Life and politics from the Sunshine State's best city

A roundup of Sunday editorials from Florida’s leading newspapers

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A roundup of Sunday editorials from Florida’s leading newspapers:

Tampa Bay Times — Saving money by hurting sick kids

The state of Florida should not balance its budget on the backs of sick children. But that is exactly what state health officials have done since May, when they kicked about 9,000 children out of a health care program by using a deceptive screening tool. Department of Health officials should reinstate eligible children immediately. It is unconscionable that the state would abandon some of its most vulnerable residents to cut costs.

Children’s Medical Services is a state-funded collection of programs for children with special needs from low-income families. Typically, children became eligible for the services through Medicaid or Kidcare, a low-cost health insurance program. According to a recent report in the Miami Herald, CMS was essentially a victim of its own success. The program’s Medicaid claims grew by nearly $100 million from 2010 to 2014, from $713.3 to $811.1 million. To control costs, lawmakers in 2011 changed CMS from a fee-for-service plan, in which insurers paid doctors for treating sick children, into state-run managed care, where a predetermined pot of money was divided by insurers.

In May, Health Department officials determined that they could cut costs and comply with state law by eliminating children from CMS. The department introduced a screening tool that included a trick question about participating children’s limitations. Many parents’ hopeful answers for their children’s future or their belief the question referred only to life-threatening injuries resulted in an answer of “no.” The state responded by booting them from the program, a callous move that even some of the Johns Hopkins University doctors who created the questions say violates their original intent.

Tallahassee’s Reema Shabaneh’s two children were kicked out of CMS. The children, 6 and 9, are nearly blind and have severe retinal detachment. Other children ejected from the program include some with HIV/AIDS, severe facial deformities and patients with liver transplants who will need anti-rejection drugs for life. In all, about 9,000 children lost the state aid. Shabaneh’s children were reinstated after she sued the state with the help of a law clinic at Florida State University. Good for them. But who will stand up for the others?

Bradenton Herald — Manatee County public schools Superintendent Diana Greene earns top marks in school board evaluation

Only six months on the job as superintendent of Manatee County public schools, Diana Greene has earned high marks for her job performance. Five of six school board members gave her the highest marks possible — 10s on a scale of one to 10 — in most categories. That certainly reflects board confidence in her leadership.

Greene, however, scored her performance with lesser marks, not surprising given her driven character. She puts a lot of pressure on herself and told the Herald she needs more experience beyond six months to gain confidence to rank herself higher on her self-evaluation. We get that.

But her steady leadership has righted a ship that had been taking on water, even though former Superintendent Rick Mills brought the district back from a financial deficit and disaster while alienating a portion of the community that fought back with vigor.

Greene’s dynamic people skills are a breath of fresh air. Her modesty is, too.

“First of all, I don’t think there’s anything in six months that I can say I’m a complete expert in, and I should be well above expectations,” she told the school board during Tuesday’s review of her review. “I don’t have any 10s.”

Well, we beg to differ. Dr. Greene’s promotion to the top district leadership post has been a significant reason the healing process from past indiscretions and failures under several previous administrations has been progressing.

Her outgoing nature and broad community engagement has served her and the public well.

The Daytona Beach News-Journal — Economic projects play the waiting game

The motto for several of Volusia County’s bigger economic development projects seems to be, “Never do today what you can put off till tomorrow.”

Major retail complexes and fancy new hotels have yet to be actualized years after they were announced with great fanfare — and sometimes subsidized by local tax dollars. Nary a shovelful of dirt has been turned on some projects, which remain mere concepts with shifting timelines of when they might become reality.

Residents can’t be blamed for wondering if that speck on the horizon will ever materialize, or prove to be a mirage. The uncertainty feeds public skepticism, not only about getting excited about the next big thing, but also being asked to help pay for it.

Three years ago two development groups, Toronto-based Bayshore Capital Inc. and Russian-owned Protogroup, unveiled plans to construct separate upscale condo and hotel complexes on Daytona Beach’s beachfront. Initially they were scheduled to break ground in 2013 and open this fall. Then the starts were pushed back to 2014, and the openings moved to 2016.

