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 — Take down barriers to solar

Florida legislators addicted to campaign contributions by the electric utilities are parroting the industry line that solar power is too expensive and unreliable to count on as a significant energy source. Yet the business community is saving money and reducing carbon emissions by making major investments in solar despite the lack of direction or support from the state. Once again the private sector is ahead of state government, and Florida’s next governor should provide stronger leadership with a vigorous renewable energy policy that does more than protect the utilities.

Pinellas County’s Great Bay Distributors has announced it will build a 1.5-megawatt solar array at its massive new facility off Interstate 275 in St. Petersburg, which will be the largest private solar system in the state. The $2.6 million system will pay for itself in six years, thanks to help from federal tax credits, and it will cut emissions of carbon dioxide by 44,000 tons over its 30-year life cycle. Great Bay, the largest distributor of Anheuser-Busch products in Florida, also expects to reduce its electric bill by as much as 40 percent. No wonder the big utilities feel threatened.

Great Bay is going big on an idea that is catching on across the state. Falling prices on solar panels and improvements to technology have made solar a more affordable option. Pinellas Park manufacturer Polypack installed solar last year (about one-fifth the size of Great Bay’s) that cut its electricity bill from $4,800 to $212 in March. The Bay Pines VA Healthcare System facility in Pinellas is saving $189,000 a year in electric costs with a solar system it installed in 2012. And as the Tampa Bay Times‘ Ivan Penn reports in an article published today, falling prices for solar and upgrades in battery storage and other key components could change the economics even more dramatically in the near future.

This all is happening, of course, with no leadership from Tallahassee. Florida created a solar energy rebate program in 2006, but it killed the incentives when they became too popular. This year, lawmakers weakened the state’s focus on solar — in the same bill where they called for “identifying barriers to greater use of renewable energy.” This double-speak is one reason why Florida, which renewable energy advocates say has the third-largest potential for rooftop solar generation in the nation, ranks 18th among states in solar installation. More than two dozen states have stronger energy-efficiency programs than Florida. Business leaders working to develop solar in the state complained to a Senate committee during the legislative session that the market is so suppressed they are leaving for other states.

The Bradenton Herald —FDOT’s renewed vow to fast-track key Manatee interchange project should quiet anxieties

The Florida Department of Transportation reassured the region that the agency is forging ahead with plans for a key road project vital to easing congestion.

New fears that the $60 million interchange at University Parkway and Interstate 75 would not be fast-tracked as previously promised proved unfounded.

“All people should be concerned about is this interchange will be built,” Robin Stublen, FDOT’s public information officer for this region, told Herald reporter Kathryn Moschella. “We are moving full speed ahead on designs and it will get done.”

That should settle the concerns brought up at last week’s inter-district workshop in Lakewood Ranch.

FDOT first listed the interchange as a top priority in March, advancing the timeline for construction by years. Even though the Legislature failed to allocate the money, the agency is shifting funds over to University Parkway.

Already a bottleneck, the pace of growth through the area is hastening. The giant Mall at University Town Center is expected to open in October, and major projects in Lakewood Ranch are moving forward.

The Daytona Beach News-Journal —Don’t disrupt rape, trauma services

Florida Department of Health officials are using a 6-year-old debt — one that, until recently, they didn’t seem all that interested in collecting — as the rationale for disrupting services to at-risk children and victims of sexual violence in Volusia and Flagler counties.

Make no mistake: Yanking key contracts from the Children’s Advocacy Center of Volusia and Flagler Counties — the organization that has served the needs of this highly vulnerable population for decades — will be highly disruptive. The state has set an impossible time frame to replicate services now being provided through the CAC. It is equally impossible to believe that such an abrupt shift will be anywhere near as cost-effective as the services the CAC now provides.

The CAC provides intensive therapy to approximately 700 child victims of abuse, family violence and trauma. It conducts behavioral health assessments of more than 200 children a year. Another 900 children receive forensic medical exams or other crisis-related services. As part of its rape crisis services, the CAC also does forensic medical exams or screening for about 360 adult and child victims of sexual abuse and provides counseling for about the same number of victims. Finally, it provides therapy for 1,500 children at risk of abuse or violence through its Early Steps program.

Every year, the CAC struggles to find enough money for these services. The community also participates through fundraisers and support from local governments and the United Way. If the state demanded it, local philanthropists and governments probably could do more.

