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

in Uncategorized by

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

Tampa Bay Times — Positive ideas for reforming utility regulation

This could be the year that the Florida Legislature finally stands up to electric utilities. Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater and Rep. Kathleen Peters of South Pasadena have filed sweeping legislation that would prevent some of the worst abuses by electric companies such as Duke Energy and reform the Public Service Commission. It’s a promising start, and lawmakers should keep up the pressure to level the playing field for consumers whose voices are rarely heard in Tallahassee.

Some of the changes proposed by the Pinellas lawmakers are in direct response to outrage their constituents expressed last year toward Duke Energy. For example, the bill would prohibit utilities from charging customers higher rates because their billing period was extended. Duke customers received higher bills last year when they were pushed into higher rate classes only because the utility extended their billing cycle as it overhauled its meter reading system. The utility and the PSC staff said that was allowed under the commission’s rules, but the uproar caused Duke officials to apologize and give customers credits on their bills. A similar bill has been filed by Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg, and Sen. Charles Dean, R-Inverness, and the Legislature easily should correct this fundamental flaw.

Latvala’s bill also would address another unfair PSC situation that benefits utilities over ratepayers. Requests for electric utility rate increases are routinely settled before they go to a full hearing before the commission. The PSC approved a settlement involving a $350 million rate increase for Florida Power & Light in 2012 that had been negotiated by FP&L and the utility’s major industrial users. The public counsel, who represents ratepayers before the commission, objected. But for the first time the commission approved a rate settlement without the public counsel’s endorsement, and the Florida Supreme Court agreed that was fine. It’s not fine, and this legislation would require the public counsel to sign off on any rate settlements. Without that protection, the people’s voice at the PSC is silenced.

There are other smart provisions in the bill sponsored by Latvala and Peters. For electric customers, it would limit how much they would be required to pay in a deposit for service and require utilities to help ensure they pay the lowest possible rate. For the PSC, it would require commissioners to meet routinely in the service areas of the utilities and to receive annual ethics training like many other public officials. It also would require anyone who lobbies members of the PSC Nominating Council, which screens PSC candidates for the governor, to register as a lobbyist. Those provisions would provide greater access and more openness to a regulatory process now controlled by the utilities and their allies.

The Bradenton Herald — Vigilance on exemptions, violations of Florida’s vaunted Sunshine Laws on open government

After Florida’s Legislature approved a record 22 new exemptions in the Public Records and Open Meetings Law last year and reenacted another nine existing ones, another stack of bills to keep specific information secret has already been filed for the upcoming session. By most accounts, the state’s Government in the Sunshine Laws remains the strongest in the country, but year after year lawmakers keep chipping away at the public’s right to know. In 1985, only 250 exemptions existed. Today that figure has ballooned to more than 1,000.

This year is no different. Two months ahead of the opening of the 2015 legislative session, about a dozen exemption bills have been filed. More can be expected.

Gov. Rick Scott has shown far less regard for open records. His notorious history of secrecy came into even sharper focus on the day of his inauguration last Tuesday.

His administration issued a new policy directing former gubernatorial employees to follow established law, specifically a statute that requires the release of records on private cell phones and email accounts that concern public business once those workers leave their post. The administration’s unprecedented defense — that the statute did not apply to the governor’s office — lacked all credibility.

But not all exemptions add to public mistrust of government. Florida’s First Amendment Foundation, a nonprofit watchdog and open government advocate, tracks legislative action on Sunshine. The organization’s president, Barbara Petersen, wrote in a Herald op-ed last August that “while many of the new (2014) exemptions are relatively minor and fully justified, others seem designed to do nothing more than protect special interest.”

For the 2015 legislative session, which opens March 3, exemption bills appear on both sides of the open records coin.

HB 65: Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, proposes to temporarily shield unsolicited project proposals for a public-private parternship related to public infrastructure and facilities. The public records exemption carries time limits and requires meetings to be recorded and documents maintained, both to be released later. Steube’s intentions are rooted in economic development — by encouraging free enterprise to pitch ideas that governments have yet to seek proposals.

The Daytona Beach News-Journal — Halifax board must be transparent with CEO

It’s good that the Halifax Health Board of Commissioners agreed last week to discuss its performance evaluation of the hospital’s CEO in an open meeting next month. But members must go further than that by making public the documentation of that assessment.

