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.

The Tampa Tribune: Thanks to Congress, the Country is less safe today

Congress has done this country a great disservice by voting to weaken one of our defenses against an enemy that is determined to exploit our security lapses and unleash terror in our streets.

Don’t believe the critics of this country’s expansive and necessary security efforts who say the vote last week to curtail a bulk telephone records program represents a victory for privacy rights for all Americans.

No evidence has surfaced that privacy rights were intentionally abused in the 14 years the National Security Agency ran the telephone metadata program, which collected the numbers, times and duration of telephone calls but not the content of what was said.

The government was not listening in on your phone calls. The data was mined as an investigative tool when targets were identified.

It was one of many tools in a fight against terrorist threats that escalate with each frightening news report out of the Middle East, where a growing Islamic jihad movement is calling for attacks in this country.

And that threat remains serious. Just last Wednesday police shot and killed an extremist in Boston who reputedly was planning to kill and decapitate police officers.

But the important national security program ended last week and was replaced by the USA Freedom Act, an over-reaction to the despicable conduct of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who stole information about the government’s sensitive anti-terrorism efforts and shared it with our enemies.

The measure, signed enthusiastically by President Obama hours after Congress passed it, is supposed to create more privacy protections by having the phone companies, rather than the NSA, store the records. The government must seek permission from a federal court to obtain them, a process that will certainly delay and hinder investigations.

It might also make the records unavailable. As the Wall Street Journal reports, at least one telecommunications provider has already informed the government it has no intention of storing the data for a specified time unless required by the new law, which has no such requirement.

Congress shouldn’t have been in this position to begin with.

But thanks to the grandstanding delay tactics by Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican presidential candidate, the bulk data collection program lapsed when a deadline passed for the renewal of certain provisions of the USA Patriot Act, the anti-terrorism measures passed in response to the rude awakening of the 9/11 terror attacks.

With the bulk data program no longer in force, the best result even its supporters could hope for was to support the weaker USA Freedom Act that passed through the House amid debates over privacy and government overreach.

To his credit, Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, fought to the end against weakening the program. “I think Congress is misreading the public mood if they think Americans are concerned about privacy implications,” he said.

We agree. But he couldn’t overcome the politics or the perception among some Democrat and Republican senators and House members that the public is up in arms about the bulk data collection.

The vote also reflected a realization among Patriot Act supporters that adopting the Freedom Act was making the best of a bad situation. To vote against the act would have left the country with no bulk data program in place to connect the dots when suspected terrorists are identified.

Civil libertarians are quick to point out that no evidence exists to prove the mass collection of phone records thwarted any plots or saved any lives. But would the public rather risk a possible intrusion into our privacy rights by a government agency, or risk mass murder in a terror attack that might have been stopped with the help of a robust metadata program?

The grim remembrances of 9/11 provide an easy answer to that question.

Sarasota Herlad-Tribune: Economic Opportunities

By the numbers, Sarasota’s downtown redevelopment efforts are a huge success. Yet, as Vice Mayor Suzanne Atwell reminded her fellow commissioners last week, much work remains undone. From the Ringling shopping plaza, to judicial center expansion, to the bayfront, Newtown and the North Trail, hoped-for projects await funding, partnerships and the political will to move forward.

All of these projects could spur revitalization, bolster the city and county tax bases and help meet future quality-of-life needs. But the city can’t accomplish them alone; it needs private-sector interest as well as significant cooperation from county government, which controls important funding levers. For example, the city (population 53,000) wants the county’s downtown administrative offices to stay and grow there, but responsibility for those buildings lies with the county (population 390,000).

These two separate government entities — city and county — are often at odds, but both are supposed to serve the public. They need to work together, respecting each other’s jurisdictions and meeting community needs. In areas where their interests overlap, such as economic revitalization, they should seize the opportunity to partner up and reap mutual benefits.

That is precisely what Sarasota County and the city did in 1986, creating a downtown tax-increment finance district. It is scheduled to expire next year.

 

The Lakeland Ledger: Same Act, Only Name is Different

When the clock struck midnight last Sunday night, striking down theparts of the USA Patriot Act, civil libertarians rejoiced. As of 12:01 a.m. Monday, the federal government could no longer hoover up — a phrase referring to the brand of vacuum cleaners and not the famous FBI director — data about our cellphone calls, emails and text messages.

