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 — Smart ideas for reforming Florida prisons

A new report from a group committed to prison reform in Florida presents a number of good suggestions that could foster change in the beleaguered Department of Corrections that this week lost its sixth chief in eight years. While outgoing Secretary Michael Crews has been working to fix some of the considerable problems, this report suggests his reforms fall short of what is necessary to create a new culture of accountability. Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature should review the report carefully and consider how some of its recommendations could improve the penal system.

There are more than 100,000 inmates in Florida prisons. The department came under fire this year after the Miami Herald detailed reports of inmate abuse by corrections officers, unexplained inmate deaths and other officer-involved scandals. In one 2012 case, officers at the Dade Correctional Institution in Homestead allegedly put a mentally ill prisoner into a scalding hot shower for nearly two hours. The prisoner, Darren Rainey, had defecated in his cell and refused to clean it up. When the officers removed Rainey from the shower, chunks of his skin had fallen off. He died from his injuries.

Crews, who announced this week he is leaving after about two years, has taken steps to root out the problems, including implementing a zero-tolerance policy for criminal behavior by corrections officers. But the Project on Accountable Justice at Florida State University contends the agency’s issues are systemic and go beyond the areas Crews has targeted. In its report, the group calls on Florida to implement best practices from other states, including setting up a public oversight commission that would have the authority to inspect prisons, scour inmate and employee records and examine department policies and budgets. Other suggestions include creating a plan to employ a more professional workforce and holding the department accountable through the use of performance measurement tools.

Problems within the DOC are legion, and the challenge of implementing reforms across such a large, cloistered agency is significant. There is a moral argument that prisoners, regardless of their crime, should be treated with dignity and kept safe while incarcerated. The department also should focus greater attention on equipping inmates with the tools necessary to be successful once they are released from prison, which could help close the revolving door that sees nearly one-third of released inmates return to prison within three years.

The Bradenton Herald — Financial instability engulfs too many Floridians

In commissioning a statistical examination of the financial hardships Floridians face, the United Way of Florida uncovered startling details on the plight of a sizeable population. The title of the ALICE Report is an acronym that describes the study’s findings: Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed.

The troubling figures paint a grim portrait of a state basking in job growth: The incomes of 45 percent of the state’s 7.2 million households do not consistently cover basic costs — housing, food, transportation, health care and child care. Almost 30 percent of those families hold jobs that pay above the Federal Poverty Limit but still cannot afford those basics.

In Manatee County, 30 percent of the population risks falling into poverty, possibly joining the 13 percent already languishing in those ranks. That places Manatee only marginally better than the state as a whole, 43 percent versus 45.

This is the sort of shock and awe that should drive communities to look long and hard for solutions. These are our neighbors, friends, family, even us — struggling workers holding jobs in retail, tourism, education, health care and many other fields. Two-thirds of the jobs in Florida pay less than $20 an hour with most less than that, between $10 and $15 per hour. Some workers hold down two jobs and still barely survive.

The employment forecast is not encouraging either, with low-skill and low-wage jobs expected to dominate the state’s economic future should current trends continue.

The 2014 study, conducted by the Rutgers University-Newark School of Public Affairs and Administration, uncovered financial instability and hardship across all segments of the working population. More than 79 percent are white.

The Daytona Beach News-Journal — Keep beachside blight on the front burner

Daytona Beach has several impressive commercial developments in the works that have the power to transform the local economy unlike anything it has seen in generations. But until the city eradicates the blight that has plagued the beachside area the effect will be like serving a roasted Thanksgiving turkey with Cheetos and Fritos.

Thankfully, one of the potential obstacles to finding a solution — political turf-guarding — appears to have been removed.

That’s the biggest takeaway from a recent report issued by the Halifax Area Civic League, a group of 110 community leaders whose backgrounds range from local government and development to tourism and the legal profession. Earlier this year the Civic League formed a tourism issues committee to study the ongoing problem of blight along Atlantic Avenue and the International Speedway Boulevard corridor that detracts from the tourist experience and discourages visitors from returning.

