A round-up of Sunday editorials from Florida’s leading newspapers:
Tampa Bay Times — Time to rethink greyhound racing
Lawmakers didn’t set out to hurt racing dogs when they allowed card games at greyhound tracks. But in propping up a fading racing industry, they inadvertently put the health of dogs at risk by requiring tracks to stage more races than demand supports — just to keep the card rooms open. It’s time to reassess the arrangement, acknowledge the rules have produced unintended consequences, and quit propping up an industry that would be gone without the misguided incentives.
In the last seven months of 2013, new public reports show 74 greyhounds died at 10 Florida racetracks. Derby Lane in St. Petersburg and Daytona Beach Kennel Club and Poker Room reported a dozen deaths each. The reports of deaths are the first of their kind; a 2010 law required track operators beginning last year to disclose when a dog dies. But the reports generate more questions than answers about the care of dogs and a struggling industry.
As Mary Ellen Klas of the Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau reported last Sunday, the accounts of dogs’ deaths ranged from a greyhound that was force-fed after not eating for four days to dogs suffering fatal injuries on the track; from a puppy apparently arriving from breeders too ill to survive to an animal put back in its kennel before it had cooled down.
The tracks acknowledge they likely would be closed if the state had not agreed in 1996 to let them add lucrative card games. The agreement required them to maintain at least 90 percent of the live races run in 1996. Yet wagering at the 13 facilities that run greyhound races was $265.4 million in 2012, down two-thirds from the $933.8 million they collected in 1990, according to Spectrum Gaming Group’s report for the Legislature. Those same dog tracks reported that dog racing losses totaled $35 million in 2012, prompting several track owners to say they would end racing if they could keep the card games.
The Bradenton Herald — Bradenton Housing Authority on road to recovery from scandal with policy reforms
In a dramatic turnaround to shed scandalous past practices, the Bradenton Housing Authority adopted sweeping personnel policy changes Thursday to eliminate generous perks and institute tough austerity. The authority is dipping into reserves this year to wipe out a $300,000 deficit incurred under the ousted former executive director.
The elimination of unprecedented employee benefits should help restore the public’s trust in an agency under a cloud since a federal investigation burst into the news with a September raid on BHA headquarters.
While the authority’s board of directors earned sharp criticism for past practices and lax oversight, this deep cutback in the perks policy amplifies the panel’s commitment to improving the authority.
Last month, the board opened lines of communication by initiating public comment periods at meetings — a sign of transparency painfully absent in the past.
The Daytona Beach News-Journal —Drivers, start your engines
Nothing brands Daytona Beach like the Daytona 500.
Thousands of race fans will pour into Daytona International Speedway today for the 56th running of the greatest auto race in the world. Millions of people will watch the event on television. And once again Daytona Beach will be in the spotlight.
The 500 puts Daytona Beach and the surrounding area on the national — and international — stage. It brings millions of tourist dollars into the community every February, and it attracts visitors to the area year-round.
For that reason and many more, the race and the two weeks of Speedweeks leading up to the big race are a blessing to Volusia County.
Unlike other sports such as football or baseball, NASCAR’s biggest event of the year always takes place in Daytona Beach. With it comes thousands of fans who stay in our hotels, eat at our restaurants, enjoy our beaches, shop in area stores, and infuse new money into the area economy. Last year, about 135,000 people attended the 500 itself.
The Florida Times-Union — Don’t plop spaceport into a Florida wildlife refuge
Plans are being made for private companies to blast rockets into space from the middle of Yellowstone National Park.
Unfortunately, the beloved park will have to be closed to visitors for a good part of the year to accomplish that.
And the park’s unique environment will likely be damaged. Sorry about that, too, but there’s money to be made.
OK. The above is fiction, but the harsh reality is Space Florida, which is leading the state’s efforts to boost the space industry, is pushing to build a private launch site in the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.
Each year more than a million people visit the refuge, only about a two-hour drive from Jacksonville on Interstate 95.
They are drawn there by the refuge’s beauty and the more than 500 species of fish, birds and wildlife that inhabit it.
Those visitors pump more than $60 million into the local economy annually.
In the quest to create jobs, likely at the expense of others, Space Florida is planning for 24 launches a year from a 200-acre site within the refuge.
The Gainesville Sun – The cleanup begins
No matter how many trees are planted or coats of paint applied to homes near the Koppers Superfund site, the work will seem inadequate as compared to the suffering of residents.
Many are longtime residents stuck living near the site as it languished on the federal government’s Superfund cleanup list for more than 30 years. Now they’re facing a cleanup plan that leaves contamination entombed on the site, guaranteeing that the community will keep struggling with the issue for decades to come.