The Florida Times-Union —Better World: Good news on jobs, economy

Florida’s attraction to those in their golden years is a major benefit to this state in many ways.

As outlined by the AARP, retirees produce a net benefit to the Florida economy. Those age 65 and older contribute $2,627 more in taxes peer capita than they receive in services.

Thanks to $56 billion in Social Security payments, about 738,000 jobs are generated.

In comparison, 100 million annual tourists create about 122,000 jobs.

Older residents also are big consumers, representing $7,1 trillion in economic activity.

In addition, a large proportion of retirees are working to some degree. Merrill Lynch found that 71 percent of those surveyed plan to work in retirement and about half plan to launch new careers.

AARP says that boomers are not planning to move to Florida in the same numbers as their parents. So the Sunshine State should not take them for granted.

WHEN DEBT IS GOOD

Responsible debt is a positive for the economy. And Americans took on more debt for the third consecutive quarter, The Wall Street Journal reported.

As consumers get their finances in order, they are able to enter into house and auto loans.

The financial system also is more conservative these days, preventing people from taking out risky loans.

Fiscal conservatism is built into the system today.

The Gainesville Sun – Extreme districts

A trial that started this week will hopefully end the practice of Florida drawing congressional and legislative districts to benefit a particular party or candidate.

The League of Women Voters and other groups filed the lawsuit. It alleges that the GOP-led Legislature violated the 2010 Fair Districts state constitutional amendments by drawing districts for partisan purposes.

The case has major implications for the gerrymandered district of U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown. The Democratic representative’s district starts in Jacksonville, winding through east Gainesville and ending around Orlando.

The Tampa Bay Times once described the district as looking like “someone crushed a giant bug in the Ocala National Forest.”

The federal Voting Rights Act has been used to justify the district’s unusual shape. When Brown was first elected in 1992, she was among the first black representatives elected to Congress from Florida since Reconstruction.

Now that Brown is serving her 11th term, the district seems more like incumbent protection. It has also helped Republicans in neighboring districts — such as Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Gainesville — by removing minority voters who tend to vote for the other party from their districts.

Anyone concerned with protecting the rights of those voters should watch a 2012 video of Yoho that surfaced this week, in which he suggested that voting should be limited to property owners.

Gerrymandering has created districts in which lawmakers appeal to the extremes rather than the middle. Hopefully the ongoing trial will conclude with a decision that helps remove politics from the drawing of districts.

The Lakeland Ledger —Red Lobster: Sale of Lakeland Startup

The news that Darden Restaurants of Orlando is selling its chain of Red Lobster restaurants for $2.1 billion in cash to Golden Gate Capital, a San Francisco private-equity firm, brings a tinge of sadness to Polk County.

As many longtime residents know, the links in the Red Lobster chain connect back to Lakeland, where the first Red Lobster opened in 1968.

The building remains at 1330 E. Memorial Blvd., overlooking Lake Parker. It now houses the Alligator Alley Bar & Grill nightclub.

Although Red Lobster left that founding site in May 1997 for its present location of 3706 U.S. 98, fronting Lakeland Square Mall, neither it, the Winter Haven Red Lobster nor any location is in danger of closing. Indeed, Golden Gate Capital says it expects the chain of 705 restaurants to grow.

CUSTOMERS

Red Lobster has been losing customers to less formal and less traditional restaurants such as Chipotle and Panera.

Darden CEO Clarence Otis said Red Lobster was unable to attract higher-income customers with which Darden’s LongHorn Steakhouse, The Capital Grille and Seasons 52 are succeeding. Other Darden restaurants are Bahama Breeze, Eddie V’s, Olive Garden and Yard House.

Darden’s 830 Olive Garden restaurants have a declining-customer problem that is similar to Red Lobster’s, but Otis said it can be corrected with less effort. Olive Garden has added lighter items and smaller dishes to its menus, matching trends among diners.

The Red Lobster sale is expected to close by summer, reported The New York Times.

The Miami Herald —Don’t muzzle voters

Burned bridges can be rebuilt. The smoldering ruins between Miami Dade College and the state Legislature must be cleared away, a foundation of respect poured and a new span reconstructed.

Earlier this year, MDC President Eduardo Padrón, in an understandable fit of pique, spoke disparagingly of four state legislators who refused to budge and push forward a bill that would let Miami-Dade County voters decide whether to increase the sales tax by a half-penny in order raise $1 billion for sorely needed renovations at the school.