Among the committee’s concerns were the conflicts within the county’s tourism ad authority groups and between the Halifax Area Advertising Authority and the Ocean Center. The HAAA in particular received a black eye in recent years for its infighting. Its previous executive director, Jeffrey Hentz, departed in February after harshly criticizing the local political scene, which he called “toxic,” in a series of emails to friends and former colleagues in California.

Before that, Ted Doran, the then-chairman of the HAAA board who pushed to hire Hentz after initiating the firing of his predecessor, battled the board and the County Council over marketing of the Ocean Center.

The Florida Times-Union — Hogans Creek gains a champion for redevelopment

Jacksonville is the perfect place to make something happen in its downtown park system called “The Emerald Necklace.”

That’s the conclusion of a national nonprofit that specializes in rallying action for industrialized streams that have seen better days.

Pick a big American city and you can find an example.

But in many of these cities, people trying to revive the streams do not have the clear potential available that Jacksonville has with Hogans Creek.

Famed architect Henry Klutho played a key role in building a Springfield park space that was designed for walking and flood control.

While it has fallen in disrepair, its “good bones” are evident. Plans and proposals for repair have been floated for decades but too little action has been taken.

Mayor Alvin Brown’s administration, faced with the legacy of failure, took the novel step of appealing to a nonprofit with experience in this area.

Florida Today – College job in Florida? Fraud, ID theft

Remember when students working their way through college would bus tables at Red Lobster or flip burgers at McDonald’s?

Those were simpler times, when any menial job was welcome. Now some kids are discovering an easier — and far more lucrative — way to pay for school.

Eighteen current and former students at Miami Dade College have been charged with participating in a stolen ID scam that netted about $500,000 in fraudulent income-tax refunds.

The FBI says the money was deposited into the students’ Higher One accounts, which are used by honest kids for legitimate financial aid that helps pay their tuition. Agents said the accused students took a cut of the stolen IRS refunds in exchange for funneling them through their bank accounts.

A true scumbag move, and a heavy crime.

On the other hand, parents often complain that colleges aren’t preparing young people for the real world. You could argue that learning the nuances of identity theft, tax fraud and money laundering are excellent preparation for an entrepreneurial life in South Florida.

The Gainesville Sun – The cost of justice

Justice for all, not just all those who can afford it.

That’s the concept that Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Jorge LaBarga endorsed with an administrative order signed Monday. It establishes a 27-member commission to determine how to ensure low- and moderate-income Floridians have access to civil justice.

The commission includes state Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican whose district includes Alachua County.

One of the group’s challenges will be determining how to fund civil legal aid despite Gov. Rick Scott’s repeated vetoes.

As the Tampa Bay Times reported, Scott has vetoed money for civil legal assistance in all four years he’s been in office — $6 million in all.

The money would have funded legal-aid lawyers who handle thousands of cases each year in areas such as divorces, child custody hearings and foreclosures.

Bradley has sponsored the legal assistance money in the past two budgets.

“Perhaps it’s a good thing that the vetoes occurred,” he told the Times. “It’s made everybody step back and say, ‘How are we going to address this problem?’ Clearly $1 or $2 million (a year) was not going to solve this problem. We need to revisit the system.”

The Lakeland Ledger — Seat Belts Really Do Save Lives

More than 2 million travelers in Florida were expected to drive 50 miles or more for the Thanksgiving holiday, taking advantage of falling gas prices to hit the road. More motorists means an increased risk for auto accidents, and a recent story about a family whose trip to Florida ended in tragedy illustrates the risk travelers take when they fail to wear seat belts.

Michael and Trudi Hardman were on a long-planned dream trip to Disney World for Thanksgiving with their six children, the Associated Press reported. They left their Terrell, Texas, home Wed- nesday and were passing through northern Louisiana about 11 p.m.. Their 16-year-old son was driving and apparently fell asleep at the wheel.