State law allows public hospitals to keep those records sealed for up to five years, but that doesn’t mean they have to. At their meeting last Monday, some board members said they believe a summary of the evaluations should be available for the public to examine, but expressed reservations about releasing more than that, such as each board member’s assessment of CEO Jeff Feasel.

“It is much too detailed to have in the public domain,” board member Susan Schandel said Monday.

That attitude indicates a disappointing lack of confidence in a community that partially funds the hospital. It suggests that the board knows what’s best for the people and that the public should trust what it can’t see.

That kind of opacity is anathema to responsible government that is accountable to the people.

Make no mistake, Halifax’s management is a quasi-governmental entity. It’s a public hospital that levies a property tax that accounted for 2.5 percent of its funding in 2014. It is also the second-largest employer in Volusia County and provides vital services to the community.

Furthermore, the hospital’s board members are appointed by the governor, making them public servants. Therefore, reading their individual assessments of the CEO would provide the public with important insight into how they are conducting their jobs.

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?

Doubtful.

Some of the arguments against climate change confuse climate and weather. Or they largely consist of tiresome jokes about the latest cold snap.

Florida Today – Worry about this fuel, Titusville

Titusville residents and their elected leaders need to ask hard questions before permitting a plant that would produce liquefied natural gas south of Space Coast Regional Airport.

Liquefied gas is volatile and hazardous stuff.

Industry has done an outstanding job of managing its risk over the past few decades, and gas-powered cruise ships represent a promising new market at nearby Port Canaveral. But when things go bad with liquefied natural gas, the results can be swift and terrible, federal studies show.

So, study up then speak up, North Brevard.

An initial check shows more than 7,000 homes just south of the proposed plant. Are they far enough away?

Developer Florida East Coast Industries expect 25 trucks a day to haul container-tanks of the super-cooled gas though the area. Where will they go, and how safe is that?

Key decisions are coming fast. The city’s Planning and Zoning Commission will consider the permit at a public hearing Jan. 21. The City Council will hold a public hearing Jan. 27.

The Gainesville Sun – Cheers and Jeers

Today marks the return of our editorial feature on the best and worst of the week, which we’re calling “Cheers and Jeers.”

Cheer: Law enforcement officers, firefighters and emergency medical technicians in Alachua County. Gov. Rick Scott declared this week to be Florida First Responders Week.

We saw another example of the bravery of our first responders Thursday when Alachua County Sheriff’s Deputy Matthew Yakubsin rescued a toddler being used as a shield in a standoff. Yakubsin had previously been one of the first deputies on the scene during the deadly crashes on Interstate 75 at Paynes Prairie in January 2012.

Jeer: Florida for dropping to 28th in Education Week’s rankings of states for their public schools. Florida had previously been in the top 10.

The rankings now focus more on outcomes than half-baked policies such as school grades. Florida’s standing plummeted due to factors such as its spending on schools, which ranks in the bottom 10 in the nation.

Cheer: State Sen. Rob Bradley for proposing a bill that would make reforms to the Florida Department of Corrections.

Bradley’s measure would create a commission to oversee and inspect prisons as a way to prevent inmate abuse and deaths. The idea was among those proposed by the Project for Accountable Justice.

Jeer: U.S. Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Gainesville, for his comment on Fox News about House Speaker John Boehner’s removal of two lawmakers who voted against him from an influential committee assignment. Yoho said the action was something that would happen in a “communist country.”

Yoho should vote his conscience, but also understand the consequences — especially when he makes a preposterous bid for the speakership himself. To quote professional wrestler Ric Flair’s famous catchphrase: “To be the man, you gotta beat the man.”

The Lakeland Ledger — Scott Needs To See Light On Secrecy

Gov. Rick Scott launched his second term last week with measured, appropriate

remarks about the state’s economic success during his tenure, as well as much-needed pledges to boost spending on infrastructure, education and protecting the environment. Scott deserves praise for much of the state’s economic turnaround, and we’re encouraged by his emphasis on aiding parts of Florida’s ailing physical and intellectual assets.

But we would encourage the governor at this early stage in Term 2 to take a moment and reflect on how his first four years sapped confidence among advocates of open and transparent government. The state seems headed on the right path in many ways, but the Scott administration needs to take the first off-ramp and reverse course when it comes to ensuring Floridians know what their elected officials are up to. Just days before Scott was sworn in for the second time, the Miami Herald presented a detailed and lengthy look at his record on handling public records. The view was not pretty.

