A round-up of Sunday editorials from Florida’s leading newspapers

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A round-up of Sunday editorials from Florida’s leading newspapers

Tampa Bay TimesFlorida dental plan failing poor children

Florida does the worst job in the nation of ensuring poor children get dental care. Now it’s expected to do even worse. Changes to the state’s Medicaid system appear likely to make it impossible for the vast majority of young enrollees to obtain preventive care, increasing the odds of toothaches and disease that can have costly lifetime consequences for children and society. Florida can do better, and Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature need to see to it.

As the Tampa Bay Times’ Jodie Tillman and Claire McNeill described, the state’s decision to shift all dental care for 1.5 million children on Florida’s Medicaid plan to managed care appears to be shrinking the already shallow pool of dentists who serve the population. The state program has long been plagued by low reimbursement rates, resulting in just 15 percent of dentists participating. But now even some of those providers are exiting the program, saying they can’t afford the hassle — on top of low fees — of obtaining credentials with the companies or having to constantly seek authorization to serve patients.

Lawmakers initiated the managed care scheme three years ago to save money. But patients had the option to stay in the old fee-for-service model. That option went away July 1. Now anecdotes from dentists who have already experienced the managed care process are discouraging. Dr. Sandy Worman, a St. Petersburg pediatric dentist, told the Times, “Half the time the patients come in in pain, and you have to send them home (without treatment).”

Here’s an even bigger problem. Before these new hurdles took effect, Florida already was doing a miserable job of providing dental care for children on Medicaid. For every child who saw a dentist, three more did not. A new Pew Charitable Trust survey found that in 2011, 76 percent of Florida’s child Medicaid enrollees failed to receive dental care — the worst rate in the nation. The state also ranked last for 2010.

Bradenton HeraldTo Florida Legislature, be cautious on expanding gambling in family-friendly vacation state

In what must have come as an unexpected and unpleasant surprise to certain legislators, a new report states that an expansion of gambling in Florida will undermine the state’s longtime image as a vacation destination.

The Legislature commissioned a comprehensive study of gambling ahead of plans to rewrite state gaming laws next year. A New Jersey-based gambling consultant company known as friendly to the casino industry wrote that “expanded gambling may fundamentally change the state of Florida as a place to live and visit.”

The pro-gambling forces in the Legislature must have been stunned that the Spectrum Gaming Group came to such a conclusion in the first part of its report.

Tourism is Florida’s most valuable cash crop. As a family-friendly state with Orlando’s theme parks as the jewel in the crown, the Legislature cannot afford to inflict damage on an industry that generates $72 billion in spending and employs more than 1 million workers in direct travel-related jobs.

Florida’s three gambling sectors — the lottery, pari-mutuel outlets and Native American casinos — are small by comparison with direct employment at a total of almost 16,000.

Even though the Legislature banned Internet cafes and gambling arcades this year, loopholes in state law and lax regulation have allowed gaming interests to expand over the past few years. Spectrum’s initial report also states: “Intentionally or not, the policies established by lawmakers — or lack thereof — play a critical role in the evolution and expansion of gaming. The industry rarely shrinks, and quite often, expands …”

Let that be a warning to Floridians.

The Daytona Beach News-JournalDramatically higher tolls could disrupt tourism

A recent proposal by Volusia County Councilman Josh Wagner to raise the beach-driving toll for out-of-towners to $30 per day goes too far.

The proposal would overcorrect a problem by overkill. And the golden goose that is the county’s main tourism draw would be damaged.

A daily beach toll as high as $30 — the toll is now $5 — would possibly send the message throughout Florida and the nation that Volusia County has had enough of beach-driving tourists.

Such an increase in the toll, by 500 percent, suggests Wagner is not interested in simply correcting for 17 years without an increase in tolls. Instead, Wagner desires to keep the “riff-raff” at home.

The $30 fee wouldn’t be applied to Volusia County residents. They would continue to pay $5. And tourists spending the night could also pay $5 if they prove they are staying at a local hotel. There are some other provisos, but ultimately, Wagner’s proposal is a few steps too far.

