A roundup of Sunday editorials from Florida’s leading newspapers:
Tampa Bay Times — Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination
With much of the attention during this unpredictable presidential campaign focused on conservative Republicans eager to back an uncompromising outsider, many Democrats are just as determined to buck the establishment and pursue a more liberal direction. The battle between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination has been surprisingly close and could stretch beyond Florida’s March 15 primary. But only Clinton has the skill and experience to appeal to general election voters and build on President Barack Obama’s record.
The frustration over the economic recovery that benefits too few Americans, the shortcomings of health care reform and the high cost of college education is genuine. So are the concerns about global terrorism, personal security at home and the nation’s relationships with old adversaries abroad. Democrats are as worried about these issues as Republicans, and they are just as hungry for real change in gridlocked Washington.
Clinton is clearly the best prepared to achieve results in each of those areas. She has long been a persuasive advocate for women, minorities and middle-income families. She knows the gritty specifics of health care policy, and she gained extensive foreign policy experience as secretary of state. The former first lady and U.S. senator is a planner, a detail-oriented leader with refined positions that are not easily condensed into an applause line. She also has demonstrated her skill as a negotiator and as a determined advocate in all sorts of situations over a lifetime in the public eye.
Bradenton Herald — Padi’s dog-bite defense legislation now in hands of Gov. Scott
This should be a slam-dunk for Gov. Rick Scott. The Severe Injuries Caused by Dogs legislation — inspired by Padi, a Manatee County male Labrador mix who bit off part of a child’s ear last summer — won unanimous approval in both the House and Senate, the latter passing the measure Thursday. The bill now awaits the governor’s signature.
The legislation brings common sense and due process to state law by giving dog owners the right to mount a defense in severe bite cases. Hearing officers thus have discretion in determining the fate of canines instead of automatically ordering the death penalty as required under the old law. That statute was deemed unconstitutional after Paul Gartenberg, a veterinarian and Padi’s owner, took Manatee County to court to save Padi. The canine is now free.
Kudos to state Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, who filed the bill after the Padi controversy exploded across social media and blogs around the country.
The uproar in Manatee County over the initial decision to euthanize Padi turned ugly with the unwarranted anger directed at Manatee County commissioners, who were handcuffed by the old law. The county was not misinterpreting the law, as the court case proved. The county attorney even sided with Gartenberg in the court case.
“This is going to help a lot of animals,” Gartenberg told Herald reporter Kate Irby after the Senate vote. “It wasn’t just the micro issue of getting Padi back, but this macro issue of this being about all animals. It’s amazing this law stood for 25 years.”
The Daytona Beach News-Journal — Don’t undermine access to records
One little word can cast a lot of shade. And when lawmakers are tampering with Florida’s Sunshine laws, shade is bad news.
Lawmakers want to weaken one of the most potent provisions in the state’s open-records statutes — the law that puts public agencies on the hook for attorney’s fees if they deny access to records. Under the law, when a judge finds that an agency wrongfully withheld records, the person requesting records is entitled to attorney’s fees. That law is meant to make state and local governmental officials hesitate before denying access to records that should be public.
A bill pending in the state House would change one word — from “shall” to “may” — making it optional for judges to award fees. Proponents of the legislation say it’s necessary to stop a “cottage industry” of provocateurs that try to strangle governments with repetitive requests and lawsuits, but they’ve failed to prove that threat is significant enough to hamstring the vast majority of Floridians who just want access to records. Bill advocates, including the Florida League of Cities and Deltona City Commissioner Heidi Herzberg, president of the Volusia League of Cities, would also like to downplay the chilling effect this legislation would have. But they can’t deny the implied threat to citizens who challenge their governments.
That’s not the only problem with the legislation (HB 1021). It would give governments five business days to comply with records requests before any legal action could be taken — even if the records could be produced in a few minutes. And it would require requests to be addressed to the “custodian” of a particular record, but doesn’t require agencies to identify who that custodian may be.
The Florida Times-Union — Major changes needed to prorect imprisoned juveniles from abuse
The violence that stalks the corridors and rooms of Florida’s youthful offender prisons was never supposed to occur.
In fact, the original notion behind establishing such prisons in the state was to protect the younger offenders from coming into contact with the violence perpetrated by older, more criminally experienced inmates.
The idea was to give youthful offenders a break, protecting them while providing them with rehabilitation in addition to their punishment. The youthful offenders in these facilities are generally under 25 and have been sentenced to 10 years or less.
