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 — Urgency needed on discipline changes for Hillsborough schools

The Hillsborough County School District has a serious problem with school discipline and disparity in punishments between white and minority students. But after identifying the issue and committing to address it two years ago, the district appears no closer to finding solutions and implementing changes. This issue and the students who are affected by it cannot wait. The district needs to make revamping its discipline procedures a higher priority and set a reasonable time frame for adopting reforms and moving forward.

Hillsborough County schools interim superintendent Jeff Eakins plans to bring together a group of stakeholders including principals and law enforcement officials to discuss discipline recommendations put forth by the African American and Hispanic Male Task Force. Eakins’ decision came after a more than two-hour workshop Tuesday at which only a few of the task force’s ideas were presented in a largely circular discussion that lacked focus. The group’s recommendations include creating a student bill of rights, adopting a discipline matrix to standardize punishments and rewording the student handbook to remove subjective language for behavior offenses.

Hillsborough has long acknowledged high rates of suspension and expulsion for African-American and Hispanic male students. Districtwide, for example, blacks make up 21 percent of the middle school population but comprised 42 percent of suspensions and expulsions in 2013-14. Separately, the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights launched an investigation into the district around the time that a local activist filed a complaint about racial bias in school discipline. The district has responded, targeting populations at risk for dropping out of school and holding outreach meetings with African-American and Hispanic males. But getting school discipline under control is the linchpin in any long-term solution aimed at curbing high suspension, expulsion and dropout rates.

There are no easy solutions to a discipline disparity problem that has been years in the making. But Hillsborough’s pace on providing solutions has been frustratingly slow. The district held a workshop on the issue with African-American males in April 2013, more than two years ago. With no deadline set for creating a new plan, it will likely be at least another school year before administrators are ready to debut a new districtwide approach to discipline. Until then, students will have to navigate an old system that is widely perceived as unfair.

The Bradenton Herald — Florida governor, Legislature not good friends to environment

The powers that be in Florida’s Legislature and Governor’s Mansion continue to display an aversion to land conservation and environmental protection, issues near and dear to the vast majority of Floridians. Yet those powers both boast about their environmental accomplishments. The evidence says otherwise.

The latest Tallahassee salvo comes from Gov. Rick Scott’s administration. The Florida Department of Environment Protection proposes opening up more state parks to cattle grazing and timber harvesting. Myakka State Park appears poised to be first in DEP’s drive to put more cattle on park land.

In an email response to an inquiry from Herald reporter James A. Jones Jr., the DEP press office responded with this: “The department continually looks for opportunities to expand visitor services and recreation as well as make our parks and lands more self-sustaining.”

How is grazing and logging a visitor service? And how does environmental degradation make parks and lands more self-sustaining? Instead, costly restoration work would be required.

The fees the state would charge could not possibly amount to much, certainly nowhere near the $80 million annual costs of operating the parks, a minuscule total in next year’s $79 billion budget.

The DEP’s drive to damage the tranquil park atmosphere — where visitors enjoy camping, kayaking, hiking, bird-watching and more — is now under literal fire from another direction. According to DEP documents obtained by the Tampa Bay Times last week, the agency is looking at opening state parks to hunting — possibly within a month or two if this ludicrous idea is approved. So nature preserves could now become killing grounds?

Isn’t wildlife protection and safe havens one of the core missions of our state parks?

The Daytona Beach News-Journal — A bait-and-switch on Amendment 1

Florida voters last November overwhelmingly approved Amendment 1, the Florida Water and Land Conservation Initiative, despite the opposition of The News-Journal and other critics who feared the constitutional measure would tie lawmakers’ hands on environmental spending, making state budgeting more difficult.

The budget the Legislature passed Friday shows our concerns were unfounded. Legislators escaped those shackles in a way that would’ve impressed Harry Houdini — and in doing so, made a mockery of the voters.