He veered to the left, overcorrected and rolled the 2005 Chevrolet Tahoe, according to police. The accident killed his parents and three of his siblings. None of those killed wore seat belts, but the driver, who survived, did, the AP reported.

In 2012, seat belts saved more than 12,100 lives, the National Highway Safety Administration reported. An additional 3,000 lives might have been saved if all passengers ages 5 and older were wearing seat belts, according to the agency. Related to the awful circumstances surrounding the Hardmans’ accident, the Lakeland Police Department recently noted that across the country, 69 percent of passengers killed in nighttime traffic accidents during the 2012 Thanksgiving holiday weekend were not wearing seat belts.

The Miami Herald — Getting it right

President Obama’s executive order on immigration could benefit hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants in South Florida, but turning potential into reality will demand a lot of hard work and a lot of patience.

The president’s action is the beginning of a process, not the end. It’s important to get the next part right if any benefit is to be gained from the decision.

The executive order came as welcome news to advocates of reform who have worked tirelessly for positive change. But here’s the rub: This action won’t automatically transform anyone’s legal status overnight. Even the temporary measures approved by the president — only Congress can make them permanent — are a long way from fulfillment.

▪ For openers, the Department of Homeland Security says it does not expect to begin receiving applications until 180 days have elapsed following the president’s Nov. 20 announcement. That’s a six-month period, at least, for all immigrants who might benefit from the White House order to remain at risk of random detention and deportation, just as they were before the president acted.

▪ A further area of concern is the potential for duping immigrants who are desperate to find help. The prevalence of immigration scams, especially when new actions are in the news, prompted the federal government to issue a warning on the DHS immigration-reform homepage: “Beware of anyone who offers to help you submit an application or a request for any of these actions before they are available.”

▪ The warning should resonate loudly in South Florida, a mecca for scammers of all kinds. Immigrants from Latin America are particularly easy marks for so-called notarios because notaries play a much larger role in their home countries than notaries do in this country. Immigration activists say these unscrupulous figures often charge high prices and offer no real services. In most instances, they are unable to provide genuine legal representation and the kinds of services that only members of the Bar can offer.

The Orlando Sentinel — Dems should’ve run on Obama’s record

Why did Democrats lose big on election night? It’s simple: They spent too much time running from President Obama’s record, when they should have been running on it.

According to October’s factcheck.org, millions of previously uninsured Americans gained affordable health insurance through the Affordable Care Act; those signing up for private insurance through the health-care exchanges in 2015 will find 25 percent more private insurance companies competing for their business with premiums averaging 0.8 percent lower for 2015 than for 2014 (according to preliminary data). The economy is rapidly adding jobs, with the total number of jobs in September nearly 5.5 million higher than when Obama was first sworn in, and paychecks are rising faster than inflation (real weekly earnings for workers, adjusted for inflation, averaged 0.7 percent higher in August than when Obama took office).

Providing more proof that Obama’s administration has proved a boon to the country, an economic report published on Sept. 6 by Forbes.com shows that Obama is the “best economic president in modern times. It’s not an opinion, it’s a fact based on all of the typical economic indicators, including jobs, investments, growth and expansion, even the rate of inflation. In all of these areas, President Obama’s record outperforms that of every other modern president, including conservative idol Ronald Reagan.”

The economic picture continues to brighten, despite the claims of the Republican opposition. In the week ending Nov. 1, jobless claims for unemployment insurance fell more than forecast, to a 14-year low. Consumer confidence, bolstered by the lowest gasoline prices in almost four years and a job market closing in on its best performance since 1999, jumped to a seven-year high, according to The Conference Board. The stock market is setting almost daily record highs.

The Ocala StarBanner — Parks vs. pipes

When Florida voters overwhelmingly passed Amendment 1, it’s a safe bet that most had parks and not sewage pipes in mind.

Yet as state lawmakers prepare to implement the measure’s requirements for conservation spending, they’re already talking about using the money for sewage plants and septic tank connections instead of buying and restoring environmentally significant lands.