The creation of youthful offender prisons was an encouraging move many hoped would improve the young inmates’ rehabilitation and keep them safe.
It has largely failed to meet expectations.
Florida Today – Best and worst from the Legislature so far
We’re halfway through Florida’s legislative session and time for a half-time recap.
The top priorities of the Senate President and the House speaker — expanding opportunities for the developmentally disabled and an agriculture-friendly water policy — have made it to the governor’s desk. The House and Senate appear to be working toward some of the governor’s priorities and, surprisingly after the last few acrimonious sessions, working pretty well together.
Many Floridians don’t necessarily have the time or know how to keep up with the legislative policy changes or how their tax dollars are being spent. And it’s easy to fool people when they’re not really paying attention.
Here’s my take on some of the best and worst of the legislative session so far.
Senate Bill 228 makes changes to the 10-20-Life law that unintentionally led to disproportionately long and unjust prison sentences even when no one was harmed. Mandatory 20-year sentences were given to individuals firing warning shots even when they feared for their safety or that of their family. Giving greater discretion to judges by removing minimum mandatory sentences is a better long-term fix, but this change of removing the crime of aggravated assault from the mandated sentence is certainly a step in the right direction. Kudos to state Sen. Aaron Bean and state Rep. Neil Combee.
The Gainesville Sun – Cheers and jeers
Just past the midway point of the state legislative session, the Florida Senate has provided a few cases in which common sense prevailed but also some disappointing decisions.
Jeer: The state Senate Judiciary Committee, for failing to pass protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals that have been languishing for a decade. SB 120 would expand existing state civil rights law to ban discrimination against LGBT individuals in employment, housing and public accommodations.
It took about 10 years for the measure to even get a vote — and when it did this week, the Judiciary Committee deadlocked in a 5-5 tie. Two Republicans joined with the three Democrats on the committee in backing the measure, but the remaining five Republicans voted against it.
Some of those Republicans justified their opposition by raising concerns about male predators posing as transgender people to use women’s restrooms and locker rooms. We saw similar rhetoric used against LGBT protections in Gainesville. The eight years since those protections were put in place have proven the claims were completely wrong.
The Lakeland Ledger — DEP’s dismissal of Winter Haven is wrong
Politico Florida reported earlier this week that the Florida House’s proposed budget contained $238 million in “member projects,” or what is more commonly known as pork. If these projects survive the budget negotiations intact, we wouldn’t be surprised if much, or all, of the list ends up being dubbed “turkeys” by Florida TaxWatch, the Tallahassee-based watchdog group whose relentless questioning of dubious projects over the years has pretty much wrung such initiatives out of the state’s annual spending plan.
Even though the proposed list is only about 11 percent of the total requested by House members, TaxWatch would be justified in some cases in handing down its undesired designation. House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, for instance, wants $600,000 for the U.S. Space Walk of Fame Museum, and Rep. Tom Goodsen, R-Titusville, seeks $3 million for a parking garage at the Historic Cocoa Village Playhouse. This is stuff we need when we have one of the nation’s biggest populations without healthcare insurance and crumbling schools?
But what caught our eye was the project topping the list: State Rep. John Wood’s request for $2.3 million for the Florida Citrus Building in Winter Haven. The Winter Haven Republican’s plea demonstrates that one lawmaker’s pork is another’s vital need.
Wood made the request in an effort to help the city of Winter Haven acquire the Nora Mayo Hall, the main auditorium at the Florida Citrus Building campus that city officials have eyed for years. The 66,000-square-foot facility, which can accommodate up to 1,000 people for community events, is ideally situated in Winter Haven and is the largest venue available for public functions within eastern Polk County.
Miami Herald —Florida needs a new death penalty
When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida’s death penalty law last month, the state was left without a functioning capital punishment statute. So here’s our modest suggestion: If Florida must have a death penalty — some polls suggest most Floridians don’t want one at all — make sure it can pass constitutional muster, or else prepare for many more years of litigation.
In an 8-1 ruling written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, with only Justice Samuel Alito dissenting, the court found Florida’s law violated the Sixth Amendment because judges, not juries, make the final decision imposing the death penalty.
Lawyers for the state claimed there were many reasons to uphold the state statute, but Justice Sotomayor dismissed them with one pithy remark: “None holds water.” That’s a message to state lawmakers: Go back to drawing board and come up with a new law that can safely withstand constitutional scrutiny.