Amendment 1 mandates that one-third of the tax revenues on real estate documents be dedicated to environmental conservation efforts, ranging from land purchases to restoration programs. That should’ve amounted to about $700 million for Fiscal Year 2015-16. Environmentalists had hoped to receive $300 million, the annual amount spent on the Florida Forever land-acquisition program during Jeb Bush’s years as governor before the Great Recession necessitated severe budget cuts. They were willing to settle for $170 million.

Instead, legislators earmarked a paltry $17.4 million for Florida Forever (as part of a total of $55 million set aside for land acquisitions).

Buying land is a controversial state policy, both for the money it costs to acquire properties and to maintain them year after year, and on philosophical grounds regarding public versus private ownership. Many Amendment 1 supporters argue that the money should be used only for land acquisition and management, as that is how the measure was sold to voters. Although that is the first expenditure listed in the amendment’s text, it also provides financing for protecting water resources.

The Florida Times-Union — Jacksonville’s challenges transcend any calls for more money

Mayor-elect Lenny Curry and his transition team were working intensely at City Hall last week sorting problems, programs and priorities in preparation for his taking office in 10 days and having to submit a budget 19 days later.

We can only hope they were taking time to read the Times-Union because Thursday’s front page inadvertently presented Curry’s two biggest, and probably most expensive, challenges.

One was across the top of the page under the headline “Prospects positive for pension deal,” which will require the city to come up with several hundred million dollars to adequately fund the Police and Fire Pension Fund.

But that’s only money.

The much tougher challenge was in the centerpiece package under this headline: “Children in the crime wave,” next to photos of a handcuffed 16-year-old charged with shooting up a school bus and of a 13-year-old boy — yes, 13! — charged with murder while he and two other teenagers were trading guns with a man at a gas station at 2:50 a.m.

I hope the Curry team paused at the obvious question of how children, so many children in this town, can suddenly, seemingly overnight, go from basketball, bicycles and games to violence, guns and death.

The transition team must know that the answer is more than some genetic flaw or freak occurrence.

Even if those two boys eventually are found not guilty, such children are products of a toxic stew of congenital factors, influences and events, the mixture of which results in failed human beings. Pick your poisons: poor parenting, poverty, bad neighborhood with drugs and violence, inattention to early development, illiteracy, failure in school, wild on the streets at 2:50 a.m. — together resulting in criminal justice to imprison lives and tax dollars and depress your quality of life.

Just as the destruction of these children was systematic — “interacting bodies under the influence of related forces” — so must be the salvation of the next generation.

There are three local beacons to give heart and inspiration to the Curry team. If the team truly wants to make an impact, they should consider adopting all three. They really are aimed at the same urban pathologies from different directions, and together they could have transformative power.

Florida Today – Be grateful for the gifts from dad

There is a song by Amy Grant that I have sung at church on Father’s Day weekend. It’s called “Father’s Eyes,” and it has more than one meaning to me.

I remember hearing the song for the first time while tears filled my eyes. In fact, I had to practice the song a lot before I was able to sing it without getting too emotional. (Crying and singing don’t work well together. Well, at least not with me.)

The lyrics for the chorus are:

“She’s got her father’s eyes, her father’s eyes. Eyes that find the good in things when good is not around. Eyes that find the source of help when help just can’t be found. Eyes full of compassion, seeing every pain, knowing what you’re going through and feeling it the same, just like her father’s eyes.”

So what is a father? Here is how I answer that question.

F – First to come to the rescue whenever anything needs correcting, fixing or mending.

A – A little girl’s first love.

T – Thoughtful provider who does whatever it takes for his family, friends and co-workers.

H – Helping hands to build, grill, straighten, transport and add humor.

E – Example to every young boy who will become a man and perhaps, a father as well.

R – Responsible, resourceful, respectful and relaxing

S – Sacred and holy, honor given by our creator.

The Gainesville Sun – Cheers and jeers

For local classical music lovers, it’s better late than never.

Cheer: University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications officials, for plans to launch a new 24-hour classical/arts station at 92.1 FM.

Officials are now seeking Federal Communications Commission approval for the new station. They had stopped playing classical music on WUFT 89.1 FM about six years ago in a switch to a news-and-talk format.