Now it’s anyone’s guess when they will be built. Bayshore’s Hard Rock Hotel and Cafe appeared to be a go until investors earlier this year requested a county variance prohibiting cars on the beach behind the property. That set off a political firestorm and legal challenges that remain unresolved, and which have put the Hard Rock in a holding pattern. So all it has to show for efforts is a parking lot it constructed south of the property that has been transferred to the county for off-beach parking. That’s insufficient return on the political capital that was spent on Bayshore’s behalf.

The Protogroup hotel is even more in limbo. The News-Journal’s Eileen Zaffiro-Kean reported that the project is suffering from financing difficulties, and owners have requested that Daytona Beach push back a deadline for completion to the end of 2021. That’s more than two presidential election cycles away.

The Florida Times-Union — Jacksonville has a wealth of assets to promote

Jacksonville is an easy place to love.

We love the beaches.

We love the river and the tributaries and the Intracoastal Waterway.

We love all the neighborhoods that provide so much variety, like a wealth of prairie-style architecture.

We love the military with two active Navy bases.

We love having the largest urban parks system in the nation, magnificent places for ecotourism within the city’s borders.

We love the bold vision that led to combining city and county governments and relentlessly pursued a pro football franchise.

We love the sense of collaboration that is part of our city’s DNA.

We love the city’s mixture of Southern charm and Florida friendliness.

We love our commerce-oriented economy — and the fact that we’re Florida’s business city.

We love having major research institutions here like the Mayo Clinic and UF Health Jacksonville as well as other outstanding medical centers.

We love the ability to face our problems and forcefully address them through JCCI and other local think tanks.

We love our mild climate that makes living here so easy.

There is no doubt that Jacksonville has a peculiar marketing problem. No single phrase can capture the amazing variety of our local assets.

Florida Today – Cubans have spirit, need money

In the oldest part of the city, near the famed Parque Central, stands a building that’s being restored from top to bottom.

The project has been under way a long time. Possibly it began before the last time I was here, 21 years ago.

One can only guess the height of the building because it’s been swallowed by vines that now obscure all the scaffolds. From blocks away it looks like a masterpiece of topiary.

Much of Cuba is like this, exotic and deceptive at a distance. Some things change. Some things remain stuck in a time warp.

U.S. tourists are here now, practically everywhere you go. Both enchanted and sobered by what they see. They’re coming in droves. Thousands upon thousands of Cuban Americans make the trip, too, visiting family.

The hotels in Havana are packed. Every charter flight from the States is full. This is new and revolutionary.

It’s never been better to be a taxi driver with a ’52 Chevy, because Americans are suckers for old American cars. The one I took to Morro Castle was powered by its original inline-six engine, a point of pride for the driver. (Some of the Detroit classics here have been refitted with dubious Russian parts.)

The Gainesville Sun – Get it right with water legislation

Supporters of a massive water measure oppose delaying the legislation, yet the bills would only delay protections for our imperiled water bodies.

State lawmakers promised for the past two legislative sessions to finally approve protections for our polluted and depleted springs and other water bodies. Yet after promising starts, they watered down protections and then still failed to pass them.

The upcoming session appears to be different, with lawmakers poised to vote on identical House and Senate water bills as one of their first orders of business. But instead of cheering the legislative breakthrough, some of our state’s leading environmental advocates are rightly asking lawmakers to put on the brakes and do better.

More than 100 organizations and businesses, from local environmental groups such as Alachua Audubon to statewide organizations such as 1000 Friends of Florida, have signed onto a letter to legislators criticizing the proposed measures.

The bill’s improvements are undermined by loopholes and “needlessly forestall necessary action to protect and restore Florida’s impaired waters,” they wrote.

“Various regulated industries, agriculture, and their lobbyists are leading a retreat from protective policies and are instead relying on the same tools that have, for decades, failed Florida’s citizens and our waters,” the letter states.

