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 Times — Don’t allow beliefs to become bias

It comes as no surprise that religious groups have called on President Barack Obama to exempt them from any executive order that would ban discrimination of gays and lesbians by companies that do business with the government. This is one of the predictable consequences of the U.S. Supreme Court’s wrongheaded opinion that exempts closely held companies from providing health coverage that covers contraceptives if it conflicts with their religious beliefs. The court’s decision in the Hobby Lobby case has emboldened conservatives who seek to elevate their personal religious beliefs above the rights of others. The Obama administration should not waver in its commitment to stamp out discrimination against all Americans, regardless of its source.

In a closely watched case, the Supreme Court sided with Hobby Lobby, a for-profit chain of crafts stores, in a 5-4 ruling that cited a federal religious freedom law in declaring that closely held companies could avoid complying with Affordable Care Act regulations that require that health plans cover contraception. While the court’s majority argued the decision was narrowly drawn, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in a stinging dissent that the majority opinion was a “decision of startling breadth.” The next day, a religious group sent a letter to the president asking that he weaken his commitment to providing protection for gay and lesbian workers employed by federal contractors. The group wants the president to establish a “robust religious exemption” for companies that do not support homosexuality. The letter is signed by conservative Christian heavyweights such as Rick Warren, the bestselling author and megachurch pastor who delivered the invocation at Obama’s first inauguration.

President Bill Clinton issued an executive order in 1998 that protects federal employees who are homosexuals from workplace discrimination. Obama is right to plan to close the gap and extend the same protections to the employees of federal contractors. The order would protect an estimated 14 million workers in the 29 states that don’t currently have bans on discriminating against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender workers.

The Bradenton Herald — Benefits of Medicaid expansion under ACA can’t be ignored

The consequences of Florida’s failure to expand the federal Medicaid health care program for the poor have come into sharper focus.Gov. Rick Scott and certain Republican legislators continue to spurn billions in federal money over a rigid ideological stand, leaving hundreds of thousands of Floridians without health insurance.

The White House Council of Economic Advisers released a state-by-state analysis of the ramifications of Medicaid expansion, covering health and economic impacts. The “Missed Opportunities” report’s conclusions supply ample justification for expansion.

Manatee County, with its indigent health care crisis about to worsen as a special medical reimbursement fund expires, would benefit greatly from a broader Medicaid program.

Here are some of the study’s major points:

Economic impacts

• In Florida, 63,800 fewer jobs — mostly in health care — from 2014 to 2017 with $15 billion in federal spending lost. That time span covers the years when the federal government would pay 100 percent of expansion costs (that figure falling to 90 percent thereafter).

• Those dollars would have increased economic activity, too, as that money flows from place to place. The state’s gross domestic product would rise by $11.2 billion during that time span.

• Some 38,000 fewer Floridians would experience “catastrophic out-of-pocket costs in a typical year” and 120,600 fewer residents would need to borrow money to pay medical bills or skip payments.

The Daytona Beach News-Journal — Halifax Health must deliver full accounting

A second settlement between Halifax Health and a whistleblower, pending government approval, has resolved the hospital’s legal and financial issues stemming from a 2009 lawsuit.

However, it should not close the book on how Halifax got into such a costly predicament. Hospital officials need to explain to the public the policies and decisions that resulted in the institution having to pay more than $100 million in settlement costs and legal fees.

There must be a full accounting — and accountability.

The settlement revealed Friday concluded the second and final phase of a lawsuit brought against Halifax Health by Elin Baklid-Kunz, the hospital’s director of physician services. In the first phase, she alleged that the hospital’s method of compensating its cancer doctors violated the federal Stark Law. In March, Halifax Health settled that portion of the case, which was joined by the U.S. Department of Justice, by agreeing to pay $85 million ($20.8 million of which when to Baklid-Kunz and her attorneys, the rest to the federal government) and to submit the hospital to greater scrutiny by federal regulators for the next five years.

In the second phase, Baklid-Kunz alleged that the hospital from 2002-2013 overbilled Medicare by $72.5 million by admitting patients for unneeded hospital stays of two days or less, and that the facility failed to maintain a sufficient compliance department to ensure it was abiding by federal rules and regulations. Halifax has agreed to pay $1 million to settle those claims, although as of late Friday other terms of that agreement had not been made public while both sides await federal blessing.

The Florida Times-Union — Northeast Florida must prepare for rising sea levels

Jacksonville is surrounded and bisected by water.

So sea level rise ought to be raising concerns here.

If tropical storms become stronger, the impacts could be severe.

If flooding becomes more frequent, if rivers rise, the entire topography of Northeast Florida would be dramatically affected.

Impacts of sea level rise can already be seen in Miami — tides backing up into the streets, salt water intrusion in the water supplies.

Of course, Miami, having been created out of low-lying areas, is especially vulnerable to sea level rise.