That victory was short-lived, regrettably, as we’ll note in a moment.

Enacted in the fear-filled weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Patriot Act was intended to facilitate the hunt for foreign terrorists, and to keep them off U.S. soil to begin with. Its supporters promised the implementation of an expanded security apparatus that operated within the confines of our legal and constitutional safeguards.

“We must develop new weapons for protection against this new kind of war. … Indeed, it cannot be denied that law enforcement tools created decades ago were crafted for rotary telephones, not email, the Internet, mobile communications, and voice mail,” Wisconsin Republican Rep. James Sensenbrenner, the Patriot Act’s main sponsor, said during the House floor debate in October 2001. “Importantly, the bill does not do anything to take away the freedoms of innocent citizens. Of course, we all recognize that the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution prevents the government from conducting unreasonable searches and seizures, and that is why this legislation does not change the United States Constitution or the rights guaranteed to citizens of this country under the Bill of Rights.”

That, of course, was not true — whether or not Sensenbrenner and other proponents realized it.

As former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed two years ago this month, the NSA and FBI had been accumulating nearly imponderable amounts of U.S. citizens’ electronic communications — scooping up whatever audio and video posts, photographs, emails, documents and Internet activity logs that they wanted from firms such as Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, YouTube and Apple.

Yet that conduct — in essence, 14 years of government snooping into our lives — was supposed to have stopped this past Monday, thanks to Sen. Rand Paul. The Kentucky Republican used procedural tactics to gum up the debate and eventually prevent the Senate from voting on extending the key provisions of the Patriot Act.

Paul was lambasted by proponents of the status quo, with perhaps the harshest criticism leveled by those in Paul’s own party. Yet the freshman senator was correct to stand up for the U.S. Constitution and our privacy, and for that Paul deserves the thanks of all Americans. Here is why.

In March 2013, Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden asked National Intelligence Director James Clapper during a hearing if the government gathered “any type” of data on Americans.

“No sir,” Clapper responded. “Not wittingly.”

Clapper misled Wyden and the country, and later apologized for his comment. So, clearly the intelligence community was lying about its behavior.

Early last month, the federal Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the bulk collection of phone data was unconstitutional under the Patriot Act. So, it was illegal.

In January 2014, an independent board appointed by President Barack Obama released its review of the Patriot Act’s effectiveness, and the panel concluded that it could not identify “a single instance involving a threat to the United States in which the telephone records program made a concrete difference in the outcome.”

Last month, the FBI’s inspector general released a report that noted agents admitted that they were unable to “identify any major case developments” from using techniques allowed under the Patriot Act. So, it didn’t work.

Yet two days after the deadline, the Senate passed and Obama signed the USA Freedom Act. Some Patriot Act critics hailed the new law for reining in the government. But it mostly allows the telecom companies, and not the government, to keep compiling the data, and does nothing about other federal regulations with the same effect. “The Patriot Act will expire tonight. It will only be temporary,” Paul said ominously on the Senate floor Sunday. “They will ultimately get their way.”

If he’s right, and if the Freedom Act keeps the same program under a different name, we’ve learned nothing, gained nothing, and will do nothing to stop terrorism. But what we’ll lose is incalculable.

Ocala Star Banner: Increase funding for fire rescue

Doing nothing is not an option.

That must be the mind-set of the Marion County Commission Monday when it holds a workshop to discuss options regarding funding of the Fire Rescue department in the coming years.

The agency has been besieged with defections of veteran firefighters and paramedics over the past couple years — more than 60 alone since Jan. 1 — and its longtime chief, Stuart McElhaney, has warned that if funding is not increased, the department will face multimillion-dollar deficits starting next year, culminating with a projected $17 million shortfall in 2019-20.

This is not a problem that has snuck up on the commission. For nearly two years, Fire Rescue officials have been bemoaning the exodus of trained firefighters and paramedics to other Florida cities and counties that they say pay, on average, $10,000 a year more than Marion County.

The starting pay for a firefighter/EMT in Marion County is a shameful $8.98, while the starting pay for a firefighter/paramedic is $11.93 an hour. We do not have to know what other departments are paying to know that these are woefully substandard salaries for public safety workers we depend on to save lives and property. 