For one, news just of the discussion of higher beach tolls has already shot across the Internet. The potential harm this could do to Volusia County tourism — much of it drawn from neighbors such as Flagler County, Orlando, and Ocala — is real.

Supporters of the increase counter that many visitors from neighboring areas don’t spend real money when visiting Volusia County beaches. Instead, they get gas in their home area and pay the $5 toll when they get here. That’s not enough to pay for beach maintenance.

The Lakeland LedgerLakeland Police Arrogance: LPD Needs Action, or Else

The depth of the Lakeland Police Department’s problems — runaway sex on duty, incompetent officer courtroom testimony, traffic stops in which women are ordered to loosen their bras and shake for contraband inspection, and withholding of public records — demands an immediate, detailed plan of action that includes deadlines.

Part 1 of 2

Police Chief Lisa Womack gave a report to the City Commission on Monday that she called an action plan. It was not. Instead, she reviewed departmental history and gave updates on training. She said additional training needs to be updated and taught. About the sex scandal, she said those officers found to have been involved “will no longer be Lakeland Police officers.” Such firings and training are needed, but are the minimum expected.

Womack expressed shock that no one told her about the tsunami of sex resulting from the activity of 10 on-duty police officers over eight years, but said the reporting system that didn’t work will still suffice.

“Restoring trust is one step at a time,” Womack said. However, she did not list those steps. Her presentation did not deliver a comprehensive plan for what actions would be taken, how they would be accomplished or when they would be finished.

Because of this uncertainty, Womack is on the brink of losing her authority — if not her position.

ACTION NOW

Even if Womack continues as chief, an outraged public insists on solutions, a majority of the City Commission demands action now and a host of officials from the greater Lakeland region finds the Police Department’s position intolerable. Their drive will overrun her first-gear creeping and crawling.

The Miami Herald—Miami’s Atlantis, interrupted

What are the stakes for Miami and South Florida if we continue to let Nature — addled by the devastating climate change effects caused by spiking carbon dioxide emissions (mostly from coal-fired power plants) — take its course? Science points down under, to Miami as a 22nd century Atlantis, buried under the sea.

The recent Rolling Stone magazine story on climate change’s effect on Miami has caused the predictable international buzz. Truth is, South Florida has not ignored climate change. Officials from seashore counties from Monroe to north of Palm Beach have been working together for years to promote new technologies for the long term — and short-term fixes like more sand and sea walls to stop the encroaching seas.

Now enter President Obama, who last week announced an ambitious agenda to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through the Clean Air Act, with Environmental Protection Agency rules and executive authority from the White House. It should not have come to this, but four years ago a common sense cap-and-trade bill that the then-slim Democratic majority passed in the House to reduce CO2 emissions failed in the Senate and it has had no chance of resurrection since the tea party hijacked the House.

Meanwhile, climate change has roared on with bizarre weather patterns — producing mega-tornadoes, floods, scorching heat or freezing snows off season and hurricanes in odd places throughout the world. Congress, in perennial partisan fights that result in political stalemates, has done absolutely nothing that’s forward-looking to at the very least slow down emissions. Indeed, tea party-aligned members of Congress even fought federal aid to New Jersey in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

Under the president’s new focus, South Florida stands to gain. Aside from ordering the EPA to come up with emissions standards for power plants and ambitious goals to move from the traditional coal-fired plants to generate electricity using more natural gas, nuclear energy and alternative sources, like wind and solar, President Obama is offering federal help to protect cities like Miami from rising sea levels.

That will mean making smart decisions now, at the local level, about our electric generation and the location of our water and sewer facilities and pipes. Moving a wastewater treatment plant out of Virginia Key, for instance, should be at the top of the discussion about smart uses of limited resources in Miami-Dade County. 

The Orlando SentinelCheap loans won’t cure what afflicts higher ed

Critics blasted Congress this past week for not stopping interest rates from doubling on some federally guaranteed student loans. Even Gov. Rick Scott got into the act, calling lawmakers “irresponsible.”

It would have been far more irresponsible for Congress to do what many of those critics have been demanding: Simply extend the current 3.4 percent interest rate on new Stafford loans at least another year.