Jacksonville has higher elevations and thus is not as vulnerable. Still, Jacksonville should be taking a realistic approach to these threats.

The Gainesville Sun – Just unify already

The tedious turf battle between Gainesville and Alachua County over Fire Station 19 is yet more proof that the unification of fire services is long overdue.

In 2009, the city annexed land that includes the county-owned fire station. The annexation meant that Fire Station 19 is now the closest unit to calls within that part of the city.

A city and county agreement requires compensation if one responds to fire calls in the other’s jurisdiction. The annexation meant the city, which had been getting money from the county for fire services, has since then been on the hook for an annual bill of about $450,000 from the county.

Now the city has established a squad in the area as it negotiates over taking control and maybe ownership of the station.

Confused? The most important thing to know is that the dispute is all about protecting turf and budgets and has nothing to do with improving public safety.

This paper has long noted the absurdity of maintaining two separate fire-rescue departments with duplicative bureaucracies. The unification of the departments has long been studied and discussed, but faced resistance from elected officials.

The Lakeland Ledger — Soil and Water District: Time to Bury Ghost Agency

Quick: What do you know about the Polk Soil and Water Conservation District?

Who sits on its five-member board?

When was the last time it met?

What does it do?

If you consider yourself even a little politically savvy – you follow elections, know who is running for office, understand the workings of different levels of government – and you can’t answer those questions, shouldn’t you ask this one: Why does the Soil and Water Conservation District exist?

On July 5, Ledger reporter Tom Palmer told us that the board’s chairman – one of only two people on the five-seat board – said the commission hasn’t met since 2011 because it has no business before it. No one registered to run for the three vacant seats. In fact, the only reason the board continues to exist is because it files a document once a year saying it exists. If it doesn’t file that document, it ceases to exist.

The district was created in 1945, along with many others across the United States, to help manage farmland following severe erosion that occurred during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. The districts served an important role at that time, and even later.

The Miami Herald — Sanctions for Venezuela

Venezuelans just commemorated their country’s independence from Spanish rule. But for those in exile in South Florida who say their country is again under oppressive rule — this time by President Nicolas Maduro, July 5 was a bittersweet anniversary.

Up to now, the United States has made a good case for restraint by not issuing sanctions against the South American country in order to avoid giving the Maduro government a pretext to frame a fight between Venezuela and the United States and not between the government and its own citizens, who are understandably fed up with 15 years of corrupt and increasingly undemocratic rule.

But many want the Obama administration to take a hard line against the regime and issue some type of sanctions against Maduro’s henchmen.

At a forum sponsored by el Nuevo Herald on Friday, a panel of activists, journalists, opposition leaders and politicians expressed frustration with the United States for not paying more attention to Venezuela or, for that matter, the entire region.

“I beg the U.S. to come up with a Latin American policy, any policy,” Horacio Medina, head of the Miami branch of the opposition coalition known as the MUD, told hundreds of Venezuelans who attended the event at the Miami Herald’s headquarters in Doral, considered “Little Venezuela.”

Florida officials, including Gov. Rick Scott and Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson, have supported efforts to hamstring Mr. Maduro’s associates here, some linked to human-rights violations, who are getting rich from political deals with their oil-rich country. The first strike should be denying them U.S. visas and freezing their assets, Mr. Rubio says.

The Orlando Sentinel — Border crisis calls for overhaul

For die-hard opponents of comprehensive immigration reform, the flood of children from Central America that has swamped the U.S. southern border clinches the case against doing anything other than beefing up security.

We disagree with those opponents, and agree instead with Republican Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart of Miami. He recently told the Washington Post that the border crisis is “precisely another demonstration that we have a broken system that has to be fixed. And we have legislation to do that.”

Republican House leaders are still bottling up a bipartisan, Senate-passed bill that, among its multiple components, would create a 13-year path to citizenship for many of the unauthorized immigrants who entered the country before 2012 — the “amnesty” that critics decry. But the bill, co-sponsored by Florida Republican Marco Rubio, also would pump billions of dollars into a border security “surge.”

And isn’t the status quo — more than 11 million immigrants in the United States living outside the law — the biggest amnesty of all?

Enacting comprehensive reform would remove the uncertainty that now plagues U.S. policy. That uncertainty has helped cultivate the canard in Central America that children can find refuge in the United States if they just manage to cross the border.

The Ocala StarBanner — Sunset for the Sunshine Tree?

TV commercials once beckoned to consumers, “Come to the Florida Sunshine Tree,” and proclaimed, “Breakfast without orange juice is like a day without sunshine.”

But today, the Sunshine Tree could be facing sunset, and a Florida without oranges is becoming more and more imaginable.

Citrus greening disease is slowly killing Florida’s iconic groves and with them a $9 billion industry that employs 75,000 people.

The inability so far to cure or even control the disease poses a threat not only to Florida’s image, but to its overall economy.

One ray of hope is that the state and federal governments are responding to the crisis.