He called them “bullies,” and they later went on to, unfortunately, prove him right. The bill went nowhere.

Dr. Padrón apologized and, as reported by Herald writers Michael Vasquez and Kathleen McGrory last week, sat down with the seemingly still-singed state Rep. Jose Oliva for a conciliatory chat.

So, it’s mystifying that, though Rep. Oliva doesn’t support this particular tax increase — as is his right — he still seems dead-set against letting the rest of Miami-Dade County voters have a say. Isn’t that ourright? This is a disappointing stance from a lawmaker staking his claim to be speaker of the House in 2018.

MDC has for years been a leader among, first, community colleges, and now four-year institutions across the nation for its innovative programs that speak directly to that needs of its diverse community.

It provides a new start for the downsized and remedial studies for students who just managed to graduate from high school. The Honors College gives bright high-schoolers a leg up before they go off to, often, the Ivy League.

The Orlando Sentinel —Study offers case for rethinking executions

There’s a reason Florida moved away from Old Sparky, its once-notorious electric chair, to lethal injections: to avoid cruel and unusual punishments.

Truth be told, when Florida lawmakers went into special session nearly 15 years ago to pass a law allowing for lethal injections, the state faced repeal of capital punishment by the U.S. Supreme Court for its sole use of the electric chair, which was in possible violation of constitutional bans on cruel and unusual punishment.

Now, however, a new bipartisan review of capital punishment suggests that even the state’s move toward dispensing death more humanely has left Florida on the wrong path with its own troubled death-penalty system.

A broad study by The Constitution Project — whose panel included Gerald Kogan, former chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court — slammed a wrecking ball into capital punishment, arguing for change “from the moment of the arrest to the moment of death.” It offers dozens of proposals, among them, abandoning drug cocktails to carry out executions for single-drug injections.

State lawmakers can no longer shield their own eyes from compounding evidence that Florida should put a hold, even temporarily, on executions.

The Ocala StarBanner —An authority gone too far

The legislative pairing of U.S. Reps. Ted Yoho and Barbara Lee proves the old maxim that politics makes for strange bedfellows.

Yoho, the Gainesville Republican who represents much of Marion County, is staunchly in the tea party wing of his party.

Lee, a California Democrat, is as far to the left as Yoho is to the right.

Lee was the lone member of Congress to vote against authorizing the use of force following the 9/11 attacks. An effort to reassert congressional oversight of the use of military force has brought the political odd couple together.

Lee introduced a bill to rescind the 60-word sentence that authorized the president to use force against anyone who helped perpetuate the 9/11 attacks. Yoho and a handful of other lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have co-sponsored the measure.

As Lee has said, the post-9/11 military authorization was so overly broad that it has been used as a blank check for limitless war. There have been 30 publicly disclosed instances in which the White House used the law to justify military operations or other actions, according to the Congressional Research Service.

In addition to the ongoing war in Afghanistan, the law has been used to legally justify the use of troops or drone strikes in nine other countries including Georgia, Iraq, Somalia and Yemen. It also has been used to justify detentions in Guantanamo Bay, military trials of terrorism suspects and warrantless wiretapping.

The Pensacola News-Journal — Parental choice equals opportunities for kids

Last week, parental choice in Florida reached a milestone, with the number of low-income students starting applications for tax credit scholarships this fall reaching 100,000.

The program’s popularity speaks to an untold story: how Florida parents are demanding more learning options for their children, and how the state, school districts and other providers are obliging them.

It is a sea change, and it brings complications worthy of scrutiny. But too often what we get, instead, are op-eds with so many distortions, it’s impossible to respond in 600 words. Here are basic points I hope readers will consider when criticisms surface.

The need for options. Florida public schools are making strides, especially with low-income students, but they need help. In 2013, low-income fourth-graders in Florida were number one among all states in reading, after being among the lowest-performers in the 1990s. Public schools deserve far more credit than they get for gains like this. But being number one still means only 27 percent are proficient.

The cherry picking myth. Scholarship students are required by law to take standardized tests (though few take the FCAT), with the results analyzed by Northwestern University researcher David Figlio. Contrary to statements in a recent op-ed, Figlio found those students “tend to be among the lowest-performing students in their prior school,” a trend that is “becoming stronger over time.” In other words, if private schools are out to cherry pick, they’re doing a lousy job.

