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 — Real reform for the Public Service Commission could happen

Tampa Bay legislators received the message loud and clear from voters who are fed up with Duke Energy, high electric bills and state utility regulators who regularly side with the power companies. Lawmakers already have proposed several consumer friendly changes to rein in the utilities and reform the Public Service Commission, and there is more to come. They have an opportunity next spring to channel voter outrage into real reform that could benefit ratepayers and set the stage for a more enlightened state energy policy.

The most promising proposal so far comes from two Tampa Bay Republicans: veteran Sen. John Legg of Lutz and freshman Rep. Chris Sprowls of Palm Harbor. They would limit future PSC commissioners to serving two consecutive terms and divide the state into five districts that would each be represented by a commissioner. They also would ban elected officials from being appointed to the PSC by the governor until they were out of office for two years. That would quickly become known as the Jimmy Patronis provision, after the term-limited House member who was appointed to the PSC by Gov. Rick Scott as a political favor.

Legg, who has sponsored similar legislation before that failed to pass, and Sprowls are headed in the right direction. Requiring PSC members to come from throughout the state could make them more sensitive to consumer concerns. But there are broader issues that should be addressed. Duke Energy and Florida Power & Light combined to contribute more than $2.5 million to Scott’s re-election effort, and they hold great influence over the PSC appointment process. Why should regulated industries be able to spend an unlimited amount of money to influence the appointment of those who are supposed to be regulating them? And given that utilities have an iron grip in Tallahassee, why isn’t someone talking about returning to a system of electing PSC members who could at least be held accountable by the voters?

A smart bipartisan proposal by Democratic Rep. Dwight Dudley of St. Petersburg and Republican Sen. Charles Dean of Inverness would prohibit utilities from charging higher rates because of changes in billing cycles. That is a response to Duke Energy’s attempt this year to charge customers higher rates as it extended billing cycles to accommodate changes in its meter reading system. That sparked an outcry from consumers who were not using more electricity than normal, and the utility apologized and provided credits under pressure from legislators. This proposal also would give the PSC more authority to approve billing cycle changes, because Duke and the PSC staff initially said existing rules let Duke act without seeking any approval from the state.

The Bradenton Herald — On grade school security, Manatee County district on right track by pursuing certified law enforcement officers

Exactly two years ago today, the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., shocked the nation to its core. Twenty children and six adult staff members of the school lost their lives in the deadliest mass shooting at a grade or high school in U.S. history.

Recent statistics about shootings in schools are disturbing, too. In the past two years, American schools have been the scene of at least 95 shootings, ranging from fatal and nonfatal attacks to suicides and accidental incidents.

Fifty-two percent of those shootings occurred at elementary and high schools while the others took place at colleges and universities, a new report by the Everytown For Our Safety organization indicates. Nine of those were in Florida, second in the nation for these crimes.

While the Manatee County school board rushed into the hiring of private security guards for 31 grade schools this past summer, their concern is well placed — as recent history well proves. But those guards had to be disarmed and then dismissed after several issues arose.

The question of the legality of firearms in schools carried by anyone other than law enforcement officers propelled the school district into uncharted territory.

The administration requested an interpretation of state law from Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi. She issued a legal opinion two weeks ago that cited the state’s “home rule” privilege in allowing private security forces inside schools “in support of school-sanctioned activities.”

Bondi’s decision counters established practice but opens the door to school districts around the state to contract with private security guards, a cost-saving measure over paying certified law enforcement officers.

That was the roadblock in Manatee County as placing school resource officers — sheriff’s deputies and police — in 31 elementary schools carried at estimated $3.4 million annual cost. The district’s now discarded contract with Sarasota Security Patrol only cost $1 million for the first year.

The Daytona Beach News-Journal — Florida prisons require comprehensive reforms

Gov. Rick Scott Wednesday named Julie Jones as secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections. When she takes the helm of the nation’s third-largest penal system Jan. 5, she will become the department’s seventh secretary in the last eight years. That is indicative of the deep-set problems in the DOC that go beyond whoever is next to pass through the turnstile in the secretary’s office.