Jeer: Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, the state’s largest utilities and several influential business groups, for attempting to block a proposed solar-energy ballot initiative.

The initiative would end a state ban on residents buying electricity from companies that put solar panels on homes or businesses.

The News Service of Service reported that Bondi, utilities including Florida Power & Light and groups including the Florida Chamber of Commerce filed briefs with the Florida Supreme Court seeking to keep the measure off the ballot.

Cheer: Alachua Habitat for Humanity, for providing new homes to families in Newberry and Gainesville in recent weeks.

An anonymous donor gave $60,000 for the first home in honor of Pope Francis, and the second home was built with the help of donors and partners across the local interfaith community.

Jeer: Department of Environmental Protection officials, for considering allowing hunting in state parks for the first time.

DEP head Jon Steverson has pushed for the parks system to make enough money to pay for itself. The Tampa Bay Times reported that hunting is being considered in addition to timber harvesting and cattle grazing.

The Lakeland Ledger — Obama, Congress, Wars: Follow the Proper Avenues

Almost from the moment in January 2009 when the moving vans deposited Barack Obama’s belongings in the White House, congressional Republicans have painted the president as a reincarnation of King George III.

GOP lawmakers have lashed out against Obama’s supposed dictatorial rule so often — on health care, gun control, immigration, environmental regulation, foreign policy, selecting people to fill administrative posts, tax policy, pick an issue — it’s near impossible to keep track of when, according to them, he has actually adhered to our laws.

On Wednesday, the alleged protectors of the rule of law on Capitol Hill were given a chance to stand up for constitutional governance — by one of Obama’s fellow Democrats of all people — and they failed, miserably.

U.S. warplanes have pounded Islamic State militants operating in Iraq and Syria since August and September, respectively. It’s an effort, the president says, that’s necessary to slow if not stop the spread of the ISIS cancer across the Middle East. Over 10 months U.S. and allied pilots have flown thousands of sorties against ISIS fighters. On top of that Obama has dispatched almost 3,600 troops to the region as advisers, including 450 ordered there last week.

With the Pentagon’s activity in Iraq and Syria, Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., sought clarification. An outspoken opponent of Obama’s war-fighting policy, McGovern said recently he no longer saw the value of American taxpayers spending $3.4 million an hour to fight ISIS absent a coherent strategy and authorization from Congress.

The Miami Herald — Haiti’s fragile state

Haiti, a nation that always seems on the brink of some new peril, finds itself in a fragile state today, thanks, in part, to the threat from the next-door Dominican Republic to begin mass deportations any moment.

At this writing, it remains unclear whether the deportations are imminent, or may have already started under a program called Operation Shield. It is the result of a law passed last year that requires all foreign-born workers to register or face removal. To say that the program, rooted in the intolerant country’s attempts to expel even Dominican-born residents of Haitian descent, has not worked well is an understatement. It was supposed to single out only those illegal migrants who have turned up since 2011, but the registration process has been riddled with chronic delays. Reports of unwarranted deportations have been rife.

This would be a huge problem for Haiti at any time, but especially so at this moment because the nation, which shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic, faces a host of tensions.

The most pressing involve squabbling over upcoming elections, where nearly 2,000 candidates are running for 138 legislative seats in August. This is a crucial milestone on the path to political and economic recovery because there is no functioning parliament. Elections are years overdue.

If all goes as planned, a presidential election would then be held on Oct. 25 to replace President Michel Martelly, who is ruling by decree. As is usually the case in Haiti, there are any number of ominous rumors floating about, the most dangerous of which is that the elections will be postponed in favor of a “transition government.”

Fortunately, the U.S. State Department’s Thomas C. Adams, special coordinator for Haiti, who has worked hard to get Haiti on the right path, did his best in a recent interview with the Herald’s Jacqueline Charles to quash that rumor. “I don’t understand where this is coming from.”

The Orlando Sentinel — Secretive midnight spending orgy caps off Florida’s legislative session

Last week, the Legislature staged a late-night, closed-door meeting to spend $300 million of your tax dollars.

