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 — Better planning for end of life

While most medical care focuses on keeping people healthy and alive, a proposed change in Medicare payments also recognizes the importance of assuring a humane death. For the first time, Medicare would reimburse medical professionals for holding formal end-of-life discussions with patients and their families. This prudent and proper change will help ensure that those difficult but necessary discussions take place.

Society’s push for advance directives and health care surrogates parallels modern medicine’s ability to extend the lives of very sick people. Ventilators, feeding tubes, drug therapies and complex surgeries often present difficult trade-offs with no clear answers. Patients are not always competent to make choices and family rifts can develop just when love and connection matter most. Preparing for this difficult passage under the informed guidance of a medical professional is critically important.

Medicare serves 55 million older and disabled people, including about 80 percent of Americans who die each year. The proposed rule would pay doctors, nurse practitioners and physician assistants to help patients sort through treatment options and fill out advance directive forms. Payment rates are not yet set, but Medicare’s chief medical officer announced that multiple consultations would be covered because circumstances change and some families need extra assistance.

The American Medical Association, AARP and other advocacy groups have long lobbied for Medicare to reimburse for end-of-life planning, but fear and demagoguery has helped keep it on the back burner until now. Ex-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin — trying to build on her failed vice presidential bid — accused President Barack Obama of supporting “death panels” in 2009, when an early version of the Affordable Care Act included a similar end-of-life benefit. The National Right to Life Committee worries that end-of-life discussions will pressure families into forgoing life-saving treatments so that Medicare can save money. That is not the case.

The Bradenton Herald — Time to Manatee County community unity to build a better animal shelter

“A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Abraham Lincoln, then a Senate candidate back in 1858, delivered those words in a speech before more than 1,000 delegates at Illinois’ Republican State Convention.

There’s a mission here in Manatee County that requires unity. Animal advocates stood divided for months over government failings but now appear to be coming together. Unity in the community brings problem-solving people together to reach a common goal for the common good.

Once a target of sharp and nonconstructive criticism, Manatee County government’s Animal Services Division has come a long way in striving to reunite the community behind a compassionate goal of maintaining a high live-release rate of dogs, cats and other animals that come under the agency’s care for numerous reasons.

Today, Animal Services has set an ambitious goal that requires community participation. The county shelter in Palmetto sits largely hidden off U.S. 41, a forlorn and usually overcrowded place often housing double its capacity for 80 animals.

The location, well off the beaten track, alone discourages pet adoptions. Animal Services needs a highly visible site that is more welcoming to people looking to adopt a rescue pet, the most commendable way to teach children about the value of animals.

The Daytona Beach News-Journal — Volusia County’s charter checkup

For nearly 45 years, Volusia’s home-rule charter has provided a stable but responsive framework for county government — one that other Florida counties, and local governments across the country, have studied and emulated.

The charter’s health comes from the voters. Residents always have the opportunity to petition for charter changes, and once every 10 years a review commission is chosen to give the charter a thorough going-over, bring it up to date and make sure the county is best-equipped to deal with a changing world and shifting priorities.

Last week, members of the Volusia County Council announced their appointments for the next commission. And the list is impressive. Its members boast a deep well of experience in local and state government, business savvy and community involvement.

The lineup should give voters confidence. This commission is unlikely to recommend radical surgery — such as jettisoning the council-manager form of government that has worked so well for so long, or breaking up unified beach management.

That doesn’t mean the commission won’t listen. Past commissions held numerous listening sessions before recommending any changes, then gave the public time to comment in its proposals before finalizing them for the ballot. The process should be just as painstaking this time. City and regional governments (including the school district, the St. Johns River Water Management District, hospital taxing districts and local tourism authorities) should be ready to contribute their voices to the discussion as well.

The Florida Times-Union — Recruit Romney to help fix Obamacare

Given all the partisan hype over the Affordable Care Act, one key fact may be overlooked. It’s insurance.

As insurance, it is not coming close to being successful, writes an insurance industry expert. Robert Laszewski spent 20 years in the health insurance industry and 20 years inside the Beltway. He ran two health insurance businesses, pens a blog and often writes for Forbes.

Obamacare is failing big-time as insurance. Not enough wealthy and healthy people are signing up.

And if only the sick and poor sign up, the insurance system will die.

For the many who do not receive a subsidy, Obamacare is simply not affordable.