Florida currently incarcerates more than 100,000 prisoners at a cost of more than $2.3 billion a year. Both numbers are projected to increase over the next five years. That will create additional pressures on a system that already is struggling to maintain safety and order. Inmate deaths this year have hit a 10-year high, with several occurring under suspicious conditions. There also are widespread reports of guards physically abusing prisoners.

In fact, the instability at the top may be a contributing factor to the continuing erosion in the foundation. No one in the corrections bureaucracy will take the latest secretary’s reform proposals seriously if they can expect a new person to be appointed a few months down the line. Instead of jumping from scandal to scandal by scapegoating another DOC head, the state must make wholesale changes to the system.

Thankfully, there is a proven road map to reform for Florida to follow, one that not only will clean up abuses but also will save taxpayers money.

The Project for Accountable Justice, a bipartisan think tank affiliated with Florida State University, recently issued a report outlining five recommendations to improve the prison system. They adopted many practices already successfully implemented in other states, including Texas and Georgia — neither are which are known for being bleeding hearts on incarceration.

The Florida Times-Union — Northeast Florida should pay attention to sea level rise

The science of climate change has been so poisoned by ideological battles that real threats are being ignored in Northeast Florida.

A study by a task force organized by the Northeast Florida Regional Planning Council has been conducted largely out of sight, focusing on the business impacts of sea level rise in this area.

Skeptics of climate change have been tireless in trying to raise suspicions, reminiscent of the attempts to raise doubts about the scientific evidence that smoking cigarettes causes cancer.

All along, the Times-Union’s position on this issue is best expressed as a pragmatic one based on the classic principles of insurance.

It becomes clearer daily that Florida, with its extensive coastline, is on the front lines of climate change, as we said in an editorial in May.

If climate change experts are right — and the vast majority agree — then at least we should prepare and mitigate against potential impacts. To not do so would be as irresponsible as failing to buy flood insurance in a flood-prone zone.

But could all those climate scientists be wrong?

Or could all of them — meteorologists included — be part of some sinister plot?


Florida Today – Thumbs up, thumbs down

Lagoon islands get stewards

Thumbs up: To Brevard County volunteers who have bow adopted all 27 spoil islands designated for recreation in the Indian River Lagoon. The islands were created mainly in the 1950s from sand and stuff dredged during the creation of the Intracoastal Waterway. Since then, the islands have been overrun with Australian pines and junk including couches, mattresses, old TVs and discarded fishing gear. Now, groups such as the Friends of the Spoil Islands are using state grants to clean them up, cut down exotic trees and plant mangroves in their place. Keep going, friends.

Paying for the wrong thing

Thumbs down: To Florida Power & Light for asking the state to let it pass along to customers its costs to lobby against a federal clean-water rule. FPL wants you to help pay its $228,500 tab for fighting a plan to determine which waterways are subject to federal protection. The rule might force $25 million in upgrades at up to four power plants, costs that also would be passed along. But it’s one thing for a utility to ask that customers to bear the true costs of sustainability — we’d support that. It’s another thing to expect everyone to sponsor a corporate lobbying effort to get out of it.

A boost for human spaceflight

Thumbs up: To Congressional budget writers for boosting NASA’s spending by $364 million for fiscal 2015. Under a proposed federal budget (remember those?) the space agency would get $18 billion — $500 million more than it requested. Most of the extra money would go to the Orion crew vehicle and Space Launch System rocket meant to eventually take astronauts to Mars. That’s good news for the Space Coast.

The Gainesville Sun – Mr. Civil Rights

Gainesville has lost a civil rights icon who worked to expand educational opportunity throughout his life.

The Rev. Thomas A. Wright died Tuesday at the age of 94. Wright was the longtime pastor of Mount Carmel Baptist Church in Gainesville.

Local civil rights advocates described Wright to The Sun this week as “a giant” whose “whole life’s work was seeking justice for all” and who made an “immeasurable” impact.

“He was Mr. Civil Rights,” said Cynthia Chestnut, former Alachua County commissioner and state representative.

Wright was a leader of the civil rights movement in St. Augustine that attracted the involvement of Martin Luther King Jr.

After moving to Gainesville in 1962, he was instrumental in desegregating Gainesville High School. His daughter, LaVon, was one of the first black students to attend.