No outside input. No public witnesses. Yet all of it your money.

Some of the money went to wildly inappropriate places — such as $2 million to a private, for-profit sports-training academy that charges families $50,000 a year. (One of the school’s lobbyists happens to be a powerful legislator’s brother.)

The secretive midnight spend-fest was such a freewheeling orgy of excess that when it was over, legislators weren’t even sure how they spent it all.

Can you imagine anyone else doing a job like this?

Can you imagine house-shopping — only to have your Realtor call one morning and say: “Hey, I inked a deal for you to buy a new house last night!”

Um, what? you respond. I wasn’t even with you last night.

“I know,” says your agent. “I did it in secret. Around midnight. When you weren’t around.”

But it’s my money.

“I know. And sometimes you complain when I waste it. That’s why I decided to do the deal when you couldn’t watch.”

Well, what kind of deal did you get me?

“I’m not really sure.”

The Ocala StarBanner — Health care progress

The Legislature’s failure to expand Medicaid is a profound disappointment, but two health-care measures that did become law could save thousands of lives.

The “Right to Try Act” would allow terminally ill patients access to “investigational” drugs under review but not yet approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration. To be eligible under the law, the drugs must pass at least three phases of FDA testing for safety and effectiveness.

Also passed by the Legislature was the “Emergency Treatment and Recovery Act,” which will put an opioid antidote — to counteract overdoses on drugs such as heroin or fentanyl — into the hands of thousands of emergency workers, law enforcement officers, family members and friends. Under prior law, the antidotes were only available to medical professionals such as emergency room doctors and paramedics.

These two bills, signed into law last week by Gov. Rick Scott, are proof that Florida’s lawmakers — many of whom ignored the life-saving potential of Medicaid expansion — can cooperate on vital health-care measures.

The Right to Try Act, which takes effect July 1, enables drug manufacturers, under certain conditions, to provide terminally ill patients with experimental drugs.

Besides requiring that the drugs pass the initial FDA tests, the law stipulates that the patient must have a terminal condition, which must be certified by a physician and confirmed by a second opinion. The patient also will have to have considered all other treatment options already approved by the FDA.

The Pensacola News-Journal — Real rip-off for Real Florida

When 4.2 million Floridians are being ignored, insulted, spat upon – the system is broken.

That’s how many Floridians voted for Amendment 1 in 2014 – a resounding vote that dedicated hundreds of millions for conservation and preservation of Florida’s natural lands. Overwhelmingly, those voters believed they were setting forth a mandate for the state to purchase more public land. Land that would remain pristine, protected and untouched. Land that would be safe from strip malls, toll booths and gas stations. Land that would help to solve our looming water woes and heal our sputtering springs. That was the will of the people. Loud and clear.

Florida legislators have spoken loud and clear, too: “To hell with the will of the people.”

Legislators crafted a budget this year that has less money for Florida’s environment than before Amendment 1 passed.

As reported by the Tampa Bay Times last week, Amendment 1 supporters say that the budget “earmarks only $17.4 million for the acquisition of parks and wildlife habitat under the state program Florida Forever.” The state used to commit $300 million to Florida Forever lands. Even after Gov. Rick Scott took office, $100 million went to the program. Not even a year after 75 percent of voters demanded more, this budget doesn’t even come close.

So what’s happening to the money generated by Amendment 1?

It’s not clear. The amendment was projected to set aside more than $700 million in its first year.

But the Times reported that “lawmakers want to spend about half of the Amendment 1 money on projects and programs that have historically been paid for out of other parts of the budget.”

The Palm Beach Post — 4 ways to protect Floridians from King v. Burwell shock

Given the gravity of the possible consequences, we had hoped and expected that elected officials would have protected Florida’s citizens in case of a plaintiff’s victory in the King v. Burwell lawsuit. This case is widely believed to pose the most credible threat yet to millions of people newly insured by the Affordable Care Act.

Sadly, with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling expected any day now, they have no plan.