The Lakeland Ledger — Rule of law must prevail

Here in Florida, the cradle of high-stakes student testing, whether teachers get pay raises, or even are retained in their jobs, has long depended on how well students score on standardized tests. Measuring effectiveness in such a galaxy, predictably, ignited a survival instinct, leading teachers to, as it was said, “teach to the test.” Yet, it’s questionable whether teachers should be held responsible for factors outside their direct control. Innate intelligence, demographics, home life, the school environment, even nutrition and a good night’s sleep could individually or in combination determine whether a child scores well on a particular testing day.

To his credit, Gov. Rick Scott sought to atone for the sins of the fathers by heeding the demands of parents and educators. Earlier this year the governor signed an education reform bill that, among other things, relieved some of the pressure on teachers. Instead of being responsible for half of their overall job performance rating, the test results would account for one-third. Scott deserves applause for being open to that change.

Yet, here in Polk County, the school district has run into a problem.

At the end of last school year, Superintendent Kathryn LeRoy informed teachers that test grades would not factor in their year-end evaluations. LeRoy did so to comply with a provision in the district’s collective bargaining agreement with the Polk Education Association, the teachers’ union.

The clause, which has existed since at least 2013, says if laws governing teacher evaluations change, the district would not use any test data for in the job-performance criteria — that is, until both sides agree to a new evaluation system.

Miami Herald — Venezuela revolution has lost its mojo

For Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, the ultimate humiliation of Sunday’s election was losing support in neighborhoods like 23 de Enero and Catia, onetime government strongholds in Caracas that voted overwhelmingly against his incompetent regime.

The “Bolivarian Revolution” has lost its mojo. Rarely have ordinary citizens so resoundingly rejected a self-described “popular” democracy that professed to rule in their name. But then, rarely has anyone matched the ineptitude of the current bunch at Miraflores Palace.

Venezuela sits atop the largest proven reserves of crude oil on the planet. It should be rich. Yet its economy today is on life support. The treasury has little money (financial reserves are under $15 billion, the lowest in more than a decade), oil prices are in a huge slump and the private sector is moribund, thanks to punitive government regulations.

Meanwhile, the crime rate has made Venezuela one of the most unsafe countries in the world, and economic stagnation has led to empty store shelves. Daily consumer necessities, everything from diapers to basic food items, are hard to find, if at all.

The opposition movement that captured 112 seats in the unicameral parliament needs to keep all this in mind as it sets about putting things right. Voters rejected the economic disarray, the rampant crime and the incompetence of the Maduro regime. This was not so much a popular embrace of the opposition as a rejection of Mr. Maduro’s failures.

Getting the economy right must be Priority No. 1. Opposition lawmakers should focus on getting rid of the price controls that have made it impossible for honest businesses to earn a profit, and eliminate the bewildering foreign-exchange system that facilitates illicit profits by government cronies manipulating the black market in dollars.

Mr. Maduro has grudgingly accepted the outcome (thanks, many say, to the military’s unwillingness to tolerate electoral fraud), but he can be counted on to make trouble. He can’t make any headway, however, unless he works with the opposition to come up with a practical economic program that offers relief to beleaguered Venezuelans.

Orlando Sentinel — Protecting witnesses guards justice

When witnesses to crimes refuse to tell police what they saw and heard, everybody loses except the criminals. The police can’t identify suspects, the victims can’t seek justice in the courts, and neighborhoods are terrorized by violent offenders in their midst. Why do people remain silent and allow the bad actors in their midst to literally get away with murder?

The main reason is fear: In Baltimore, witnesses are routinely threatened, assaulted or even killed if they come forward. That is why legislation pending in Congress that would increase federal funding for state and local witness protection programs is urgently needed to allow citizens to safely cooperate with authorities without fear of putting their lives in danger and to ensure that they don’t become victims themselves if they talk to police or testify in court.