After two complete open enrollments, only 40 percent of those eligible for Obamacare have signed up, Laszewski writes. In fact, only 20 percent of those making between 250 percent and 300 percent of the federal poverty level have bought Obamacare.

Why? Simple. A family of four making $60,300 a year would have to pay premiums of almost $5,000 a year for the second lowest Silver plan after subsidies. And they still would have an average deductible of almost $2,900.

“If this were a private enterprise enjoying these kinds of benefits, and only sold its product to 40 percent of the market, its CEO would be fired,” Laszewski wrote.

That’s only part of the bad news. Some of the biggest insurers with the most data are pressing for large rate increases a year earlier than expected.

Why? They’re losing money.

Florida Today – Sen. Hays’ Amendment 1 op-ed fiction

State Sen. Alan Hays recently penned an op-ed that appeared in numerous Florida newspapers, including FLORIDA TODAY (July 2), bragging about the great job he and his legislative colleagues did in funding Amendment 1.

Kudos on a job well done — no, not on properly implementing the Water and Land Conservation initiative. On that front, they failed miserably. Congrats on submitting such a fine work of fiction.

Why would Hays, a Umatilla Republican, release an op-ed that so distorted the facts?

It could be because of the public backlash on the Florida Legislature’s snubbing of voters or it could be as a preemptive strike against the lawsuit filed against the Legislature for failing to comply with its constitutional duty.

I strongly suspect that PR experts or political consultants actually authored the piece because it so masterfully spins the Legislature’s blatant disregard for voters’ wishes into a glorious account of how they worked tirelessly to protect and preserve Florida’s natural resources for future generations.

Could Floridians fall for it?

It’s possible. Legislators claim that they funded Amendment 1 with $741.8 million just like voters asked. The problem is, it’s not like we asked. Additionally, they got to that number by shifting funds around — just like they initially did with the lottery.

After years of the Legislature and governor starving land acquisition funding, angry Floridians organized a citizens initiative, collected hundreds of thousands of petitions and raised money to fund a campaign. Amendment 1 passed with an incredible 75 percent of the vote — a huge mandate.

The Gainesville Sun – Cheers and Jeers

Florida might have a healthier democracy than most states, but it still has some big problems to cure.

Cheer: Florida, for being ranked the highest in the Southeast — and 11th overall — in a new report on the health of state democracies.

The report by the Center for American Progress Action Fund gave Florida a B+ in a category that included campaign disclosure laws and a B- in a category that included absentee ballot accessibility.

But the state received a D in a category that included felony disenfranchisement and representation by women and minorities among elected officials.

Jeer: The Marion County Commission, for again raising the Confederate flag in front of the county’s governmental complex.

The county’s interim administrator took down the flag last week but commissioners reserved the decision Tuesday. Our sister paper, the Ocala Star-Banner, editorialized that it was an “embarrassing display of pandering.”

Cheer: The U.S. women’s soccer team, for winning the World Cup.

The team includes former University of Florida star Abby Waumbach, who won the World Cup that eluded her for more than a decade on the national team.

Jeer: Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, for an 85 percent drop in the enforcement of environmental laws.

A new report by Florida Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility found that the department opened 234 cases in 2014 — as compared to 1,318 in 2010, the year before Scott took office. Sixty two percent of the 2014 cases resulted in penalties, also significantly lower than in 2010 and prior years.

The Lakeland Ledger — Lakeland Police — Dinges’ Offer Is Rubbish

In the recent past we have strongly criticized Lakeland officials for emptying the city treasury of hundreds of thousands of dollars for settlements related to past personnel and governance decisions that at best were, shall we say, ill advised. The city was recently presented another such opportunity.

This time, Ann Dinges, the Lakeland Police Department’s public safety communications specialist, has graciously offered to resign and go in peace if LPD will pay her $129,580, provide insurance coverage for 18 months, hand her a favorable recommendation letter, call off and forever seal an internal investigation about her and dole out $20,000 for her lawyer’s fee.

Dinges’ demand is preposterous. City officials should deposit it in the circular file with haste.

Reluctance to pay may invite legal action that could end up costing the city a hefty sum, as Dinges’ lawyer, Peter Helwig, has threatened. But we say roll the dice. Let Helwig explain to a court why his client deserves such a princely sum when she arguably cost the city much more than she seeks through her alleged incompetence.

Let’s take a trip down Memory Lane.

