony by several current and former Florida prison inspectors at a state Senate committee hearing this month showed that corruption and cover-ups are “rampant” in the system, the Miami Herald reported.
The inspectors told the committee that “bosses repeatedly ordered them to ignore evidence of possible criminal wrongdoing by corrections officers,” the Herald said. Problems cited ranged from faulty medical care to widespread smuggling of contraband by staff.
As a result, the Senate proposed an impressive 51-page bill (SB 7020) designed to combat abuse and corruption.
The Pensacola News-Journal — Justice on hold for mold?
Welcome to Pensacola: Florida’s capital city of irony! Where the same federal courthouse in which Obamacare was challenged is now making people sick — literally.
Our dutiful and vigilant newsmen, Will Isern and Rob Johnson, broke news last week that the downtown building that is supposed to house the hallowed halls of justice is actually a big, rotting tomb of mold, leaks and disrepair. After years of inaction, wasteful studies and shoddy patches, it’s so bad that the ever honorable Judge Casey Rodgers fired off a scathing letter to Washington D.C. demanding a fix.
I’d say don’t hold your breath, but how else to avoid the toxic mold?
The letter offers a damning glimpse of the General Services Administration, a federal bureaucracy so blob-like, that even a highly esteemed federal judge like Rodgers can’t move it to action.
This is going to be a big, ongoing story with more troubling questions than a secret Clinton email account: The failure and negligence of a federal agency. The impact to downtown when the court must temporarily close and relocate. The health of humans who have been exposed to sickening conditions. And the sheer, nauseating amount of tax dollars that have been wasted over the last two decades.
Good thing they like to print money in Washington. They’re going to need it.
But most of all, Rodgers, herself, really puts this mess into perspective.
I do not know Judge Rodgers personally. But since I have been part of this newspaper, I’ve observed her as being the classical paradigm of the honorable judge devoted to the ideals and philosophies of the law. She has been deeply interested in issues of juvenile justice, rehabilitation and the profound way law can affect humanity. Rodgers would probably never consider this notion, but she is a hugely symbolic figure of justice in our community.
The Palm Beach Post — Assess charter school need, success before blanket approval
Florida legislators continue to steamroll their way to offering every parent a choice of how they want their child educated using public school dollars.
Just last week, the Senate Education Pre-K-12 Committee voted 7-4 to approve SB 1552, a sweeping bill that would allow parents to send their children to schools in other counties and demand that their children get new teachers in some situations.
State Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, (center) has sponsored a bill that would among other things Republican who sponsored the bill …
Also, the bill would make a slew of changes to charter school laws that already are among the most liberal in the nation — making good on Gov. Rick Scott’s budget proposal of $100 million for charter school construction needs.
But we would suggest that, in their zeal, the governor and legislators be mindful of what has become a plain but painful truth in many Florida school districts: Not every charter school application should be approved.
Indeed, over the past five years, failed charter schools have cost the Palm Beach County School District at least $700,000.
As we’ve said previously, many charter schools — which operate with public money but are managed privately — can, and do, serve a useful purpose. For example, they drill down into niches such as special needs that big urban districts such as Palm Beach County often have a hard time serving. In this way, charter schools help promote school choice.
That’s a good thing.
What’s not a good thing is ignoring appropriate scrutiny and accountability to ensure charters’ eventual success. It’s not a good thing when districts do apply this scrutiny to reject an application only to be summarily overridden by state education officials. And it’s borderline “educational malpractice” for a Republican-controlled Legislature that otherwise preaches local control to force public school districts to open charters, but refuse to require something as simple as posting a bond to protect taxpayers.
The evidence that legislators need to steer this bus more carefully is mounting.
The Panama City News-Herald — Cruzing speed
The first Republican to officially announce his presidential bid was not former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Sen. Rand Paul or former Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Instead, on Monday at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas announced he was running for president. If what you know about Cruz is the snippets of information offered when he was filibustering against President Barack Obama’s choice of CIA director, his support for a government shutdown in 2013 or that time Sen. John McCain called him a “wacko bird,” there is certainly more to the man than that.
Here are some interesting tidbits we’ve learned about the man born as Rafael Edward Cruz so far this week:
His father is a Cuban refugee who initially supported Fidel Castro but then fled the dictator’s tyranny. Cruz’s father, Rafael Bienvenido Cruz, said of that time in Cuba, “A young, charismatic leader rose up, talking about ‘hope’ and ‘change.’ His name was Fidel Castro.”
As a teenager the senator memorized the Constitution, got his degree from Princeton, where he was a champion debater, and was the founding editor of the Harvard Latino Law Review while attending law school at that institution. His resume includes clerking for Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, serving as a policy adviser and lawyer for the George W. Bush administration and as solicitor general of Texas.
In other words, Cruz is not the senatorial equivalent of Donald Trump or a few other Republicans we could name who don’t seem to have the mental wattage needed to back up their electrifying positions.