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Ben Cardin and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, would set aside $150 million in federal grants earmarked for local witness assistance and protection programs. Such services are vital to police and prosecutors in cities like Baltimore, where an insidious underground “Stop snitching” culture brazenly threatens potential witnesses in criminal cases with violent retaliation. “With the spikes in homicides we’ve been seeing this year in major cities like Baltimore, securing the safe cooperation of witnesses is more crucial now than ever,” Mr. Cummings said. “Without witnesses who feel safe working with police officers, the wheels of justice will come to a screeching halt.”

In an op-ed written for The Sun earlier this year, City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby recounted the story of a witness whose family had to be relocated four times after they received death threats. …

Ocala StarBanner — Gun sense

Determined mass murderers might find a way to kill no matter what laws are in place, but that doesn’t mean we should make it so easy for them to buy guns.

Twice last week, Senate Republicans voted down common-sense attempts to keeps guns out of the hands of terrorists and other criminals. Their reflexive rejection of anything resembling gun control is unconscionable given the mass shootings that have become too common in our country.

On Thursday, the Senate voted against expanding background checks on a mostly party-line 50-48 vote. The measure — sponsored by Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey and West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin — would have simply required background checks for all guns purchases online and at gun shows.

The Senate also rejected on a 54-45 vote a proposal to prevent people on the terrorist watch list from being able to legally buy guns. For their part, Democrats opposed GOP counterproposals such as giving the attorney general the power to impose a 72-hour delay on gun purchases for individuals on the terrorist watch list that could become permanent if a judge determines there is probable cause.

These votes were simply symbolic given the measures were offered as amendments to an Obamacare repeal bill certain to be vetoed by the president. But they show the gun debate remains intractable despite the Nov. 27 shooting at a Planned Parenthood facility in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and the Dec. 2 massacre in San Bernardino, California.

Pensacola News-Journal — City Council wise to keep early public forum

The Pensacola City Council on Monday was wise to reject the misguided plan to shorten their agenda. The key change was, in our view, designed to limit free speech by the citizens they represent.

In a story Tuesday, city hall reporter Will Isern wrote there was a move afoot to eliminate the first “Boyd Forum” early in the meeting. That’s a time devoted to allowing the public to speak on any topic. There is a similar forum at the end of meetings. We can’t see any other reason for eliminating the early forum beyond wearing down the public and discouraging them from speaking at the end of a long meeting.

The council rejected the idea but took 20 minutes to make that decision, Isern pointed out. The meeting went several hours. Fortunately, democracy prevailed. The people won.

Part of municipal governance is listening to the public’s concerns, whether it’s an unsafe intersection, blight in a neighborhood or the agonizingly slow process to get food trucks downtown. The council’s inaction and tendency to discuss what we see are unimportant issues, such as registering lobbyists and how emails are sent to the city, are likely reasons so many residents show up to scold them.

From a practical matter, most residents only approach their city or county government to seek resolution to a problem or express support or opposition to an issue. It’s rare to have dozens of people attend, let alone head to the lectern to speak. However, when they do, those in office have a duty to listen politely. It comes with the territory. Out of respect for the people’s time, that forum should be at the beginning of a meeting.

Council members complaining about the length of meetings should examine their role in turning them into marathons. Does every agenda item require comment from all eight members? Legislative debate is vital, but is it necessary on every issue?

The Palm Beach Post — Let’s talk about addiction — and do something about it

With all of the noise surrounding the 2016 presidential election campaign, it would be easy to miss an emerging area of consensus among candidates of both major parties. Candidates as diverse as Gov. Chris Christie and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are speaking out on the importance of expanding access to treatment for people who are addicted to drugs, including prescription opiates and illegal substances such as heroin. Other candidates ranging from former Gov. Martin O’Malley and Sen. Bernie Sanders to Sen. Marco Rubio, Carly Fiorina and former Gov. Jeb Bush also have spoken out about this important topic.