Here’s how bad things look if the justices side against the Obama administration:

An estimated 8 million people nationwide lose their tax credits and can no longer afford insurance sold on the federal Affordable Care Act exchange at www.healthcare.gov.

An estimated 9,800 of those uninsured people die due to their lack of health insurance annually. Personal bankruptcies surge as medical debt overwhelms people’s ability to pay.

Everyone’s health insurance premiums go up — estimates range from 35 percent to 47 percent next year, possibly more — because when insurance becomes super-expensive, only the sickest people buy it.

In Florida, 90 percent of 1.6 million people using the federal exchange lose their tax credits and see their coverage become unaffordable. Most become uninsured.

That’s some pretty serious trouble caused by a simple lawsuit focused on four ill-chosen words: “established by a state.” The Virginia citizens named in the suit argue they wouldn’t be subject to a penalty for lacking insurance if the tax credits weren’t available in their state, which uses the federal exchange. The law states that the tax credits must be delivered “through an exchange established by a state.”

The Panama City News-Herald — Lawmakers kick health care can down road

The special session of the Florida Legislature that concludes this week has been like a summer blockbuster movie that, rather than resolving all the plot points, merely sets the stage for a sequel.

Unfortunately, it’s one that most Floridians probably would rather not see.

Legislators were forced to go to overtime after failing to agree on a balanced budget during the regular session that ended May 1. The sticking point then was disagreement over how to fund health care for the uninsured.

The Senate wanted to accept federal Medicaid money to create a state-run system that relied on private insurance. The House refused on the grounds that the Senate plan amounted to expanding Medicaid, which Republicans in that chamber considered the equivalent of capitulating to the dreaded Obamacare. Instead, they insisted that the federal government should directly fund its share of a Low Income Pool (LIP) that had been used in previous years to compensate hospitals for providing indigent care. The impasse left the two chambers $4 billion apart in budget negotiations.

Facing a July 1 deadline to pass a budget or else force a shutdown of the state government, lawmakers during the special session that began June 1 chose the expedient route: They kicked the health care can into next year.

A week into the session, the House and Senate agreed to use $400 million from other spending in the budget and a reduced package of tax cuts to partially reimburse hospitals for the high cost of indigent care. That will be combined with about $600 million in federal funds to sustain the LIP for another year. However, that’s a strategy that can’t continue much longer. The federal share for next year already is about half what Washington had been paying to the fund, and officials with the Obama administration have warned Florida to expect the amount to be halved again for 2017 as they attempt to wean the state off the LIP model, which is expensive and inefficient.

For now, though, that strategy gets the Legislature over the next hill. Late Monday night, lawmakers agreed to an approximately $80 billion budget that will avert the spending crisis. And judging by reporting on what made the final cuts, it’s a good thing most Floridians weren’t awake and watching the flurry of horse-trading, lest they become queasy by the dizzying spectacle.

The South Florida Sun Sentinel – More profit for FPL, more risk for customers

Last December, the Public Service Commission allowed Florida Power and Light to get into the natural gas production business, through a fracking venture in the Woodford Shale region of Oklahoma with a company called PetroQuest. For the first time, the commission allowed a regulated energy monopoly to enter an unregulated energy business with financial guarantees that apply to regulated monopolies.

FPL got to bill customers for its fracking investment, even if the venture produced no gas, under the same “fuel cost recovery” rule that allows it to bill customers for work on nuclear plants that the company never may build.

The commission left undecided, however, the question of whether FPL would need approval — which would mean justifying its costs and the need — before each new fracking venture.

FPL wanted blanket approval. The Florida Retail Federation objected. So did the Office of Public Counsel, which represents consumers, saying in a brief to the commission that approval “would open the door for every other investor-owned utility to seek a risk-free way to expand its rate base without a determination of need and without much scrutiny.”