Yet there are positive parts of the cleanup, including plans to remove contaminated soil from residential yards. And while taking out that soil and putting in new landscaping plants are hardly equivalent to the environmental damage caused to the area, the work should be embraced as an important first step in revitalizing the Stephen Foster neighborhood near the site.
As the removal of soil from yards begins next month, neighborhood residents must keep in mind that allowing the work doesn’t mean they forfeit the right to legal action. Lawsuits against Beazer East, the company responsible for the cleanup, can proceed without any more delays in the work.
The Lakeland Ledger — Lakeland Police Scandals: Thomas- Womack Tangle
The Lakeland City Commission unanimously decided Monday to conduct an investigation into accusations that City Manager Doug Thomas looked aside and permitted former Police Chief Lisa Womack to use improper hiring practices, as she is accused of doing.
The commission directed City Attorney Tim McCausland to locate three candidates from which to choose as investigator. They must be from outside the area — say, Tampa or Orlando — and might be an attorney experienced in such matters.
The decision was well-thought-out.
CITY’S WOMACK SECRET
However, Lakeland complicated the decision and the coming Thomas investigation by ending Womack’s employment Monday but keeping the decision quiet until after City Hall closed Friday. She will be a city consultant until May 1, paid $2,900 per week.
At 5:34 p.m. on Friday, the city’s Communications Department sent to news organizations an email with a subject of “Womack officially steps down as LPD chief.”
The Miami Herald —Venezuela on the brink
On the surface, the upheaval in Ukraine and the political unrest in Venezuela seem far apart in distance and character. But dig a little deeper and the parallels are striking — and ominous.
Protesters in Ukraine want their country to join the West by becoming closer to the European Union, but President Viktor F. Yanukovych prefers to sidle up to Russia. The conflict playing out on the burning streets of Kiev may be the last battle of the Cold War as a new Europe emerges.
In Caracas, as in Kiev, the underlying issue is whether the country will follow a worn-out and discredited authoritarian model from the last century — Cuba — or ally itself with regional democracies that honor human rights and political freedom.
In both countries, the strain between competing forces has produced a polarized society. And in both places, the elected leaders have opted for repression instead of addressing the legitimate grievances of the protesters.
The result: The streets in Kiev are on fire, and Venezuela’s cities are teeming with protesters and growing unrest.
The Orlando Sentinel — Pursue private option to expand health coverage
Lately Florida’s two top lawmakers, Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford, have been pitching their shared agenda for the annual legislative session that begins next month. The two Republicans deserve credit for working together, and for settling on some sound priorities.
But there’s a gaping hole in their 2014 plan: expanding health-care coverage to a million low-income Floridians. Last year lawmakers passed up a golden opportunity to do that by turning down $51 billion in federal funds over the next decade. They’ve got another chance this year. They’d be foolhardy to blow it.
About one in four Floridians lacks health insurance, the second-worst rate in the country. Under the Affordable Care Act — Obamacare — the federal government has offered to pay the full cost through 2016 of covering uninsured Floridians earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, and no less than 90 percent in later years.
At a Sentinel Florida Forward forum this past week on health-care reform, panelists pointed out that Floridians won’t avoid paying health-care costs for the uninsured if lawmakers spurn the Obamacare offer again this year. Why? Because those costs will keep getting shifted to the consumers and businesses in Florida that do pay for health insurance.
If you have insurance, you’re paying more for it to cover those who don’t. And if you’re an employer, that makes it harder to compete with your rivals in other states with lower insurance costs.
The Ocala StarBanner — Revisiting term limits
More than two decades after Florida voters approved term limits for their state legislators, it’s a good time to evaluate whether they’ve delivered on their promise.
Given polls showing the popularity of term limits among the citizenry, no one expects voters to get rid of them anytime soon. But state Rep. Keith Perry is proposing reasonable changes that are worth considering, nonetheless.
The Gainesville Republican has sponsored a constitutional amendment that would extend legislative term limits to 12 years from the current eight. The amendment also would expand state representatives’ terms from two years to four and state senators’ terms from four years to six.
If the Legislature approves the proposed constitutional amendment, it would still need the support of 60 percent of voters for passage.
Term limits are supposed to remove out-of-touch lawmakers and bring in new blood with fresh ideas. But they also mean the Legislature loses good lawmakers just as they are developing valuable relationships and policy-making experience.