Wright was pastor of Mount Carmel for about 45 years and spent 17 years as president of the Alachua County NAACP. He helped establish the church-owned Gardenia Gardens apartment complex.

He created endowments at Howard University, Florida Memorial University and, most recently, a $50,000 endowment at Santa Fe College to provide scholarships for underserved students.

He also founded East Side Student Assistance, which provides scholarships to college-bound students living in low-income housing complexes in Gainesville. In lieu of flowers, family members are requesting donations be made to the group.

As Chestnut said, Wright’s “shoes will never be filled because he was one of a kind.” But our community can honor his legacy by continuing his work seeking justice and educational opportunity for all.

The Lakeland Ledger — Hunt Act: Combating Veterans’ Suicides

The public this year has gotten a long, hard look at the foul bureaucratic mucus draining from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ health care system. We learned, for example, that at least 35 military veterans died awaiting appointments at the VA hospital in Phoenix. Another 20 or so passed away because medical tests at VA facilities in Georgia and South Carolina were unduly delayed.

We learned that 120,000 veterans never got the care they sought, although VA officials across the country routinely falsified records to show people were seen in the legally mandated time frame. We learned the agency had shelled out $200 million to satisfy roughly 1,000 wrongful death claims brought by veterans’ families since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, including payments to families whose loved ones were treated at VA centers in Tampa, Orlando and Gainesville.

And we learned every single one of the 470 senior executives in the VA was rated “fully successful” or “outstanding” on annual job reviews. Collectively, they were paid $2.7 million in performance bonuses, including a $63,000 bump to a director in Pittsburgh who oversaw the facility where an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease killed six veterans and sickened at least 21 others.

The Miami Herald — Reaching toward reform

Police officers — their behavior, their attitudes and their seeming immunity — have been under the harshest of spotlights. This time, the debate was kicked off by the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, then Eric Garner’s chokehold death in New York. It was then kicked into high gear when grand juries did not indict the officers in either case.

Well-coordinated street protests — as opposed to lawless rioting — continue, across the United States and in spots around the globe. Last weekend in Miami, marchers stopped traffic around art fairs in Midtown. In London, activists held a “die in.” In Washington, D.C., congressional aides staged a walkout on the Capitol steps. Recently, President Obama announced the creation of a task force to examine police-community relations.

Orlando Police Chief Richard Beary told the Editorial Board that the task force is a good first step, but that its focus is narrow. Chief Beary is the president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police — IACP — and, in fact, he was at the White House last week, along with others, for a sit-down with the Mr. Obama and Vice President Joe Biden about the state of law enforcement and criminal justice in the country.

Chief Beary is well-positioned to help develop prescriptives to address the most flagrant behavior, and also the day-to-day encounters between police and citizens that can be informed as much by the nature of a perceived violation as the quality of an officer’s training, the color of a citizen’s skin, or just the mood of either person.

Miami-Dade County is not immune to police behavior that leaves residents rattled, befuddled and resentful. One resident, a woman driving to her home in a gated community, told the Board that she was stopped by an officer “pumped up” perhaps on self-importance, perhaps on steroids, perhaps both, loudly informing her that he had to make sure that “the right kind of people” were driving those streets.

The Orlando Sentinel — Oil price plunge hurts Russia’s Putin

The falling price of oil is good news for American motorists, and it has an extra added attraction: It’s making life miserable for Russian President Vladimir Putin.…

The oil windfall is likely to help the U.S. economy rev up to a 3.5 percent growth rate next year, according to the International Monetary Fund. Solid, consistent growth with low interest rates and little inflation is ideal for encouraging business investment and job creation.…

What’s not to like? Well, there are losers to go along with the winners. ExxonMobil and Chevron Corp., as well as smaller oil-patch companies, stand to make less money when commodity prices fall. People may not necessarily like the energy giants, but they employ many Americans.

North American oil and gas production could come under pressure.… But many oil and gas fields have reduced their costs as they have adopted new technology. …

U.S. and European officials have imposed economic sanctions to deter Russia from encroaching on neighboring Ukraine and other nations. The sanctions have inflicted some pain on Putin’s economy.