While that would be politically popular, it ignores bigger problems in higher education: tuition that has outrun inflation for years and debt levels that have soared as students struggle to keep up. Below-market rates on student loans actually encourage both trends.

Congress voted to gradually reduce interest rates on Stafford loans from 6.8 percent to 3.4 percent in 2007, after Democrats took control of both the House and Senate. The sale on student loans was scheduled to end a year ago, but Congress extended it in the heat of last year’s election campaign. Surprise.

Meanwhile, tuition and fees have risen since 2007 by averages of 27 percent at public four-year schools, 24 percent at community colleges, and 13 percent at private four-year schools, according to the College Board. During the same period, student debt nationally has risen by more than $400 billion to $1 trillion — now topping total credit-card debt — in part because it’s easy money.

Two of three college graduates in 2011 borrowed to bankroll their educations, carrying an average debt load of about $27,000, according to The Institute for College Access & Success.

Many students will struggle in the current job market to repay their loans, even at a lower interest rate. Many will be forced to postpone marriage and major purchases — homes and cars — putting a drag on the nation’s economy. And if they default on their government backed loans, taxpayers will pick up the tab.

As overall student debt rises, pressure will build for a federal bailout. Such pressure already was visible in the Occupy Wall Street protests that began in 2011.

The Obama administration, House Republicans and a bipartisan group of senators have proposed plans to tie future student-loan interest rates to the government’s cost of borrowing. Though details differ, each plan would stop interest rates from immediately doubling while reducing taxpayers’ exposure over time. There’s enough common ground to hammer out a deal.

The Tampa TribuneSchool superintendents deserve a break

School superintendents have good reason to ask the state for a break this year when annual school grades are released.

The state has instituted more than 30 changes into the school grading formula over the past two years, and the superintendents think the grades will plummet as a result. That will leave the false impression that the performance of students, teachers and principals is slipping when in reality the rules are what have changed.

For the grades to have any meaning, “you have to have a fair assessment,” Hillsborough schools Superintendent MaryEllen Elia says.

That’s a valid point. Education Commissioner Tony Bennett and the state Board of Education need to adopt the suggestions made by Elia and other superintendents to mitigate the impending fallout. That includes the re-adoption of a rule instituted last year that prevents any one school from dropping more than a single grade when compared to last year’s grade. A call to have an independent third party review the assessments should also be adopted.

If the superintendents appear overly sensitive, it’s for good reason. A year ago, the state botched the school grading process, an embarrassing miscue followed by the resignation of former Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson.

School grades have been around for nearly 15 years. They represent a report card for individual schools, with the best receiving A’s and the worst receiving F’s, as measured by FCAT scores and other factors. It’s a simple tool for parents and communities to gauge the effectiveness of a school.

Changes to the grading process are nothing new. FCAT scores were added for grades 3-10 in 2001, and gains in testing scores from one year to the next became a factor in 2002. FCAT science scores were added in 2007, and in 2010 graduation rates, student performance and participation in accelerated coursework and college readiness were used to evaluate high schools.

But numerous changes over the past two years have left school districts scrambling to react. Scores for students with disabilities and English language learners were added to the formula, along with revisions to the calculations for testing gains and changes specific to middle schools. The bar has been raised for measuring writing proficiency, and geometry and biology performance are now included.

Elia says the superintendents are not trying to hide from accountability. They welcome the challenge of meeting high standards. Their concerns have to do with the number of changes being thrust upon them in such a short period.

They are also mindful that the adoption of Common Core standards is right around the corner, and that all of these changes will affect the confidence educators and the public have in the grades. 

The Palm Beach PostAvenir/Vavrus proposal underscores weak state review

Artist’s renderings of the proposed Avenir development on the Vavrus Ranch property in western Palm Beach Gardens are gorgeous. The fundamental question, of course, isn’t whether it’s beautiful. The question is whether it’s in the wrong place.

Florida used to have a thorough system of planning reviews created to answer that all-important question. But in 2011 Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature dissolved the Department of Community Affairs, which provided the comprehensive overview that protected the environment and ensured that all communities had a voice in major developments that affected them.

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.