Addressing the treatment needs of people suffering from addiction and behavioral health issues wasn’t on the agenda of any of the candidates when election season opened earlier this year. It started with a grass-roots movement by voters who brought the topic up at town halls and campaign rallies and, one by one, the candidates realized this is a topic on people’s minds and in their hearts. Addiction is a public health crisis that has reached pandemic proportions. We have all felt the impact, either directly or indirectly, and the time has come for us to take action.

A quick look at recent trends explains why. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 2001 and 2013 deaths due to heroin overdoses quintupled and deaths linked to prescription drug overdoses rose 250 percent. Here in South Florida, the news is just as distressing. A recent report from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reported heroin deaths increased by 89 percent across Florida between 2011 and 2012, including a jump of 120 percent in Miami-Dade County. Hospital admissions to treat heroin doubled between 2012 and 2013.

The alarming increase in deaths connected to prescription opiates and heroin is not coincidental. As the use of addictive prescription pain medicines rose, we began to tighten access to such medications. As a result, many patients turned to heroin to satisfy their addiction after their prescriptions ran out. This pattern created a vicious cycle of self-destruction and illegal behavior leading to a surge in incarcerations, many times for non-violent offenders. In 2014, half of all inmates in federal prisons were serving time for drug offenses and one-third of those on parole had been convicted on a drug charge.

Panama City News-Herald — This is no time for the soft rebuke

Earlier this week, I was wandering around a department store in suburban Cleveland, when a clerk spotted me and mercifully offered to help.

When I told her what I was trying to find, she laughed and said, “You are definitely in the wrong department.” Then, almost immediately, her smile vanished and she took a step back. “I didn’t mean—.”

She was wearing a hijab to cover her head, and we were standing face to face just days after the San Bernardino, California, terrorist attack and within hours of Donald Trump’s widely publicized attempt to cast all Muslims as potential terrorists. Like so many other Americans, I am appalled by his racist vitriol, but this encounter with a clerk just trying to do her job drove home the immediacy of the harm. This woman with the kind face was afraid, and in that moment, both of us knew it, and we knew why.

I began to babble, assuring her that I am as likely to get lost in a department store as I am on a country road in rural Ohio. She smiled and nodded, but her eyes were moist as she pointed to the escalator. “Thank you,” she said. As she turned and walked away, I realized she was thanking me for being nice to her.

This is what we’ve come to — a country where innocent Americans fear that their every encounter with a stranger in this country could be their last.

You don’t have to be a Muslim to experience this anxiety. You just have to be someone Trump and his fellow Republican candidates insist on casting as “the other,” which always means someone who isn’t white. Such political posturing threatens to cripple discourse in our communities, as Deepinder Mayell learned recently.

Mayell is an attorney and the director of the Advocates for Human Rights’ Refugee and Immigrant Program in Minneapolis. This fall, however, he was hoping to be just one of thousands of Minnesota Vikings fans as he showed up with friends for his first NFL game.

In an op-ed for StarTribune, Mayell wrote what happened after a man pushed others aside to make a beeline for him, demanding to know whether he was a refugee.

South Florida Sun Sentinel – Beaches, craps and Trumpmania: The Splash

Dear South Florida,

Best of times. Worst of times. Cliché, yes. Chilling, too.

Beach pile up: Accept or deny climate change, but know South Florida beaches are disappearing. So it’s great to hear dump trucks will dump enough sand to beef up 5 miles of shore along Pompano Beach, Lauderdale-by-the Sea and Fort Lauderdale. It will cost $55 million, but the Broward County shoreline will be an average of 75 feet wider. Worth every cent. What is South Florida without beach?

Governor bets big on gambling: Gov. Scott negotiated a shrewd $3 billion deal with the Seminoles which owns the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood among other casinos in the state. Scott’s deal may mean a new casino in Miami-Dade County, more slot machines in Palm Beach County and blackjack at Broward and Miami-Dade racinos. It also lets the Seminoles add roulette and craps tables. But, Scott closed the door for multiple destination resort casinos. So, Florida gets a $3 billion pot in exchange for a little more gambling. And South Florida avoids becoming Las Vegas. #Winning.