The governor and his staff often worked long and hard to prevent the public from learning how his administration functioned — whether it was involvement in the lawsuit over congressional districts that revealed how the new map was jury-rigged to safeguard Republican candidates, in contradiction of the plain language of the state Constitution; the effort to keep his travel records sealed; or even such minute matters as his staff erasing events off his official calendar before releasing it.

The Miami Herald — Blame the extremists, not all Muslims

Who is to blame for the massacre at the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo, the irreverent satirical magazine?

The moment we heard about the carnage we had a pretty good idea of what happened.

Islamist extremists, “jihadis” have carried out some of the most shocking terrorist attacks in recent years, and their willingness to kill in the name of avenging a certain offense, a perceived wrong, is well known.

A horrific terrorist attack — perpetrated by Muslims — automatically leads many to blame Islam and, with varying degrees of subterfuge, all Muslims.

On the other end of the ideological scale, it sends some into a spirited defense of Islam and of its practitioners, exonerating both with claims that this had nothing to do with Islam and that, as President Obama and other world leaders have said about previous atrocities, the terrorists “are not real Muslims.”

The truth lies somewhere in between. It is absurd and utterly unfair to blame all Muslims for what some members of their religion do. It is just as ridiculous to claim these acts have nothing to do with Islam. And when it comes to deciding who is and is not a real Muslim, that is not a task for the U.S. president or the British prime minister or the secretary general of the United Nations.

Clearly, Islam, a particular interpretation of it, plays a fundamental role.

It is the driving force behind most of the terrorism we see in the world today, which is afflicting Muslims far more extensively than non-Muslims in the West.

Justifying the events in Paris, the British-born radical Muslim preacher Anjem Choudary wrote, “The Messenger Mohammed said, ‘Whoever insults the Prophet kill him.’” Choudary, who has shown no qualms about the killing of civilians, places the blame on French authorities for allowing the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo to continue publishing. The problem, in other words, is free speech.

That is a rather clear-cut delineation of the incompatibility of Islamic radicalism and democracy. The two cannot live together.

The Orlando Sentinel — Weekly Champ: Raoul Cantero; Chump: Matt Shirk

Champ

Raoul Cantero: He became the first Hispanic justice on the Florida Supreme Court when then-Gov. Jeb Bush appointed him in 2002. Now one of the state’s top private attorneys, he’s heading an effort to boost legal aid to the poor by raising the dues lawyers pay to the Florida Bar. It would have been more comfortable for Cantero to let someone else take the lead; the Bar’s board opposes the idea, and many rank-and-file lawyers resent it. But the ex-justice, who also has taken a stand on the death penalty and other contentious issues, didn’t leave public policy behind when he left the high court.

Chump

Matt Shirk: While many lawyers are a credit to their profession, some are an embarrassment. Take Shirk — please! — the elected public defender of Northeast Florida’s Fourth Judicial Circuit. Last month a Duval County grand jury impaneled to investigate misconduct in the office released a blistering report alleging violations of legal ethics and Mad-Men style antics bad enough to put taxpayers at risk in a lawsuit. The grand jury called on Shirk to quit right away. He said he would let voters decide if he should stay or go. But the next election isn’t until 2016. How convenient.

The Ocala StarBanner — Medicaid failures

With the tax-cutting governor inaugurated for a second term Tuesday, and “sunny” economic forecasts issued for Florida’s new year, one could almost overlook some very bad news that arrived at the end of 2014:

A federal judge ruled that Florida underfunded Medicaid — so much so that the state essentially violated federal law and thwarted adequate medical and dental care for children.

According to Judge Adalberto Jordan, the state set Medicaid payments too low, making it impossible to attract enough doctors, mental health therapists, dentists and others to serve eligible children. Jordan also agreed with plaintiffs’ claims that administrative missteps and poor communication by state agencies put serious hurdles in the way of medical and dental care for some children.

Medicaid’s clients include low-income children, the disabled, and those with special needs.

Judge Jordan’s ruling, following 10 years of litigation in a class-action lawsuit, is a sobering read. Here are some examples from the decision:

“… There is a serious problem faced by Medicaid children in receiving prompt and equal access to medical specialists. … Children on Medicaid have to travel to other areas of the state and/or wait for several months to obtain care.”

