A round-up of Sunday editorials from Florida’s leading newspapers:
Tampa Bay Times — VA reforms will take time, money
It was only a matter of time before the political firestorm forced out Eric Shinseki, the Veterans Affairs secretary who resigned Friday. But his departure will not fix the health care scandal at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. President Barack Obama and Congress have to address the broader issues, which include determining how many VA facilities were falsifying records to hide long waiting lists and expanding the system to better meet the needs of military veterans.
While no one questioned the retired four-star Army general’s concern for veterans, Shinseki had to go as investigators confirmed a rash of allegations of misconduct at VA facilities. His departure clears the way for a more robust investigation and signals that those responsible for falsifying records and other misconduct will be held accountable.
There are plenty of places to start. An interim report released Wednesday by the VA’s inspector general found that 1,700 patients at the veterans medical center in Phoenix — where the scandal first erupted — were kept off a waiting list for care, which “significantly understated” the time veterans waited to get an appointment. A sampling of records also showed that veterans waited nearly five times as long for a primary care appointment as Phoenix administrators had reported, and that two times the reported number of patients were not seen within the 14-day target period.
The inspector general also announced that investigators had broadened their scope to 42 VA medical facilities. The agency has requested state records such as death certificates and autopsy results to help determine whether any delays factored into the fate of veterans who died while on a waiting list. A spokeswoman for the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa confirmed that the inspector general’s office visited the hospital last week, but officials would not say why.
Many veterans complain the problem is not the quality of care but access to it. The VA has an acute shortage of doctors as veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have helped increase demands for appointments to 85 million last year. The agency needs more money for clinical care and a more effective way of removing administrators who do not perform.
The Bradenton Herald — Scoff at hurricane preparations at own peril as season begins
June’s arrival brings more than hot and humid weather and months of sweat and rain. The six-month hurricane season is upon us once again, officially opening today.
So what, right? How many times can people hear the same drumbeat year after year about potential storms wreaking havoc on communities before it becomes just another “the sky is falling” mantra?
And that admonition to “be prepared”? Why bother, you might ask. Florida’s been hurricane free for almost a decade now. The last hurricane to strike the state was Wilma in 2005.
Can our good luck continue? Odds are bleak on that.
BayNews 9’s chief meteorologist Mike Clay articulated the conundrum, calling the lackadaisical mindset “hurricane amnesia” in a column in Herald’s annual Hurricane Survival Guide published on May 25.
The Daytona Beach News-Journal —Power politics dominates FSU search
John Thrasher may be the best candidate to become the next president of Florida State University. But that proposition is unlikely to be tested, because thanks to a rigged process, he’s likely to be the only genuine candidate for the job.
Thrasher, the St. Augustine Republican who represents Flagler County and part of Volusia County in the Florida Senate, was nominated to be head Seminole last week by former FSU President Sandy D’Alemberte. A university committee promptly suspended its search for other candidates until after it interviews Thrasher and decides whether to offer him the job.
Just how many people will apply for a position in which every indicator suggests those doing the hiring have already made up their minds?
Although he bleeds garnet and gold, and previously served on the FSU Board of Trustees, there’s no doubt about Thrasher’s primary appeal: his political clout. He is a former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida and a former speaker of the House. He’s also the chairman of Gov. Rick Scott’s re-election committee. His connections in the Legislature would give FSU formidable muscle in securing state funding.
The Florida Times-Union — Mayor should accept entire Scheu task force report
And paying your bills on time is the right thing to do.
Mayor Alvin Brown should endorse all of the major recommendations of the task force he appointed to study the city’s No. 1 financial challenge, its deeply underfunded police and fire pension system.
There is no reason to question the mayor’s good faith or sincerity in opposing tax increases.
But many of our civic leaders support the recommendations of the task force headed by Bill Scheu. So Brown has plenty of political cover.
And that’s no small thing.
After all, let’s never forget that Mayor Brown did not create this problem.
He inherited it.
The Gainesville Sun – Unacceptable risk
Given the gravity of the death penalty, government has to get it right. When mistakes are made, they can’t be taken back.
Yet as problems with the death penalty keep piling up, Florida has shown little interest in addressing them. Perversely, state lawmakers have tried to speed up executions.
The state has another reason to halt executions following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling this week. In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled that Florida’s test is too rigid for determining whether intellectually disabled individuals should be spared execution.
The court in 2002 banned the execution of people with intellectual disabilities, but let states determine who qualified. This week’s ruling found that Florida’s IQ score cutoff is unconstitutional, creating an unacceptable risk that someone with an intellectual disability will be executed.
The ruling is part of a trend toward limiting capital punishment. Nationally, executions dropped to a 20-year low in 2013. Maryland this year became the 18th state to ban executions. A botched execution in Oklahoma has led that state and others to suspend executions.
The Lakeland Ledger — CSX Industrial Park: Winter Haven Partnership
A request from the CSX railroad corporation to the city of Winter Haven to delay and split the purchase of city land for an industrial park carries more than one message.
One is that the park will take longer yet to come to life, and provide the commerce and accompanying jobs for which so many in Winter Haven yearn.