Longtime Florida environmental reporter Bruce Ritchie wrote in a recent column for Context Florida that appeared in the Star-Banner that a state legislator preparing a springs bill suggested that Amendment 1 might fund sewage plant upgrades and septic tank hookups as part of that plan.

State Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, said last week that the language of Amendment 1 was as “broad as the Pacific Ocean” and the idea that it was meant for buying conservation land “is simply not correct.”

Surely there is a need for reducing pollution near springs and other water resources. But just building sewage plants near springs could have the opposite effect by encouraging development in those areas.

Three-quarters of voters backed Amendment 1 on Nov. 4. The official title said that the measure “dedicates funds to acquire and restore Florida conservation and recreation lands.” The amendment sets aside one-third of revenue from an existing real-estate tax over 20 years for that purpose.

As Eric Draper of Audubon Florida told the Tampa Bay Times, the big challenge with Amendment 1 will be “to make sure the money doesn’t get shuffled away into things that look like they benefit the environment but don’t.”

The Pensacola News-Journal — Mother Nature has spared Florida again

Today not only marks the end of another quiet hurricane season but remarkably the ninth straight year Mother Nature has spared Florida, one of the most catastrophe-prone places on Earth.

On several levels, news regarding our often-tumultuous property-insurance market is outwardly positive: Citizens Property Insurance Corp., the state’s insurer, has shrunk to just over 930,000 policies, reducing the threat of post-hurricane taxes on Florida’s families and businesses. The state’s provider of insurance for insurance companies, the Hurricane Catastrophe Fund, has built up cash and lowered its exposure, making it more likely to be able to cover losses from a megastorm.

Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature have fostered a more-predictable legislative and regulatory environment for property insurers and policyholders, a welcome change from the spasm of law- and rule-making that typically occurs in Tallahassee after a bad storm season. Simply put, laws and rules are being given a chance to work.

But underneath the feel-good mood, there are legitimate questions being raised about Florida’s strategy for diversifying homeowners’ risk and whether that plan will fail when Florida’s run of good luck ends.

CAT Fund surplus data and an analysis of Florida’s property insurance market by RH Analytics, a Wall Street research firm, raise troubling questions about the financial strength of the domestic companies and whether they can survive the next hurricane.

For example, CAT Fund records show that 56 domestic companies have a combined surplus of $2.6 billion – or about $47 million per insurer. By contrast, 97 property insurers doing business in Florida but headquartered in another state have a combined surplus of $161 billion – or $1.7 billion per company.

The Palm Beach Post — State right to reject massive project in Everglades zone

It’s plain to see why ranchers and major landowners across the state are drawing up the most ambitious plans to develop rural Florida land since the 1920s, when speculators first started trying to make a killing by selling swampland to dupes, sight unseen.

The ranchland owners of today, unlike the swampland holders of yesteryear, have a real opportunity to make their long-sought killing now, thanks to the most favorable political climate for development in a generation, and rising land values. New challenges like low sugar prices and new citrus diseases add to the motivation.

Which makes it all the more surprising, that the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity in November gave two thumbs down to the 67-square-mile “Sugar Hill” sector plan sought by U.S. Sugar and Hilliard Brothers of Florida in Hendry County.

It was, undeniably, the right move. But it was uncharacteristic, for an agency that has already blessed development of nearly 50,000 acres of rural land in Hendry County, on Duda, King Ranch and Consolidated Citrus properties. Credit Gov. Rick Scott with the extra attention given to the plan.

As the Post’s Susan Salisbury reported on Nov. 16, U.S. Sugar and Hilliard Brothers joined forces to plan for a sprawling new city on the southern shores of Lake Okeechobee. It would encompass 43,313 acres of land, and put 18,000 residential units and 25 million square feet of commercial space – the equivalent of 25 Gardens Malls — onto what’s now mostly sugarcane fields, with estimated build-out planned for 2060.