But the recent plunge in the price of crude has done more to leave Putin gobsmacked than all the sanctions put together. The biggest losers in falling oil prices are countries such as Russia that depend heavily on oil revenue and maintain high production costs.…

After Russia, the next most vulnerable oil-producing state is Iran. Then, probably, Venezuela. Americans needn’t shed any tears about those three.…

The Ocala StarBanner — Real justice

Millions of Floridians are effectively denied justice in the civil courts because they can’t afford an attorney.

Individuals, families and society suffer as a result. Bad outcomes — homes lost to foreclosure, money lost to unscrupulous bill collectors, benefits lost to bureaucracy — sometimes occur only because people don’t have legal representation.

Jorge Labarga, chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court, recently signed an administrative order creating a 27-member Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice. The mission of the commission is to study for two years the “unmet civil legal needs of disadvantaged, low-income and moderate-income Floridians.”

Specifically, the commission will: Identify and examine barriers to the civil justice system; determine how to better coordinate legal services; examine effective ways to use technology; build more partnerships to serve clients in a holistic way; maximize existing resources and identify how to obtain additional ones.

The creation of this commission and the attention of the chief justice are welcome. Yet, since Florida is behind the curve — 32 states already have civil-justice commissions — there should be a sense of urgency. One of the first challenges should be building political support for state funding of organizations, such as the Ocala-based Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida, that provide free assistance to low-income residents. (Federal funding has been cut substantially in recent years.)

The Pensacola News-Journal — The voting booth affects the classroom

There’s a reasonable tendency among Americans to view the education of their kids as an exclusively local issue and distinct to their communities. After all, school buildings are constant fixtures in neighborhoods, sports teams play crosstown rivals and the vast majority of public students still attend schools based solely on ZIP code.

However, the innovations and flurry of activity that takes place in classrooms and communities are guided by the state-level policies that govern them, which is why the 2014 gubernatorial election results matter, and could potentially mean substantial improvements to student learning.

A national analysis found that more than half of governors hold encouraging views or have proven track records on promoting the types of choice and accountability measures that will lift student outcomes and give more power to parents in the educational process.

Post-election media reports signaled an overall victory for candidates with fresh ideas on how to make education the great equalizer. This means that if there are meaningful shifts in policy that facilitate excellent schools, they’re likely to originate from the statehouses and governor’s mansion.

These governors and governors-elect understand that schools cannot be properly held accountable for results if parents don’t have the choice to look around them and find the best educational fit for their child. And the teachers who work hard day in and day out should be rewarded for performing well and going the extra mile for kids.

They appreciate that some students need an alternate environment to master course content, and want to expand charter schools to operate alongside traditional schools, with the necessary autonomy for teachers to cater to particular learning needs.

The Palm Beach Post — Keep Trauma Hawk program with Health Care District

The Trauma Hawk air ambulance program run by the Palm Beach County Health Care District has flown wounded, burned, sick and dying patients to hospitals 14,000 times in two decades — over 600 flights a year. During all those flights, its helicopters have reported zero accidents, even though they land in less than ideal conditions, like on highways and in parking lots.

Zero accidents is impressive, considering that working on an air ambulance is, according to a former NTSB crash investigator, “among the most dangerous professions in the United States.” Indeed, between 2011 and 2013, there were seven air ambulance accidents resulting in 19 deaths, according to the FAA.

On Monday, Palm Beach County’s legislative delegation is scheduled to consider an ill-advised bill advanced by Democratic state Rep. David Kerner of Lake Worth, brought forward by the Professional Firefighters and Paramedics of Palm Beach County. It would take the $6 million Trauma Hawk program away from the Health Care District and transfer it — budget, helicopters and all — to the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office. It would do this by mandating that the Health Care District contract with the sheriff.

Yes, that’s the same PBSO which last month was cited by National Transportation Safety Board for a 2012 “hard landing” which injured two and sidelined a helicopter with major damage. The PBSO Bell 407 collided with a tree and fence along a Delray Beach gated community. The report concluded pilot error was the cause.

Kerner says his only motivation is the well-being of Palm Beach County residents, because he found that Trauma Hawk missed four local calls while providing services out of county. Out-of-county transport is generally done in emergencies, when patients with burns, transplant patients going into organ rejection or children with life-threatening infections need services not available here.