The Tallahassee Democrat: Community should support curbing violence

Two weeks ago this newspaper called for the city to fund the Tallahassee Police Department’s 2016 budget request, which includes the hiring of additional officers.

That budget request has been expedited, but not for the reason we would have chosen.

In part because of multiple shootings last week, City Manager Anita Favors Thompson is moving forward on TPD’s funding even sooner than expected, bringing an early request to the City Commission on June 17. That’s good.

The city has also announced that it will immediately “increase overtime hours for the Violent Crime Response Team and other units addressing crime in the areas of the city with the greatest needs.” So police will be more visible — both as a deterrent to crime, and to be more accessible to the public. Also good.

It’s unfortunate that it’s taken an uptick in violent crime — and a statewide report showing Tallahassee to have the highest crime rate in the state — to get everyone on the same page about the need for action, but at least we’re there now. And we urge all community members to support the city’s new initiatives as well as the various grassroots action plans being put into effect.

As the city said in its hastily rolled out “Operation Safe Neighborhoods” plan, “It will take the entire community to address these issues, and it will take both a short-term and long-term vision to help ensure the safety of our citizens.”

We agree. There are no quick fixes — at least for the root causes of violence — and there are no bystanders. We all need to get involved.

“If I could say anything, the problem is within the community,” said 21-year-old Robert Hall to a crowd of about 200 people at a town hall meeting on Thursday called by Commissioner Bill Proctor. “We can’t look to law enforcement or any other agency if we walk past the same problems every day. We witness the drugs being sold at our corner stores. We witness the (gang) flags hanging from pockets. The problem lies within ourselves. We have to take back the community.”

It’s not just Frenchtown, where the recent shootings have occurred. There’s crime in all parts of the city. We all need to work better with law enforcement and they need to work better with us. Our elected officials need to follow through next week and give TPD the resources it needs.

But more importantly, we all need to step up and take responsibility not only for our actions, but for the actions of our fellow community members.

“Each and every one of us plays a part in making a difference,” said the Rev. Julius McAllister, senior pastor at Bethel AME Church, at the Thursday meeting.

Mayor Andrew Gillum said the city’s plan is still in its early stages. “The truth is we are still working through trying to figure out how we will piece all this together. What we do know for certain is we have a situation that requires some extraordinary actions by the city government.”

It’s OK that Gillum doesn’t immediately have all the answers. At least we’re no longer pretending the problem doesn’t exist.

And that’s the first step, right?

The Bradenton Herald: Squash latest lawmaker push to allow offshore drilling closer to Florida’s Gulf shores

Despite history and the prospects of future oil spills from offshore rigs and wells fouling the Gulf of Mexico, oil state congressmen and senators are pushing legislation to allow rigs closer to Florida’s coastline.

Even as America is awash in oil and natural gas — becoming the largest global producer of petroleum in 2012 with the upward surge continuing — this bill would open access to oil and gas exploration to within 50 miles of Florida’s shores.

That’s quite a difference from the current bans of 235 miles from Tampa Bay and 125 miles from the Panhandle.

Florida stands in a unique position, being in its own federal planning region for Gulf energy resources management. The other two, the western zone for Texas and the central one south of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, already allow exploration and drilling within 50 miles of those shorelines.

When proponents of offshore drilling close to Florida beaches cite the need for energy independence and national energy security, they ignore the fact that Big Oil hasn’t taken advantage of the thousands of available leases in the western and central planning areas. America’s burgeoning oil production also weakens the security argument.

Gulf oil production is vital to the nation’s future, but there are plenty of opportunities for drilling beyond Florida’s coastline.

Two Florida Republican contenders for the White House — former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio — support an expansion of domestic energy production. That’s a flip-flop for Bush, who as governor fought such bids to allow rigs closer to Florida’s coastline.

Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida came out as the state’s initial defender by recently filing a bill that counters the pro-drilling measure. Nelson’s measure would extend the 2006 ban on near-shore drilling, set to expire in 2022, to 2027.