The Pensacola News-Journal — Bondi: No tax money spent on out-of-state brief
As a fourth-generation Floridian, I care deeply about protecting our waterways and environment. I believe that Florida has always had the best expertise and resources to determine how to protect our waters, as does each unique state. Under the current administration, the federal Environmental Protection Agency continually seeks expanded authority to trump state regulation. But Congress – not the EPA – decides the extent of federal regulatory authority. And under the Clean Water Act, Congress left important authority to the states, expressly determining to “recognize, preserve and protect the primary responsibilities and rights of States to prevent, reduce and eliminate pollution, [and] to plan the development and use… of land and water resources.” The EPA has a role to play, but the states do, too.
Fighting against federal government overreach has been one of my priorities as attorney general. And federal overreach is precisely what is at issue in American Farm Bureau Federation v. EPA. While the details of that case involve the Chesapeake Bay, the principles at stake are far broader. Indeed, the federal court deciding the case explained that the “dispute, at its core, raises questions regarding the proper division of duties between the states and the federal government” under the Clean Water Act. Because of that critical issue, a coalition of 21 state attorneys general joined a friend-of-the-court brief led by Kansas defending individual states’ authority in environmental regulation. Contrary to what has been reported, by signing on to the friend-of-the-court brief, no taxpayer money was spent.
The Palm Beach Post — The racial disparity in Palm Beach County marijuana arrests can’t be ignored
Last summer, Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw was asked to explain why blacks in the county are five times as likely as whites to be arrested for having marijuana, even though studies show blacks and whites use the drug at similar rates. His explanation: The county’s illegal drug trade is controlled predominantly by black street gangs. Gang members who sell marijuana are more likely to be busted with it, and also more likely to be black.
Though Bradshaw offered no evidence, his was a plausible explanation for at least part of the disparity. There’s only one problem: Bradshaw’s chief deputy was asked the same question about racial disparities earlier this month — and gave an entirely different answer.
The Panama City News-Herald — Pave way for Music Alley
Local music enthusiasts have struck the right notes in their proposal to make Harrison Avenue in downtown Panama City busking-friendly. Let’s hope city officials and area merchants can carry the tune.
“Busking” is the practice of performing in public places for money. In many large cities it’s not uncommon to see a person with an acoustic guitar on a street corner or sidewalk performing cover versions of popular songs or original tunes, with a hat, open guitar case or other receptacle nearby for appreciative listeners to toss money into. Many famous performers, such as Sheryl Crow, got their start busking, although the practice isn’t limited to individuals (multi-instrumental groups gather and busk) nor to musicians (street mimes, magicians and comedians do it, too).
Crook Stewart III and his wife Victoria are leading efforts to make busking a part of a revitalized downtown Panama City. After years of debate and inaction, the city finally is taking major steps to transform the marina into a destination for tourists and locals, traffic that it hopes will filter its way up Harrison Avenue to patronize the restaurants and retailers there — which eventually would fill in many of those empty storefronts.
In recent years officials have discussed allowing al fresco dining and other measures to lure foot traffic. The Stewarts are proposing adding the element of performance, which not only would attract audiences but also would provide a venue for local musicians to bring their music to a wider public (and of course make a little money).
The Tallahassee Democrat – Julie Moreno: We’re investing in our customers
I have always been a big reader.
As a child growing up in the rural Midwest, left to my own devices much of the time, I found the printed word to be a great companion. Big stacks of books would come home with me from school; I’d burn through those, and then find myself wanting more.
To that end, the newspaper was a fresh information fix almost daily. My parents had a mail subscription to the regional newspaper, and in the summertime, I’d sit there looking out the window, waiting for the mailman to hit our mailbox out on the main road.
When he did, I’d grab my bike and pedal out to snag the mail and the latest edition of the paper.
So, given the place newspapers have always had in my life, it’s no wonder that I didn’t think twice when offered a newspaper job out of college.
The Tampa Tribune — A way to help Florida schools and commerce
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam offers a practical way to generate desperately needed funds for school construction that merits the Legislature’s support.
The proposal also includes a business tax cut aimed at making Florida more competitive.
Putnam’s plan is to cut in half over three years the 7 percent tax on energy used by businesses. Residents pay no such sales tax. Putnam says large corporations are exempted, so the tax affects mostly mid-sized businesses.
At the same time he would direct the tax’s revenues be used for the construction and maintenance of Florida’s public schools and universities.
The bulk of such funding has come from Public Education Capital Outlay fund, a tax on electric, telecommunications and cable bills.
Because of widespread cellphone use and energy efficiency advancements that have cut electricity use, PECO funding has dropped precipitously.