Another is that patience continues as a requirement. Although the city’s contract is for the sale of land, the practical result is a partnership. Its partners include CSX, companies with which the railroad is working to develop the industrial park and governmental regulators beyond those in the city. No party can dictate a precise and overarching outcome.
CSX asked the City Commission in a meeting Tuesday to break 932 acres of city property into two parcels — 531 acres for $8.5 million and 401 acres for $6.4 million. It also asked the commission to delay the purchase deadline, which had been June 1 for all the property to July 3 for purchase of the first parcel.
The commission approved the request by a 5-0 vote, reported The Ledger’s Miles Parks in an article Wednesday.
The changes were the 10th modification made to the contract.
The Miami Herald — It’s that time of year
A long-standing ritual begins Sunday.
Hurricane season is upon us again — Florida’s version of a never-ending Ground Hog Day.
But there’s good news in this cycle: The predictions call for the number of named storms through Nov. 30 at roughly 10, with five morphing into full-fledged hurricanes and only two of these actually threatening us.
And there’s encouraging news from the state’s largest insurer, Citizens Property Insurance: Its coffers are brimming and at the ready to withstand the financial hit of a Category 4, a la Hurricane Andrew.
We haven’t heard talk like that in a long time.
“Going into the 2014 hurricane season, we are in the best financial shape we’ve been since we were established in 2002,” company spokesman Michael Peltier told the Editorial Board.
That’s comforting news for the company’s 940,000 statewide homeowner policy holders — 458,000 of them live in Miami-Dade, Broward, Monroe and Palm Beach counties.
The devastating run of storms in 2004 and 2005, which depleted Citizens and the now $13 billion strong Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund, have faded from memory. And that lull in storms is one of the reasons Citizens has been able to repair its finances, replenishing its coffers to a current $7.3 billion surplus.
The Orlando Sentinel — Scott should remove secrecy around travels
When Rick Scott ran for governor of Florida in 2010, he promised to make government more accountable and more transparent — in part by selling the state’s two planes, then a symbol of government largesse.
Remember “Air Kottkamp?” The moniker stuck after the South Florida Sun Sentinel found former Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp had taken 365 flights aboard state planes during his first two years in office, two-thirds of them to and from his home of Fort Myers. But abuse-of-plane questions also dogged other state leaders, including former Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink.
The day Scott took office, he moved to sell the two planes and save the state an estimated $2.4 million in annual operating expenses. Because he is a man of means, the former hospital CEO said that he would travel in his private jet, instead.
Today, however, the governor faces ethics complaints because of the secrecy enveloping his travels. Rather than criticism for wasting taxpayer dollars on trips, the governor has brought on legitimate questions about his commitment to open government.
WFVT-Channel 9 recently investigated the governor’s air travels and found the records contain few, if any, details. Over the past two years, most records were incomplete or redacted to the point of uselessness.
Officially, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement does the redacting, blacking out the details of where the governor goes, when he leaves and with whom he meets. The agency says it’s a matter of keeping the governor safe. The department’s leaders, who answer to the governor, even refuse to release details of trips after the fact.
When Florida government owned its own planes, the records were open to the public. We knew where former Govs. Lawton Chiles, Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist traveled and with whom they were meeting. And none was deemed to face danger because of it. It strains credulity to suggest the governor’s life is at risk if citizens know the details of his travel and meetings — especially for trips that have already happened.
The Ocala StarBanner — The politics in FSU’s search
As Florida State University prepares to interview a politician to be its president, the University of Florida is trying the opposite approach.
UF trustees last week approved a 25-point list of qualifications that they’re seeking in the next university president. The job description calls for a leader with a “distinguished academic career.”
In contrast, Florida State’s presidential search committee has so far decided to interview only state Sen. John Thrasher for the job. The group has suspended its hunt for other candidates until Thrasher, a former Florida House speaker who chairs Gov. Rick Scott’s re-election campaign, is interviewed next month.
Thrasher also has had stints as state Republican Party chairman and as a lobbyist. His academic experience is limited to serving on Florida State’s board of trustees.
While the ability to raise money and work with lawmakers are qualities that a public university president needs, that UF is emphasizing academic experience in its credentials is laudable. But that doesn’t mean that politics has been taken out of its search process.
The Pensacola News-Journal — REAP helps to transform people
The United States “leads” the world in the percentage of the population it incarcerates. This statistic is not one of which we should be proud.
Most prisoners are not sentenced to life; they will return to the community sooner or later. Unfortunately, many inmates are released without job skills and lack a support system. They are disenfranchised and subtly ostracized by society. At this point, everyone loses. Former inmates resort back to criminal lifestyles, people are again victimized, and society pays economically as well as emotionally.
Recidivism, the rate at which released inmates return to prison, is a relevant issue. The cost to taxpayers to incarcerate is about $30,000 per year per inmate; recidivism also puts more stress on the already overburdened penal system.