The South Florida Sun Sentinel – New prisons chief shields eyes to horror
There might be relatively benign explanations for last year’s record 346 inmate fatalities in Florida prisons. The inmate population is aging, for example. But the horrific history of years-long abuse and denial of medical care exposed in recent news accounts suggests more sinister causes, including sadistic cruelty inflicted by guards and condoned by higher-ups.
The allegations should trigger an intense and open investigation by state officials, including new Department of Corrections chief Julie Jones. Instead of providing heightened oversight and an unshakable commitment to reform, Jones has slid too easily into a culture of denial and even cover-up.
Jones is joined in this grievous failure by too many legislators and by Gov. Rick Scott.
In a recent interview with National Public Radio, Jones denied the prison system is shot-through with corruption and physical abuse. “I think what we have is a group of disgruntled employees that do not have the best interests of the department at heart,” she said.
For Jones, who has been in charge only a matter of weeks, to blame a few bad apples for the horrors described by The Miami Herald and other media defies belief. Remember that prison inspectors also have told legislators that their attempts to document and report abuses were stymied by their superiors. That’s a description of systemic corruption.
Not only has Jones apparently pre-judged the outcome, shortly after taking office she issued what amounts to — because of its chilling effect — a gag order affecting the department’s inspectors.
The horror stories include accounts of inmates repeatedly subjected to random gassing with caustic agents and other “discipline” that included being stripped naked and left for up to three days on cold metal bunks.
Inmates soaked in chemicals were not given the opportunity to wash off the substances. One inmate died after being repeatedly gassed and left on the floor of his cell — and he might have been singled out for gassing in the first place after being accused of “faking” an asthma attack.
Another inmate was scalded to death in a shower.
The Tallahassee Democrat – What you voted for is not always what you get
Here’s how amending the Florida Constitution by public petition is supposed to work:
You and your friends see a need that the Legislature won’t address, so you draft a constitutional amendment and get about 750,000 voters to sign your petition. If the public gives it 60 percent approval in the next election, the Legislature obeys the will of the people and all live happily ever after.
Here’s how it really works:
A business or special interest group with several million dollars wants something and hires political consultants to gather those signatures. Then, once it gets past the Supreme Court and on the ballot, the proposal is sold to voters in a well-crafted advertising campaign — whereupon the Legislature may or may not do what the amendment requires the state to do.
Sometimes, lawmakers try to wriggle out of implementing whatever mandate the voters have sent to Tallahassee. One time, the government actually fought fair, simply asking voters to repeal the amendment they didn’t want – and voters did.
But usually, they try to implement the thing their way, with a facade of doing what the voters want.
Which brings us to Amendment 1, the mandate approved last November for spending about one-third of real estate development tax revenue on water and land conservation. Roughly three out of four voters supported the amendment, so environmentalists felt fairly confident the Legislature would buy up endangered lands, clean up the Everglades, protect the springs and rivers — the usual green wish list you hear every lawmakers come to town.
Now, as the budget heads to the House and Senate floors this week, a lot of Amendment 1 advocates feel short-changed. The Republican legislative leadership, which opposed the mandate anyway, say they’re taking care of Florida’s future — their way.
It’s nothing new.
The Tampa Tribune — St. Pete City Council stands in the way of progress
St. Petersburg City Council members can be forgiven for being a little skittish several months ago when presented with a deal that would have allowed the Tampa Bay Rays to look in Tampa for a new stadium site.
After a Rays representative gave a rather inelegant answer to a legitimate question about control of development rights at the 84-acre Tropicana Field site where the team plays, the council voted 5-3 to refuse the deal.
Fast-forward to this past week, and a second chance for the City Council to consider a deal. Mayor Rick Kriseman and the Rays have eliminated the development rights as an issue — assigning 100 percent of the rights to the city — and a revised agreement is being sent to the eight council members in advance of their final meeting before the start of the 2015 Major League Baseball season.
Yet four council members who voted against the deal tell the Tribune’s Christopher O’Donnell that they still oppose it, while the fifth member who voted against it says she might reconsider.
Since it takes five votes to approve the deal, the ridiculously hard line taken by four council members means it’s likely the season will begin April 6 with questions about a new stadium looming over the franchise and the entire Tampa Bay area. Those council members — Wengay Newton, Jim Kennedy, Steve Kornell and Bill Dudley — threaten to drive a regional asset from the area. We hope they reconsider the deal, which does not exclude St. Petersburg from putting together a plan for a new stadium on the Tropicana site, or anywhere else in the city for that matter.
The deal simply allows the team to step outside the confines of its existing contract with St. Petersburg to explore sites in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties for a new stadium.
The existing contract keeps the team playing at outdated Tropicana Field until 2027, and prevents the team from looking in Tampa for potential sites.
Rays owner Stu Sternberg has said he wants to keep the team in the Tampa Bay area but that a new stadium is essential to the long-term success of the franchise.
New Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred addressed the issue this week, saying a new stadium is the “key issue” facing the Rays.
Considering attendance at Tropicana Field consistently ranks dead last among all MLB teams, the Rays are desperate for a new home that offers its best chance at success in this market.