“One-third of the state’s (Medicaid-)enrolled children are not receiving any of their expected preventive care each year.” Plus, “79 percent of the children enrolled in Medicaid are getting no dental services at all,” although they are entitled to them.

The Pensacola News-Journal — Tell the truth about Battle Flag

I have seen and heard the comments from “CSA Battle Flag” supporters that have invoked the “teachings of tolerance” that Dr. Martin Luther King to justify flying the CSA battle-flag. However, Dr. King said two things that are very instructive regarding the flag controversy.

  1. The two most dangerous things in the World today are sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.
  2. Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.

You must realize that the Battle Flag provokes images and memories of some of the most despicable atrocities against African-Americans in American history. This flag was the “symbol” of unity among some individuals that practiced white supremacy and supported the ideology that black people were inferior to whites. This symbol was seen at KKK cross burnings, lynchings, rallies and protests against the rights of black people and is still prominently displayed at white supremacy gatherings. This imagery is negatively burned into the psyche of African-Americans who see this as a relic of past oppression and provides evidence that racial discrimination still hounds America today.

The “history revisionists” who take up the “battle for the Battle Flag” are probably “sincerely ignorant” of CSA’s founding principles and ideology on racial equality and/or “conscientiously stupid” for supporting founding principles of the CSA.

The reality of the CSA’s “cornerstone” ideology is best illustrated in the “Cornerstone Speech” by Alexander H Stephens, on March 21, 1861, in Savannah Ga., where he was explaining to people about the “founding principles” of the CSA and its Constitution’s fundamental differences to the U.S. Constitution. The speech clearly explains the CSA’s ideology about black people, as he explained:

“Our new government (the CSA) is founded upon exactly the opposite idea (than the Union); its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

Stephens then further claims that the “Northern” idea of racial equality was “insanity,” and further stated:

“They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man. If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be logical and just but their premise being wrong, their whole argument fails.”

The “Cornerstone Speech” made it abundantly clear the CSA’s cornerstone of its democratic state were bases in an ideology slavery and black inferiority were a “matter of principle” that the CSA would be unwavering as its rights to oppress were “a divine truth from God,” as it further stated.

“That we, in maintaining slavery as it exists with us, were warring against a principle, a principle founded in nature, the principle of the equality of men.”

The Palm Beach Post — Florida’s failed children’s Medicaid program needs oversight, money

It’s a jaw-dropper that Gov. Rick Scott’s Agency for Health Care Administration wants to spend $2.7 million fighting a federal judge’s finding that Florida fails poor children on Medicaid. But that’s the plan.

Money that could potentially pay for 40,000 additional children’s dental visits or 83,000 doctor’s appointments should go instead to lawyers arguing that the system has been fixed and works great? Now that’s government waste.

On New Year’s Eve, U.S. District Judge Adalberto Jordan of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals issued findings on a case first filed by pediatricians back in 2005. The state lost.

Jordan found the obvious: that Florida had systematically denied adequate medical and dental care to children on Medicaid. But he also found that the rollout of the statewide Medicaid managed care program last year hadn’t solved the situation.

The root of the problem? Doctors and dentists haven’t been paid competitive rates, in part because of continual demands from governors and legislators through the years that the Medicaid program stay “budget neutral” – not cost any more. In fact, Scott thinks the managed care shift should allow the state to spend less.

The human cost to all of this is significant, Jordan noted.

The percentage of children on Medicaid has swelled by more than a third between 2008 and late 2011, to just under 2 million, with no indication that the number of providers had increased at all. The predictable result was that Florida had the worst showing in the nation for access to dental care, with only about 20 percent of kids on Medicaid getting to see a dentist.

One-third of enrolled children weren’t receiving expected preventative care, like blood lead screenings or new baby doctor visits.

And children often had to wait months for critically important visits, leaving parents and doctors in the position of begging and pleading for kids with broken wrists to get casts, or cancer patients to have tumors removed, or immune-compromised kids to have life-threatening infections addressed.

The Panama City News-Herald — An attack on free speech everywhere

The mass slaughter Wednesday at a Paris magazine was more than a cold-blooded murder of 12 people.

It also was an attack on free speech.