GOP Rep. Vern Buchanan, who has represented the Manatee and Sarasota communities well with his opposition to the expansion of Gulf drilling close to Florida, followed Nelson’s lead last week. The congressman signed on as a cosponsor to House legislation that also extends the current ban through 2027.

Rep. David Jolly, R-Indian Shores, introduced the House measure on Thursday with Rep. Gwen Graham, a Tallahassee Democrat, showing the opposition is bipartisan.

In a statement, Jolly put this matter in sharp focus, refuting the pro-drilling arguments about job creation and energy security: “The economic benefits do not outweigh the risks. We can achieve energy independence and national energy security without jeopardizing our natural resources.”

And, we must add, without threatening all the tourism-related jobs and businesses, more valuable than far fewer oil workers.

The lesson of the BP oil spill five years ago appears lost on Big Oil supporters. The Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, and BP’s well blew out and gushed more than 200 million gallons of crude into the Gulf over 87 days.

That rig stood only 50 miles from Louisiana’s shore, and oil wreaked havoc on the environment. The crude fouled more than 100 miles of Florida’s coast, and devastated the tourism industries in beach communities.

The cleanup and damage cost BP billions. The environmental impact has yet to be fully determined.

In the wake of the catastrophe, the federal government established new safety protocols and equipment standards and stricter enforcement regulations. These improvements, however, exist on paper and depend on compliance by the oil industry.

And given human failings, there are no guarantees another underwater gusher would not occur. Even with improvements in company operations and drilling equipment, oil industry assurances cannot ensure public safety.

Even White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest recently admitted “the need to put in place even more rigorous safety standards.” That does not lend confidence in the reforms initiated by the BP disaster.

Fortunately Manatee County beaches and ecosystems escaped the flood of BP oil.

Thanks to promotional messages about our clean beaches after the spill, the county saw a 12 percent increase in visitation, many from tourists who frequented the Panhandle.

Tourism is Manatee’s economic lifeblood, and our beaches, marine ecosystems and clean waterways also yield an enviable quality of life. Imagine the threat from drilling rigs only 50 miles offshore here and a well blowout. Keep the rigs far from our coast to help minimize the danger.

As Floridians, Bush and Rubio should side with Gulf beach communities and tourism economies instead of Big Oil and outsized profits.

The Gainesville Sun: Gutting the EPA

It was ironic that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker chose a Florida forum to argue that states would do a better job protecting the environment than the federal government.

Walker was among a half-dozen Republican presidential candidates who attended Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s economic summit last week in Orlando. At the event, Walker called for major parts of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s funding and responsibilities to be sent to the states.

“Every state has an equivalent of the EPA,” he said. “Every state that has it, not that they’re all perfect, but they’re much more effective, much more efficient and certainly much more accountable at the state and local level than they are in Washington.”

Walker wouldn’t have needed to walk far to find examples of just how bad a state can be at protecting the environment.

Under Scott, Florida has slashed funding for environmental protection, water management and land conservation. Longtime employees of regulatory agencies have been forced out. Public lands have been slated for private uses.

Water resources, such as our region’s springs, have become more polluted and depleted. Yet, Scott has fought greater limits on pollution, such as the EPA’s new rule restoring Clean Water Act safeguards to wetlands and streams.

Climate change provides the best example of the differences between Florida and the federal government when it comes to the environment.

As The Associated Press reported last month, Florida is already dealing with the effects of climate change such as sea-level rise. Coastal cities such as historic St. Augustine are seeing more frequent flooding that is only going to get worse.

But the AP found that the state lacks a clear plan or coordination on the issue. Scott wouldn’t address whether the state has a long-range plan when the AP asked him about it. State employees have been banned from even using the term climate change under Scott.

Florida also has failed to take steps to cut the carbon emissions that contribute to climate change. State lawmakers have rolled back emissions limits and refused to fix laws that impede the expanded use of solar power.

In the absence of state action, the EPA has developed regulations to cut carbon emissions from power plants and other sources. The rules gives states the power to develop their own plans to reduce emissions, but Florida has so far sat on its hands.

Walker picked the wrong place to argue that states do a better job on the environment. Not only is environmental protection imperfect in our state, our political leadership has vacillated between indifference and outright hostility on the issue.

Gutting the EPA would only make our state and its natural resources more vulnerable.

 

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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