On May 17, I had the privilege and pleasure of hearing Chief U.S. District Judge Casey Rodgers speak at the League of Women Voters Pensacola Bay Area annual meeting. Her topic: “Reducing Recidivism through Innovative Court Practices.” In north Florida, a program called Re-Entry Alliance Pensacola (REAP) is attempting to put a crimp in the recidivism rate. This program is offered to high-risk inmates who have been released under supervision, the federal equivalent to parole. The 18-month program offers cognitive training, mentoring and employment assistance. When the candidate successfully completes the program, he or she is offered early release from supervision.
One of the facets of the program in Pensacola is the REAP What You Sow Community Garden. Established as a means of social networking between program mentors and mentees, the garden is located at T and De Soto streets. The lot was donated by the Richardson Memorial United Methodist Church in exchange for labor; the garden provides produce for the feed-the-hungry mission of the church. Mayor Ashton Hayward embraces the program and backs Rodgers in this endeavor. Beautification is a fringe benefit to the Brownsville area.
The Palm Beach Post — Safety demands natural gas industry accept smart regulation
Fracking has become a dirty word as stories of contaminated wells, methane leaks and other unacceptable environmental damages have emerged.
But there’s another side to the natural gas story. A boom of natural gas production in the United States since 2008 has allowed the U.S. to cut its dependence on foreign fossil fuels, created over 2 million jobs and helped ignite an economic recovery in many job-thirsty parts of the nation, including Louisiana, Texas and Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, it has freed Florida’s skyline from its unsightly red-and-white smokestacks, and cut carbon emissions in the process.
The Panama City News-Herald — Spilling another spy’s name
Employees of the CIA are learning that the gravest threats to their covert identities, the people most likely to publicly identify them and put them in danger, are not dastardly foreign agents or even NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. No, the people most likely to blow a CIA agent’s cover are clueless bureaucrats and spiteful politicians.
Case in point: the Obama administration’s bumbling release of the name of the CIA’s top guy in Afghanistan.
Staffers at the U.S. embassy included the CIA officer’s name on a list of 15 senior American officials who met with President Obama during the president’s Memorial Day weekend visit to Bagram Air Field. The list was emailed to a Washington Post reporter representing the news media. The reporter sent it to the White House to check for accuracy, and even after this second chance to quash the list, the White House OK’d it. So the reporter forwarded the list to the White House press pool — as many as 6,000 recipients.
Once the error was realized, The Associated Press and other news organizations agreed not to publish the CIA’s officer’s name.
Valerie Plame, we imagine, can sympathize.
Ms. Plame was a CIA operative. Her husband was a critic of the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq. In the summer of 2003, syndicated columnist Robert Novak mentioned in his column that Ms. Plame worked for the CIA.
The Tallahassee Democrat – Hurricane season
Even if you’ve moved to Florida since 2005 or you can barely remember a storm named Wilma that year, you should know what today is: the official start of the Atlantic hurricane season.
The hurricane season runs from June 1 through Nov. 30, and though storms don’t necessarily respect the calendar, those are six months when every Floridian should be prepared to deal with disaster.
This year, forecasters see a less active season than usual, due in part to the expected formation of an El Nino in the Pacific Ocean. The National Hurricane Center says there is a 70-percent probability that there will be between eight and 13 named storms, three to six hurricanes and one or two major hurricanes. The popular Colorado State University team of William Gray and Phillip Klotzbach predicts nine named storms, three hurricanes and one major hurricane. The Weather Channel predicts 11 named storms, five hurricanes and two major hurricanes.
Now forget those numbers.
Predictions are great for getting people’s attention, but they are useless when it comes to knowing whether you will face a tropical storm or hurricane this season. Florida State University meteorology professor Peter Ray, who sends out popular email alerts over the course of the season, says “predictions are really only educated guesses. In truth, there should be little emphasis on ‘educated’ and a lot of emphasis on ‘guesses.’ ”
Florida has had an incredible run of luck, with nary a hurricane making landfall in the state since 2005. It takes only one to end that run.
Many agencies prepared to help. The joint Leon County/Tallahassee Public Safety Complex will be a hub of activity if a storm threatens, with representatives from city and county government, the sheriff’s office, the Red Cross, the National Weather Service and emergency management personnel from Leon, Franklin, Gadsden, Jefferson, Liberty, Madison, Taylor and Wakulla counties.
The Tampa Tribune — Revamped HART would give transportation directions
Local elected leaders have agreed on a thoughtful transportation oversight structure that should benefit commuters, taxpayers and the economy. They deserve credit for concentrating on the community’s needs, not jurisdictional turf guarding.
The arrangement should bring desperately needed collaboration, efficiency and accountability to transportation decisions.
Gridlock-plagued Hillsborough County, expected to add another 500,000 residents in the next 20 years, can ill afford to cling to the status quo. So the Hillsborough Transportation Leadership Policy Group had good reason to recommend a new approach.
The group — made up of the county commissioners and the mayors of Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City — voted Wednesday to transform HART (Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority) from a bus agency into one that could implement a comprehensive transportation strategy.
As Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe says, “With this kind of coordination and collaboration, we can move quickly to address problems.”
In the past, local governments mostly acted independently, and transportation decisions often were driven by short-sighted parochial concerns.
There was inadequate attention on developing a system that would best serve residents and commerce throughout the community.