At a minimum, such a law must require jurors’ unanimity in death penalties. This was not addressed explicitly by the court, but common sense suggests that if the new statute lacks this crucial rule, the nation’s highest court will eventually turn thumbs-down again on the Florida death penalty statute.
Orlando Sentinel —Many learn differently
Florida Senate President Andy Gardiner has made education for individuals with disabilities a priority in Tallahassee. But this week, George Hagerty, the president of Beacon College in Leesburg, will be in Washington, D.C., to share his insights as head of the first accredited higher-education institution to award bachelor’s degrees exclusively to students with learning disabilities, ADHD and high-functioning autism-spectrum disorders. We recently conducted an email interview with Hagerty; an excerpt follows. A full transcript is at OrlandoSentinel.com/opinion.
Q: You are going to Washington this week. What explains the timing of your trip, and what’s on the agenda?
A: Beacon College will deliver a briefing for congressional staffers responsible for education and related policy issues. The reauthorization of the Higher Education Act will soon become a congressional priority. Increasingly, high-school graduates with learning disabilities and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder are seeking a postsecondary education. Actually, the most recent federal Longitudinal Transition Study shows that the proportional growth in the percentage of students who learn differently entering our colleges and universities exceeds a similar rate for the general population of high-school graduates. With Beacon’s exclusive mission of serving students who learn differently and our unparalleled student outcomes we believe — as do many in Congress — that we have considerable knowledge to share nationally.
Q: What are you hoping that Beacon’s briefing will help accomplish?
Ocala StarBanner —Flaws in the criminal justice system
Each year, the National Registry of Exonerations presents a report that should give pause to anyone who serves on a jury: It’s an annual tally of people cleared of wrongful convictions.
In 2015, there were 149 such exonerations, the organization reported this month. That’s a record.
The cases ranged from low-level drug offenses to murder. False confessions, official misconduct and faulty assumptions based on weak science were among the main causes for these wrongful convictions. It often took years to unearth the truth.
It’s long been understood that the criminal justice system is vulnerable to human failings. Yet it remains shocking to see confirmation — year after year — of errors and deliberate misconduct. The true toll of wrongful convictions is likely vastly understated, the report noted.
Pensacola News-Journal — Leave state parks alone
Since 1940, a national nonprofit group called American Forests has been scouring the U.S., looking for the biggest trees in the land. When they find a big tree, they make measurements, compare with other known specimens, and finally record the biggest as Champion Trees. And guess what? Florida has more national champion trees than any other state.
There’s a national Champion scrub hickory in Seminole State Forest that’s 61 feet tall and 6-feet around, and a Champion slash pine in North Florida that’s as tall as a 13-story building with a trunk that’s a full 12 feet around. Not surprisingly, Florida holds the national record for several varieties of Champion palm trees in South Florida.
I’m thinking quite a bit lately about all these trees that have grown for decades in the Florida sunshine, because I’m hoping we citizens can raise our voices to stop a wrong-headed state plan that would open our state parks to industrial logging. That’s right, the current administration in Tallahassee wants to let private companies come in and log our state parks. We’ve always had a little logging in state parks, but the purpose was always to restore native forest conditions – not solely to make a buck.
It’s important to note that there are plenty of other places to harvest timber in Florida. The state, for example, allows timber companies to conduct big-time logging operations on over a million acres of our state forests. Our state forests are a separate entity from our state parks. Part of the state forest mission is to grow trees for timber harvesting. Last year, the Florida Forest Service projected it would earn over $6 million selling timber off state forests. That makes sense, because the state forests have a mission that allows for such uses.
The Palm Beach Post —Progressives are itching to regulate free speech
Bernie Sanders, greedy for power to punish people he considers greedy, has occasioned 2016’s best joke: “In the Bernie Sanders drinking game, every time he mentions a free government program, you drink someone else’s beer.” But neither Sanders’ nor Hillary Clinton’s hostility to the First Amendment is amusing.
Both have voted to do something never done before — make the Bill of Rights less protective. They favor amending the First Amendment to permit government regulation of political campaign speech. Hence they embrace progressivism’s logic, as it has been explained separately, and disapprovingly, by two eminent economists, Ronald Coase and Aaron Director:
There is no reason the regulatory, redistributive state should distinguish between various markets. So, government that is competent and duty-bound to regulate markets for goods and services to promote social justice is competent and duty-bound to regulate the marketplace of ideas for the same purpose.