Guns on the brain: People may be peeved about stagnant wages, rising seas and college debt. But nothing is more on the mind of Americans than guns. With calls for more regulation, gun sales are off the charts. Still, given Congress refuses to act, Pres. Obama may resort to executive action. He should start with stopping buyers who shop online or at guns shows from skirting background checks buyers at gun shops must undergo.

FAU professor has no class: No matter your views on gun control, it’s hard to imagine anything worse than taunting a family who lost a child in the Sandy Hook massacre. You’ll cringe if you read the poignant Op-Ed for the Sun Sentinel by Lenny and Veronique Pozner, parents of Noah who at age 6 was the youngest killed. The Pozners stand up to Florida Atlantic University Professor James Tracy for claiming the deadliest mass shooting at an American high school never occurred. Tracy even demands proof from the Pozners Noah even lived. Besides being a jerk, this guy must be a nightmare for the FAU recruitment office.

Terror made in America: Americans are afraid. But who said: Because you’re Christian, you’re going to see God in just about one second? It was a homegrown terrorist who recently killed 9 people at an Oregon college. We have as much to fear from some Americans as we do from the Islamic State.

Tallahassee Democrat – City policy on competition far from perfect 10 for business

The intellectual gymnastics offered by the city of Tallahassee when it comes to its Winter Festival policies are as cringe-worthy as watching a 13-year-old Olympic hopeful fall off the balance beam.

In case you missed it, a local business applied to be part of the Winter Festival, the city’s annual holiday event.

Gym Force, which has been doing business in Tallahassee for 20 years, simply wanted to set up a booth touting its business.

The city said no.

The reason? Because the city operates its own gymnastics “business,” the Trousdell Gymnastics Center.

One might ask why the city is in the gymnastics business in the first place (life, liberty and the pursuit of a perfect uneven bars routine?).

Actually, there is quite a history when it comes to the sport. The Tallahassee Tumbling Tot program launched in 1949 and was taken over by the city of Tallahassee in 1953. In the late 1960s, gymnastics was added to the curriculum. Olympians Carrie Englert Zimmerman (Montreal, 1976) and Brandy Johnson (Seoul, 1984) both started at TTT, as did Ron Galimore, who became the director of the men’s program for U.S. Gymnastics, according to the city’s website.

Eventually, the city moved to its current 27,000-square-foot home on John Knox Road.

The Tampa Tribune — Fracking unbound

We are not among those who view fracking as an unmitigated horror. The practice has produced an abundant supply of cheap energy, increased U.S. oil to near record highs and is helping make the nation energy self-sufficient. And because the natural gas it produces burns cleaner than oil, it even has helped reduced the United States’ carbon emissions.

Nevertheless, Floridians should be alarmed by fracking legislation that would rob local elected officials of any say over whether the practice could take place in their communities.

It is a typical Tallahassee ploy: seize control of such decisions at the urging of industry lobbyists, who know they are unlikely to get their way with the local elected officials who would have to live with the consequences.

In fracking, a mixture of water, sand and caustic chemicals is pumped deep into the ground to fracture shale rocks and release natural gas. On its face, such a process would seem unsuitable for most of Florida, with porous limestone below the surface and underground aquifers providing most of the state’s drinking water.

It’s true a comprehensive study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found no evidence the process had a widespread impact on drinking water, but the places where fracking is taking place now do not have Florida’s geology, nor its critical water needs.

As Dr. Lonnie Draper, a member of Physicians for Social Responsibility, told The Associated Press, the very process is designed to create leaks in the layers of earth that contain oil and gas, increasing the risk to Florida’s underground water supply.

The EPA study, after all, did document cases of damaging spills and leaks. Fracking also has been linked to minor earthquakes, hardly an insignificant concern to homeowners and builders.

For such reasons, as The Associated Press reports, about 20 Florida counties and 40 cities have banned fracking. Yet the legislation advancing in Tallahassee eliminates local control, not only over fracking but over any decisions concerning the processing, storage or transportation of oil and gas. A similar bill made it through the House last session but not the Senate.

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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