Masked gunmen believed to be radical Islamic terrorists — witnesses reported they were shouting “We have avenged the Prophet!” and “Allahu Akbar!” (Arabic for “God is great”) while also claiming to be affiliated with al-Qaida — entered the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical French publication that has gained notoriety for publishing cartoons lampooning Muhammad and Muslim extremism (as well as other denominations). They reportedly asked for specific employees, including the magazine’s editor-in-chief and its cartoonists, then proceeded to methodically shoot them.

Eight of the dead were journalists. The assassins also killed two police officers, as well as a guest of the magazine’s editorial board and an employee at the reception desk. Eleven others were wounded.

Charlie Hebdo had been firebombed in 2011 after the magazine published a caricature of Mohammed and had previously received threats for its unflinching and provocative depictions of Islam. Its journalists repeatedly had publicly expressed defiance at such intimidation.

“I am not afraid of reprisals,” Editor-in-Chief Stephane Charbonnier said after the firebombing. “I have no children, no wife, no car, no debt. It might sound a bit pompous, but I prefer to die on my feet rather than living on my knees.”

He was killed Wednesday.

The Tallahassee Democrat – Koch-funded positions raise serious concerns

As citizens of the United States, many of us worry about our right of free speech. But how often do we get stressed over academic freedom? What is academic freedom anyway? I know, it sounds like convoluted university mumbo-jumbo.

It isn’t, though. Trust me.

Academic freedom wasn’t even on my radar until FSU’s Presidential Search Advisory Committee voted to fast track John Thrasher as president of FSU. After that, academic freedom became my obsession.

Why? Because, it protects the professors’ and students’ right to seek, research and publish the truth. It guarantees us a role in the democratic governance of the university’s institutional life. Without academic freedom, there is no truth. Without truth, tyranny and corruption are all but guaranteed. Why should you care?

In 2011, after discovering the highly controversial 2008 contract between the Charles Koch Foundation (CKF) and FSU’s Department of Economics, FSU’s Faculty Senate put together a committee to address concerns about the CKF agreement and its challenges to academic freedom. The concerns arose because the 2008 agreement gave undue outside influence to CKF in areas of faculty hiring, oversight and curriculum control. The Senate’s review report made recommendations that appeared to be ignored until a second agreement, signed in 2013, was uncovered. The 2013 agreement was signed in secret, and many of the committee’s concerns were unaddressed.

Faculty recommendations included a suspension of hiring under the agreement until the advisory board included two faculty members and worked by majority. The 2013 agreement includes two faculty members and one CKF member, and demands a unanimous vote. The 2013 contract says that the selection of professorship positions must go through normal university processes of hire but before the hire takes place the information on the candidate must be put past CKF, which is under no obligation “to provide funding” to the selection.

The Tampa Tribune — Leave college presidents in control of guns on campuses

Two state lawmakers are pursuing legislation that would allow the holders of concealed weapons permits to carry their firearms on college campuses.

State Rep. Greg Steube, a Republican from Sarasota, has filed a bill to strike the campus prohibition from a law that prohibits weapons from being carried at other public venues, such as courthouses, city halls and elementary and secondary schools. The bill, which would keep the prohibition intact at those other venues, is being sponsored in the Senate by Greg Evers, a Republican from Baker.

Steube, a military veteran and son of Manatee Sheriff Brad Steube, says college campuses will be safer if people who undergo the training to obtain a concealed weapons permit are allowed to carry their firearms into the buildings and across the grounds at the state’s colleges and universities. He told us a victim wounded two months ago by the deranged shooter at Florida State University had a concealed permit but was unarmed and unable to defend himself because of the state law.

We understand his logic, but question whether the Legislature should force every college and university to allow armed students, faculty and visitors on their campuses. That’s a decision better left to the administrators and security forces at each of the state’s campuses. The outright prohibition can be overturned, but the decision to allow the weapons should be left to each campus.

This isn’t the first attempt to overturn the campus prohibition. Three years ago, a similar bill died after a fatal accidental shooting on the FSU campus caused one influential lawmaker to have second thoughts about its passage. FSU President John Thrasher, who at the time was a state senator, blocked the measure from becoming law.

And in 2013, the gun-rights group Florida Carry Inc. sued over rules prohibiting students from keeping guns in their dorm rooms. A circuit judge ruled against the group, which is appealing to a higher court.

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.