Exposing FPL ratepayers to the risk of this investment was stupid and unprecedented. Just do an internet search on Oklahoma and earthquakes and you will find comments like these “The Oklahoma Geological Survey announced today the majority of recent earthquakes in central and…

The Public Service Commission staff agreed. In its recommendation to the five commissioners for last week’s hearing, the staff noted that what FPL wanted “has never been done before in Florida or by any electric utility in the country.” Like the commission, the staff usually sides with utilities on big issues. In this case, though, the staff recommended that the commission deny the request “without actual experience of how these non-regulated investments will perform and the magnitude of costs FPL will seek to recover.”

Yet the commission not only ignored the staff recommendation, it ignored the recommendation unanimously. Even Art Graham, the lone dissenter in December against the original $191 million fracking venture, sided with FPL.

In a statement, FPL said, “We appreciate the commission’s thoughtful approach to our proposal. With the approved guidelines, we will be able to work toward obtaining more essential clean natural gas directly from the source, generating additional savings for our customers and helping protect them from the risk of fuel market volatility.”

The Tallahassee Democrat – In a society addicted to easy, this is hard

Things to say.

Not sure how they connect, or if they connect, but the providential nudge is as palpable as a wasp’s sting.

I want to say this: This is not easy.

All of it. The grief. Race relations. Gun laws. Crime. Hate. Policing. Faith. Media coverage. Economics.

We want it to be easy, because so much of life has gotten easier —communication, information, socialization.

“Just ban the guns.”

“We must stop racism.”

“Churches need more security.”

“Somebody should have seen the signs.”

We press buttons on our phone and airline reservations are made, bills are paid, dinner is ordered and student grades are revealed.

Somebody press a button and fix this!

But the buttons that fix these problems are as numerous as grains of sand in the desert. And they are connected at countless touch points.

Another thing to say, with trepidation: There is an unseemly thing going on in today’s world of breaking news — too often, it feels like a race for political and ideological validation.

“See, I told you, cops are (choose one) evil and racist/unappreciated heroes.”

The Tampa Tribune — Pope Francis makes right move in holding bishops accountable

Pope Francis has taken an admirable if overdue step in creating a tribunal to deal with bishops accused of covering up for priests suspected of sexual abuse against children.

A new Vatican tribunal will conduct inquiries and hand out punishment to bishops who protect abusive priests or look the other way when legitimate complaints are made. The need was reinforced just days after Francis’ recent announcement when a Roman Catholic archbishop and a deputy bishop in Minnesota resigned over accusations the archdiocese of protected an abusive priest.

As The New York Times reports, bishops have largely avoided punishment as the public became aware of the child sex abuse cases against Catholic priests. The bishops were considered above the criminality.

But the refusal in some instances to take the appropriate action against abusive priests — in some cases transferring the priests and allowing them to abuse again — is in itself deserving of punishment.

A Vatican spokesman says the tribunal will investigate whether bishops overseeing diocese with abusive priests were guilty of allowing the behavior to continue, perhaps by their lack of a proper response. “What one should have done and didn’t do,” the spokesman said. “This is another kind of responsibility and shortcoming, and has to be judged in an appropriate way with appropriate rules.”

In some cases, particularly years ago, bishops genuinely thought abusive priests could be treated and cured. And in other cases, the accusations may be disputed. But as Pope Francis recognizes, there can be no justification for repeatedly reassigning offenders to jobs where they can victimize children.

Take the case in Minnesota. Prosecutors say the archdiocese in St. Paul and Minneapolis mishandled repeated complaints of sexual misconduct against a priest accused of giving three male victims alcohol and drugs and sexually assaulting them between 2008 and 2010. A criminal complaint says supervisors were concerned about the priest’s conduct when he was in the seminary in the 1990s, but that he was made a priest anyway. Francis accepted the resignations of the archbishop and deputy bishop. The case illustrates the continuing need to press for reform related to the scandals. A church review board reported 37 allegations were made to the church last year of sexual abuse involving minors. Of those, six have been substantiated, and others remain open. There also remain hundreds of unresolved cases involving victims who were minors at the time but are now adults.

The public nature of the review board and its report shows the church is moving in the right direction. And locally, at the Diocese of St. Petersburg, there is a process in place to deal with complaints, one that uses lay people to hold even the bishop accountable, a spokesman says.

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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