This year’s federal Farm Bill includes $125 million for citrus greening research. Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced an additional $31.5 million for a program to combat greening.

Also this month, the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services opened a new, $2 million laboratory and greenhouse complex near Gainesville funded by the Legislature to study varieties of healthy citrus from around the nation and the world for potential introduction to Florida.

The Pensacola News-Journal — Act makes medication more widely available

Within the past decade, the incidence of food allergies has skyrocketed. Food allergy cases have gone up 18 percent from 1997-2007 alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control. With this increase in food allergy cases, there is an increase in the need for everyone to have access to the emergency help of an epinephrine auto-injector.

A recent change in Florida law will go a long way to help this situation. Gov. Rick Scott signed the Emergency Allergy Treatment Act (HB 1131) into law. Sen. Aaron Bean of Jacksonville and Rep. Matt Hudson of Naples sponsored this important legislation, which allows restaurants, theme parks, youth sports leagues, camps and other businesses to maintain a supply of epinephrine auto-injectors, emergency treatment devices that can stave off anaphylactic shock.

The legislation also provides civil liability immunity protections for health care practitioners, pharmacists and others who stock and administer the emergency treatment. To do its job, the medication must be administered promptly when a victim has a severe reaction to food, an insect bite or other item.

Anaphylaxis occurs when the throat swells shut due to an allergic reaction, typically in response to peanuts, tree nuts, fish or shellfish. It is an unpredictable allergic reaction that comes on quickly. An epinephrine injector rapidly delivers medication to the bloodstream to treat acute allergic reactions.

The Palm Beach Post — UM response to sex assault good, but more education needed

The circumstances appear much the same: Two or more underage college students were partying, drinking too much. Two different colleges. Two different nights. One young woman was 19, one 17.

They met football players, and trouble followed. Both were taken back to a bedroom for sex. Both went to police afterward and said they had been raped.

The Panama City News-Herald — FSU search another boost for sunshine

Now that Florida State University wisely has hit the reset button on its search for a new president, state education officials must not use the school’s tainted initial process as an excuse to weaken Florida ’s open-government laws.

In May, state Sen. John Thrasher, the St. Augustine Republican who represents Flagler County and part of Volusia County , was nominated to become the next FSU president. A university committee promptly suspended its search for other candidates until after it interviewed Thrasher and decided whether to offer him the job.

That looked for all the world like a fait accompli. Thrasher would provide the kind of political muscle that FSU was seeking to boost its funding — he is a former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, a former speaker of the House and chairman of Gov. Rick Scott’s re-election committee. Plus, singling him out so early in the process effectively cleared the field of competitors. Why bother applying if the search committee had already made up its mind?

Zeroing in so quickly on Thrasher also drew complaints from university students and faculty members over the legislator’s lack of experience in education, making his nomination appear even more of a naked political move. Academic excellence should not be sacrificed for fundraising acumen.

The Tallahassee Democrat – Violence

In the 12-step program for Alcoholics Anonymous, Step 1 involves accepting that a problem exists and then facing it.

When it comes to the epidemic of gun violence in our community, Tallahassee finally has made that step. Tallahassee Police Department Chief Michael DeLeo, who has been on the job only six months, has made sure of that, taking the issue to community leaders, civil-rights groups and neighborhood forums.

Now what?

Chief DeLeo is continuing his push for a community dialogue, this week assembling a 16-member Community Leadership Council on Gun Violence. It’s a broad range of leaders, including representation from law enforcement and the judicial circuit, the faith community, public schools, higher education, businesses and nonprofits.

Mr. DeLeo’s goal is to come up with a strategic plan to reduce violent crime.

That’s a necessary and admirable goal. But this isn’t the time when we all sit back and wait for these 16 people to solve the problem. This is the start of a long and difficult process that will require help from every corner of our city.

The Tampa Tribune — Judge’s ruling confirms redistricting sham

Voters who supported the “Fair Districts” amendments in 2010 should feel violated by the Florida legislators who presided over a redistricting process that appears to have cast aside the will of the people to further selfish political interests.

In fact, every Floridian, regardless of whether they supported those amendments, should be alarmed when lawmakers blithely ignore the rule of law to maintain political power.

Voters in 2010 passed two constitutional amendments requiring legislators to draw the boundaries of the state’s political districts fairly and without benefit to an incumbent or political party. The amendments passed with 63 percent of the vote.

Yet a ruling Thursday by Circuit Judge Terry Lewis found that shadowy political consultants, working in tandem with legislative staffers in 2012, “made a mockery of the Legislature’s proclaimed transparent and open process of redistricting.”

The judge didn’t stop there. The consultants, he wrote, went to “great lengths to conceal from the public their plan and their participation in it.”

He found that they “managed to taint the redistricting process…with improper partisan intent.” He ordered the boundaries of two congressional districts be redrawn in compliance with the law.

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.