Results. Figlio’s conclusion was also mangled in the op-ed. Here are his words, straight from his report: “… a cautious read of the weight of the available evidence suggests that the FTC Scholarship Program has boosted student performance in public schools statewide, that the program draws disproportionately low income, poorly-performing students from the public schools into the private schools, and that the students who moved perform as well or better once they move to the private schools.”

The Palm Beach Post —Six questions to ask about the sheriff’s growing budget

Another year, another push by the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office to consume more tax dollars. These perennial requests for more money have become so regular that they are hardly worth remarking upon, but perhaps during this year’s budgeting sessions county commissioners — who last year gave the sheriff an extra $20 million – will come armed with a healthy dose of skepticism. It bears repeating that as the sheriff’s office grows, other important county government services get crowded out.

After years of recession and anemic growth, the county government is expected to take in about $50 million in new revenue next year. But if Sheriff Ric Bradshaw gets his way, his half-billion-dollar agency will eat up most of that money.

The Panama City News-Herald — Who watches the Watchmen?

Recording the police during a traffic stop in a public area should be legal at all times and in all ways.

Police frequently, and with good reason, record encounters with private citizens. In turn, private citizens should have the right to preserve the moment themselves, in any manner they choose, whatever their reasoning might be.

What we have, however, is a confusing legal situation where even the law enforcement officers, the prosecutors paid to prosecute and the public defenders aren’t positive themselves when a citizen can or cannot legally record police doing their duties.
News Herald Reporter Chris Olwell laid out the particulars on a fascinating case involving the Bay County Sheriff’s Office earlier this month (Suit Raises Question of Wiretapping May 11).

Derrick Bacon filed suit in February against Bay County, the Sheriff’s Office, Sheriff Frank McKeithen and two deputies.

The Tallahassee Democrat – Gerald Ensley: Thrasher isn’t president yet

Far be it from me to trumpet the merits of a conservative Republican. Too many of those folks are strangers to the milk of human kindness.

But people may be getting overheated about the recent development, in which powerful state Senator John Thrasher appeared to become the only candidate for the FSU presidency — even if he hasn’t formally applied for the job.

Oh, I get that presidencies of universities are important positions. I get that selecting them ought to be an open process. And I get that all those who work for FSU, attended FSU or ever watched an FSU football game feel they have a personal stake in the selection of its next president.

But I’m willing to believe the fix is not in for Thrasher. I believe all the opposing parties will get their chance to be heard. I believe Thrasher won’t be considered unless a majority of the selection committee — composed entirely of people who care about FSU — endorse him. I believe, even if he’s considered, other candidates will be heard.

Call me naive.

This won’t win me any friends with FSU faculty, including my wife who is FSU faculty. But let’s be honest. Leaders are not chosen for how they appeal to the rank and file. They’re chosen for how they appeal to the boards who hire them.

Corporations, like universities, should go through the exercise of having the candidates interact with the rank and file as a sign of openness. Corporations, like universities, should consider the merits of objections by the rank and file.

The Tampa Tribune —Manatee safety and pelican protocol

Most residents and tourists relish seeing a Florida manatee, the seagoing mammal distantly related to the elephant. Each year thousands travel to Crystal River, the TECO Manatee Viewing Center at Apollo Beach and other coastal areas to view the sad-eyed manatee.

Yet, there are still some thoughtless individuals who treat the endangered and gentle creature with reckless disdain. They speed their boats through manatee protection zones, harass them by pulling their paddles (tails) and even try to ride them.

As the summer boating season gets underway with the Memorial Day weekend, it is a good time to remind people to thoughtfully share the water with the beasts that are said to have been the unlikely inspiration for the mermaid legend. And that had to have been a very desperate or very drunk sailor to mistake the 1,000-pound manatee for an underwater beauty.

The manatee has made an impressive comeback, but it remains endangered. Last year the state documented a record 803 deaths, with toxic red tide killing close to 300. But collisions with boats remain a major threat, and it is rare to see a manatee, even calves, without telltale prop scars on their backs.

Boaters can do their part by conscientiously complying with the manatee zones that require slow speeds. The zones are a small sacrifice to make for protecting a fascinating creature that brings wonder — and commerce — to our waters.

 

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.