In 2011 when former LPD Chief Lisa Womack needed a spokesperson, she tapped Dinges, who previously had worked for Womack in two other cities. Dinges was her executive secretary in Texas, and worked as Womack’s public information officer in Illinois. To get to Lakeland, Dinges overcame 102 other applicants, including a TV reporter who had been a PIO for the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office, a former police officer and PIO from Georgia, and an LPD employee who worked in that section. Her application referred to Womack as a “friend.”

The Miami Herald — End the misery on Hispaniola

The deportation and forcible removal of people that the government of the Dominican Republic identifies as Haitian has created a severe humanitarian crisis along its shared border that must be halted before it creates greater misery.

The Dominican ambassador to the United States makes a welcome declaration today — see his message on the Other Views page — that no one born in the Dominican Republic will be deported, and that no one entitled to legal Dominican nationality will be deprived of it. His government adamantly maintains that it is merely trying to fix a broken immigration and citizenship system that brings everyone in the country into a “legal framework.”

But credible reports from journalists and human-rights organizations describe forcible deportations by the military, streams of people fleeing the country out of fear that they, too, will be kicked out without any right to appeal and rough treatment by Dominican authorities at every turn. It flies in the face of reality to pretend that large numbers of people are not being uprooted and leaving involuntarily.

The Dominican claim of a sovereign right to regulate all matters within its borders regarding immigration and citizenship — which no one questions — does not justify sowing panic among those who lack the right documentation.

It matters, as well, to recall that this began with decisions made by courts in the Dominican Republic that were bound to cause grief: First, they stripped citizenship from anyone born there whose parents were in the country illegally. Then they made the rule retroactive to 1929. The deadline for these individuals to apply for citizenship was Feb. 1. Only about 9,000 did so, although credible estimates say up to 300,000 are eligible.

Making matters worse, the government set a deadline of June 17 for anyone who lacked legal status to normalize their residency, following the 18-month registration period.

The government was apparently not prepared for the ensuing flood of applicants, however, and it turned a deaf ear on Haitian government pleas to extend the deadline. Haiti is not blameless in this. The country’s badly flawed civil registry has made it impossible for the country to issue the proper identification documents to Haitians needing them in time to meet the deadline, and obtaining a Haitian passport amid this process has by all accounts been a nightmare.

The Orlando Sentinel — Free clinics didn’t deserve Scott veto

When he signed the $78 billion state budget last month, Gov. Rick Scott vetoed scores of expenditures approved by lawmakers worth a total of $461 million. Amid the obvious pork — $2 million for an elite sports academy in Bradenton? Really? — there were plenty of worthy projects and programs.

But the governor’s unkindest cut of all might have been his veto of $9.5 million in state funding for free and charitable health clinics in Florida.

Scott made this move just days after helping to bury a bipartisan state Senate plan that would have made private health insurance available to some 800,000 Floridians without coverage. His veto was a second cruel blow against working poor families without regular access to health care.

The veto also punished 87 nonprofit clinics in Florida providing medical, dental and behavioral health care to the uninsured for little or no charge. Those clinics served 125,000 Floridians and provided almost $300 million worth of care in 2014, according to state figures.

Ultimately, the veto shifted more of the cost for care to hospitals, patients and employers who pay for insurance, and taxpayers.

The free and charitable clinics, many of them faith-based, provide care in their communities thanks to a wide range of generous support. The skills and compassion of volunteer physicians and nurses. In-kind services from hospitals and other community partners. Donated medicines from drug companies. Other big-hearted contributors, large and small.

These clinics are among Florida’s most heroic and efficient organizations. And with more support, they could serve more patients, and do even more good.

The Ocala StarBanner — Current approach dooms our springs

Florida is spending more money on springs, but it often fails to spend that money wisely.

Gov. Rick Scott has touted his support of record funding for springs restoration, including $45 million in the state budget he signed last month. It follows $25 million for springs in the current fiscal year’s budget, boosted to a total of $69 million due to additional funding from the water management districts and other public and private sources.

A letter this week from the Florida Springs Council to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection made a compelling case that the level of private contributions and type of projects being funded fail to truly restore springs.

“Last year’s projects were heavily tilted toward subsidies for those who are the largest contributors to the water depletion and nutrient pollution which are choking our springs,” wrote council legislative chair Bob Palmer and legislative committee member Heather Culp.

The letter cites a project aimed at reducing water use by the PotashCorp PCS phosphate mine near White Springs. The state and Suwannee River Water Management District funded $3.37 million of that $3.6 million project while PotashCorp contributed just $230,000.