Sanders and Clinton detest the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which they say their court nominees will promise to reverse. It held that unions and corporations — especially incorporated advocacy groups, from the National Rifle Association to the Sierra Club — can engage in unregulated spending on political advocacy that is not coordinated with candidates or campaigns. The decision simply recognized that Americans do not forfeit their First Amendment rights when they come together in incorporated entities to magnify their voices by speaking collectively.
The Panama City News-Herald — Presidential visit to Islamic center carries on heartening tradition
As an American Muslim, it was heartening to see yet another President visit an Islamic center last week and highlight the pluralism that is the hallmark of America.
According to White House documents, the first record of a presidential visit to a mosque in the U.S. begins with President Eisenhower. In more recent memory, President George W. Bush also visited a mosque in September 2001. In his remarks after his visit to the Islamic Center of Washington D.C., President Bush stated: “This (United States of America) is a great country. It’s a great country because we share the same values of respect and dignity and human worth.”
Similarly, President Obama concluded his visit to the Islamic Society of Baltimore with important words that underscore the similarities amongst people of faith: “We are all God’s children. We’re all born equal, with inherent dignity.” As such, he called upon all Americans to recognize their connection with one another as believers and human beings: … So often, we focus on our outward differences and we forget how much we share. Christians, Jews, Muslims — we’re all, under our faiths, descendants of Abraham. So mere tolerance of different religions is not enough. Our faiths summon us to embrace our common humanity,” he said.
While some might dismiss the President’s statement as typically political, I found his appeal to followers of all faiths to defend one another to be particularly significant. It is our collective responsibility as Muslims, Jews, Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, followers of any other religion, or followers of no religion, to denounce and condemn hate against anyone based on their beliefs. Be it crimes against Muslims in America, attacks on Christians in the Middle East, or anti-Semitism in Europe, the President urges us: “(…) to understand an attack on one faith is an attack on all our faiths. And when any religious group is targeted, we all have a responsibility to speak up. And we have to reject a politics that seeks to manipulate prejudice or bias, and targets people because of religion… We have to be consistent in condemning hateful rhetoric and violence against everyone.”
South Florida Sun Sentinel – Changes ahead in alimony, child custody
On Valentine’s Day, we hope you are celebrating romance and marriage, which can be the sources of life’s greatest joy. But there is another side — the breakup of a marriage — which too often is the source of heartache, anger, fear, financial security and injustice.
Because the Legislature is dealing with divorce and alimony, so must we. Add disputes over minor children, and the urgency is even more apparent.
We are not going to pretend that disputes so fraught with emotion can be settled to everyone’s satisfaction. We are not going to pretend that, in every case, alimony and custody reforms advancing in the Florida Legislature are going to end the injustices that mar the current rules. Overall, though, the reforms will treat all parties in a divorce — both spouses and any children — more fairly.
The reforms do this by changing some basic assumptions and by establishing guidelines that, while flexible, will result in similar outcomes in similar cases.
The Tallahassee Democrat – Time to clear the air on the FAMU campus
Florida A&M University ought to move quickly in snuffing out tobacco use on campus, waving off any silly smokescreen about some supposed “smokers’ rights.”
Since the mid-1980s, the state’s “clean indoor air act” inched ahead in restricting smoking in malls, offices, restaurants and bars, despite well-financed opposition from the tobacco industry. Voters overwhelmingly approved a “smoke-free workplace” constitutional amendment that forbids lighting up in enclosed areas where people work – except for some stand-alone bars and a few other places.
Now FAMU has begun the slow process of forbidding smoking anywhere on its campus. Florida State did so in 2014 after years of incremental movement.
Mary Simmons, director of the cardiopulmonary science division of FAMU’s School of Allied Health, is heading the effort. The faculty Senate has agreed to form a committee to explore the idea.
The Tampa Tribune — Taking it to the parks
Floridians who love the state park system plan to gather at parks across the Sunshine State today to send a critical message to state officials:
Do not ruin these treasures — and the wonderful experiences they provide — by turning them into “profit centers” for timber harvesting, cattle grazing and other incompatible activities.
It is profoundly sad that citizens have to rally to persuade state officials — most notably, Jon Steverson, secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection — not to ruin a nationally award-winning parks system.
Clearly, Steverson has his head in the sand with dunderheaded thinking that state parks need to be self-sufficient by expanding and introducing activities that would harm them. His refusal to listen to pleas from residents, former state parks and DEP employees, and some skeptical lawmakers shows appalling arrogance.