There’s an enormous problem, though:

The state has an option to buy much of that land for Everglades restoration. Much of the option expires in a year. The rest expires in 2020.

The Panama City News-Herald — Our northern friends

Our northern friends arrived earlier than normal this year thanks to a spate of nasty weather that engulfed their normal roosts.

As usual, local businesses and residents are looking forward to talking turkey with our brethren “up north.”

Topics will no doubt include Canada’s health care system versus the American system, correct operation of a motor vehicle and who has the more interesting accent. We’re sure they are looking forward to taking advantage of those snowbird specials and taking classes in everything from painting and line dancing to Wii bowling.

Karaoke is also on the menu, according to The News Herald’s John Henderson.

Local businesses and organizations do what they can to make their home away from home feel comfortable. That’s why there will be a Winter Resident Appreciation Day, a Canada Day and an Ohio Day this season. It’s easy to appreciate a group of people who spend months on our shores during the offseason, cause no drama and make volunteering a big part of their experience.

We always learn from their example and each year we also learn something fun about our visitors.

Perhaps our favorite example of this phenomenon is the story of Canada’s Betsy Ross, Joan O’Malley. O’Malley, a regular winter visitor to Panama City Beach, stitched Canada’s flag together in 1962 as a favor for her father, Ken Donovan.

The Tallahassee Democrat – Climate of distrust, disrespect harming schools

Fewer, better, fairer tests: An educator’s response to Patricia Lavesque (Nov., 14, 2014)

Wow, was I surprised to see the headline for the article by Patricia Lavesque, CEO of Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education. I certainly agree with her that we need fewer, better, fairer tests. How can we work together to make this happen?

I first met Ms. Lavesque when she worked on staff in the legislature and in the governor’s office. I believe she is sincere in wanting to improve Florida’s schools. She has an extensive bio with a degree in finance from Bob Jones University and a master’s degree in business administration from Rollins College. She has worked as a hospital administrator. She is also a managing partner in a Tallahassee lobbying firm, Meridian Strategies.

Perhaps it is time for Patricia to sit down with some folks with actual teaching experience to hear how her foundation’s reforms are actually working in the classroom. Perhaps she is unaware of the unintended consequences for students and teachers working in the trenches with all the excessive digitized data collecting. The vendors are making out like bandits selling their testing wares, while the students are getting robbed of instructional time.

The problem with standardized tests is that there are no standardized kids. The problem with digitizing education is that there are too few computers and too many crashes when the kids log on to take the tests. As a result, students are pulled out of class in small groups to take the tests, missing instructional time and disrupting the learning process.

The problem with high stakes testing is that stakes can damage children’s lives and ruin careers. Excellent teachers are checking out, fed up with the pressure and disrespect. Recruiting talented replacements is increasingly difficult given the low pay and demeaning working conditions.

The Tampa Tribune — Strong stand for Everglades

Prior to the election, many thought that if Gov. Rick Scott won re-election, U.S. Sugar’s proposal to build a massive city between Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades would be a slam dunk.

Former Gov. Charlie Crist, who once sought to buy U.S. Sugar holdings to protect the Everglades, was considered to be more concerned about the project’s threat.

Many environmental activists dismissed Scott’s promises to protect the Everglades as campaign posturing.

They looked to have underestimated the governor’s sincerity.

In a Nov. 1 letter, the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity rejected the plan by U.S. Sugar and Hilliard Brothers, another sugar firm, to develop more than 43,000 acres — 67 square miles — in Hendry County. The Hendry County Commission had already endorsed the proposal.

This was no grandstanding political move. The state’s position was not publicized until after the election. It indicates the governor is willing to stand up to the powerful sugar industry.

The proposed “Sugar Hill” development intended to construct 18,000 homes on the tract, parts of which had been targeted for preservation by the state.

But a number of state agencies objected to the sprawling venture.

The Florida Sun-Sentinel reported last month the South Florida Water Management District and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection raised concerns about the project creating a “suburban road block to Everglades restoration.”

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.