That cost share was about 6 percent, while the letter said that the average agricultural cost share in the district was only 17 percent. The cost shares “are so low that the water users are probably saving money in the long run with more effective taxpayer-funded equipment and practices,” the letter said.

The Pensacola News-Journal — Looking homeward to Maycomb

Have you read the first chapter yet?

If you haven’t, drop this and go find it. Google “Go Set a Watchman” — Harper Lee’s “second” novel that comes out Tuesday. Written in the 1950s, the book got a modern tease with the online publication of the first chapter Friday.

And what perfect Southern literary voodoo it performs.

Perhaps the two highest laws of the Southland are Faulkner’s “The past is never dead” and Wolfe’s “You can’t go home again.” Southerners are self-shackled to time. But the release of “Watchman” warps it. There she is in chapter one, Jean Louise Finch, Scout, the devilish little angel of Southern literature, sitting at a train window — grown — and looking homeward.

It’s a vertigo-inducing trick of literary history — that Harper Lee’s second novel was published 5 decades before this one, her first. That makes Maycomb, Ala., a place we’ve all been to. Like grown-up Scout staring out the train window, we’re going home again.

Atticus is old and ailing. A young man proposes marriage. Jean Louise Finch wonders if she’s in love with him.

And Jem is dead.

With that revelation alone, your mind pictures loud, rowdy Scout as never before: Silent. The indomitable little girl who beat up boys at school, at some point, must have been shattered by the death of her brother.

The Palm Beach Post — Bondi’s BP settlement shouldn’t seal off new oil spill claims

The massive Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster was sickening. A faulty valve and missed warning signs led to an explosion which killed 11 people and allowed millions of gallons of petroleum to gush into the Gulf of Mexico during 12 anxious weeks in 2010.

Five years later, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi is trumpeting success in her proposed settlement with oil giant BP, which would be worth about $3.25 billion to the state, distributed over 30 years, assuming it’s approved.

That’s a lot of money.

But there remain questions about where this settlement money will go, who will spend it, and whether it can really serve the people and places most hurt by the disaster. While it’s important that hardest-hit communities receive compensation quickly, there are legitimate concerns that settling this litigation once and for all will prevent Florida from pursuing further damages as they emerge.

It’s clear the damage is still unfolding.

The cleanup methods were as unprecedented as the disaster itself. As the oil billowed from the well, BP applied nearly 2 million gallons of a poorly studied toxic chemical dispersant called Corexit to emulsify the oil and send it to the bottom of the gulf.

That certainly looked better on television than struggling pelicans. But the unseen damage to the seabed may prove to be more long-lasting.

The petroleum smothered the crevices and canyons where microscopic sea life multiplies. Coral beds in at least five areas of the Gulf of Mexico show signs of oil damage, according to the National Wildlife Federation. Populations of oysters, blue crab, red snapper, sand dollars and microscopic sea life have plummeted.

The Panama City News-Herald — Cutting health clinic funds hurts poor, their communities

Although we supported his other vetoes, Gov. Rick Scott’s veto of state funding for health-care clinics that serve some of the poorest of poor Floridians was unjustified.

The June 23 veto of $9.5 million allocated by the Legislature to the Florida Association of Free and Charitable Clinics followed a loud, contentious debate over whether to expand coverage offered by Medicaid, the federal-state health-insurance program for low-income Americans. Medicaid is imperfect in Florida, in part because of the state’s miserly funding and low payments to providers. But expanding the program would have allowed the state to leverage federal dollars and extend coverage to almost a million Floridians.

Nevertheless, after Scott reversed a campaign pledge to support expansion, he and the House of Representatives killed the Senate’s conservative plan for broadening Medicaid coverage.

At least the House agreed with the Senate to provide $9.5 million — important yet modest statewide funding — to help communities cope with the substantial costs of treating Floridians lacking the ability to obtain some basic services.

Scott officially stated that he vetoed the allocation because “the funds cannot be used for services and, therefore, it is not a statewide priority for improving cost, quality and access in health care.”

Nonsense.

Just last year, Scott’s own Florida Department of Health determined that funding for the association and its members could not be used to pay for services offered by health-care providers — if the clinic used the state’s “sovereign immunity” to protect those providers from potential legal actions. So, by and large, those clinics used the funding to purchase equipment and supplies that are required to provide services.