Occasionally, other counties request assistance because their helicopters are out of service. That happened in Martin County last year. Before condemning those flights, remember Palm Beach County has benefited from this give-and-take. After Hurricane Wilma, Glades General Hospital had be rapidly evacuated, and other counties’ air ambulances assisted us.

The Panama City News-Herald — Finally a playoff

Over the next few months we may have to do yard work and chores.

That’s because college football — the sport that kept us glued to our couches on Saturday afternoons — is just about done. Thankfully, this year, for the first time ever, we will get to see a four-team playoff that will result in a (mostly) undisputed champion.

We are not so stringent about this that we agree with the Dr. Pepper guy who kept claiming that this was the first real season of college football. But, a playoff system of some kind has always made more sense to us than simply picking the two “best” teams out of thin air and pitting them against one another. That system often left much to be desired and permanently kept some strong teams with winning seasons out of the big dance. It also seemed to be permanently biased, rightly or wrongly, toward certain football conferences. We won’t name any names but they know who they are. However, we’re not sure that we would go so far as to call this new system perfect.

Currently, the only undefeated team in the nation, Florida State University, is ranked third. Alabama is number one, Oregon is number two and Ohio State squeaked into the playoffs at number four. Ohio State’s late entry into the top four must have the fans, players and coaches at Baylor and TCU (two teams with strong arguments to be included) more than a little perturbed. Near the end, TCU was at number three and was ousted in favor of Ohio State despite winning that weekend.

The Tallahassee Democrat – Violent police encounters are symptom

America is still a great country. Every day people from all around the world dream of coming here and enjoying what many of us take for granted: “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Every day men and women who work in law enforcement literally put their lives on the line to guarantee and protect the rights of all Americans. The problem, however, is that America in recent years has become a chaotic, violent and uncertain place. Incredible societal challenges such as mass unemployment, rising long-term poverty, shifting moral values, recreational illegal drug use, mental illness, gun proliferation and a violence-worshipping society have placed the police profession in its most difficult position since the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 60s.

While the issues mentioned above affect all Americans regardless of race, the relationship between the law-enforcement community and the African-American community specifically has become acutely strained and disrespectful. Let’s face it: capitalist America has always had race relation problems.

Our vast economic system of wealth, finance and commerce was built in great part on the backs of slaves brought from Africa. The first law enforcement officers in America were the U.S. Marshals (1789) who were created by America’s first president, George Washington. One of the first tasks of the Marshals was the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act (1793); in other words, chasing and capturing blacks who had run away from slavery. Blacks have been running from the police since blacks have been in America.

I am an American who happens to be black and who also happens to have worked in law enforcement for nearly 30 years. I grew up poor without a father in the home, in a rural low-income community. Today I have two sons and a daughter all who are young college-educated adults. I realize not all police are as polite or as professional as I would like, but I still do not think that the average police officer is a threat to their safety.

The Tampa Tribune — Taking aim at Duke’s greedy billing practices

Duke Energy’s greedy billing practices are now squarely in the sights of Florida lawmakers who live in the Tampa Bay area and promised during this past election season to challenge the giant utility.

A bill filed in advance of the 2015 legislative session would force Duke to return billions it has collected from its customers for a power plant it no longer plans to build. Another bill would set term limits on the appointed members of the Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities. Yet another bill being considered would allow commercial businesses to sell excess power generated from private solar systems to a third party, which is currently prohibited.

We hope the full Legislature recognizes the abuses heaped on ratepayers in Pinellas and other areas where Duke operates and supports the measures, which would protect utility customers across the state and potentially promote more solar production.

As the Tribune’s Josh Boatwright reports, one encouraging sign is the bipartisanship being demonstrated. State Rep. Amanda Murphy, a Democrat from New Port Richey, and newly elected state Rep. Chris Latvala, a Republican from Clearwater, are sponsoring the bill to force Duke to refund the money collected for the nuclear plants it no longer plans to build.

A 2006 law allowing utilities to collect money up-front for the costs associated with building nuclear power plants has been abused by Duke, which is charging its 1.7 million Florida customers $3.2 billion for a project it abandoned.

The Murphy-Latvala bill would repeal the 2006 law and force Duke to refund the money by June 30, 2016.

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.