The South Florida Sun Sentinel – Puerto Rico debt crisis needs attention

According to Puerto Rico Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla, the U.S. commonwealth has $72 billion in debts that it cannot pay. Maybe now Congress will start paying attention.

It’s not as if Puerto Rico’s debt exploded overnight. Since 2000, its public debt has risen from 60 percent of gross domestic product to more than 100 percent. Investors loved the tax-exempt bonds Puerto Rico sold to finance its deficits, and banks loved the fat fees. Except that as Puerto Rico’s fiscal fortunes continued to fall, the price it had to pay to keep borrowing kept going up.

Puerto Rico’s government has warned before that its creaky and overleveraged public-sector corporations might have to restructure their debts. Its main power company, which faces $9 billion in debt, managed to stave off default last week with a $415 million installment — a short-term reprieve.

Now Padilla says Puerto Rico will seek to delay payments on all of its debt load for “a number of years.” It will put together a restructuring plan that includes its general obligation debt, and hopes to get creditors to trade existing debt for new debt with longer maturities. Credit rating companies responded by putting Puerto Rico in the same category as Greece.

There’s not much mystery about what Puerto Rico needs to do to get its fiscal house in order: Run a surplus and keep economic growth at a nominal rate that consistently exceeds the interest rate on its debt.

At the moment, neither is likely to happen. In fact, the island’s fiscal deficit is much worse than previously thought. And Puerto Rico’s economy has been contracting for most of the last decade.

The Tallahassee Democrat – City must find budget balance

There is something very American about a robust local government budget debate. We’ve sure got one in Tallahassee and we see that as something to celebrate. The tension between local government and taxpayers is as old as the republic itself. If a large tax increase or large spending cuts were proposed with no response, that would be a tragedy. The fact that Tallahassee’s next budget has generated high interest is, frankly, a relief.

One byproduct of high community interest is more transparency. There can be no rubber stamps when questions fly as fast as fireworks on the Fourth.

It’s with that backdrop that we re-enter the budget debate, on the heels of a generous allocation of time by an array of city officials.

City Manager Anita Favors Thompson and her assistant, Michelle Bono, joined Mayor Andrew Gillum, Police Chief Michael DeLeo and Raoul Lavin, the city’s director of management and administration, for 90-plus minutes with the Tallahassee Democrat editorial board last week to discuss the city’s revenue and expenditures. The meeting came just hours before the commission met to take a vote on the increase.

The 27-percent millage initially proposed in the city manager’s fiscal proposal was pared slightly to 23 percent in a 3-2 vote by the commission on Wednesday. We had previously editorialized against the 27-percent hike.

Here are a series of takeaways from our meeting, capped by an updated position on what should happen next.

The Tampa Tribune — Piece of Tampa history lost in burned cigar factory

All of Tampa should mourn the loss of another historic cigar factory building. A fire of unknown origin at the abandoned La Mega Cigar Factory in Palmetto Beach destroyed the 116-year-old building early Sunday.

There once were more than 200 cigar factories in neighborhoods in and around Tampa. Today, it’s estimated that only a couple dozen are left. The stately brick buildings that remain represent the beginning of Tampa’s identity as a vibrant immigrant community built in large part around a cigar industry that migrated from Cuba. Vicente Martinez Ybor moved his cigar operations from Key West to what is now Ybor City in the late 1800s. His operations would bring Tampa recognition as the world’s cigar capital.

The factories became the center of commerce and attracted thousands of workers to Tampa. Those self-reliant immigrants played a critical role in the city’s development with their descendants going on to become leaders in business, politics, sports and virtually every aspect of the community.

When hand-made cigar production dropped off in this country, most of the factories fell silent. Some have been restored to their splendor and are occupied by residences or businesses.

But too many have fallen victim to neglect, as did the La Mega on Sunday.

Investigators don’t know for sure how the fire started, but the building was so badly in disrepair that its floors could no longer hold the cigar-making machinery left by its earliest occupants.

As the Tribune’s Keith Morelli reported, a machine inside the building had fallen through all three of the building’s floors before crashing into in the basement.

What a shame. Especially when you consider a developer had plans to turn the building into loft apartments. But that was before the recession hit and turned the real estate market in Florida on its head. In the nine years since, the building sat vacant and exposed to the elements as well as to vagrants and vandals.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn says the city is taking an inventory of the buildings to get a fuller understanding of how many may be in danger and whether the city can offer incentives for developers to save them.

Efforts to protect them with local designations as historic structures have not succeeded amid concerns about private property rights.

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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