Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:
The Miami Herald on proposed riot-response legislation that is drawing criticism:
Proponents of Florida’s proposed “Combating Public Disorder” law are spinning it as a reaction to the violent mobs that stormed the nation’s Capitol on Jan. 6 to try to reverse the results of the presidential election.
But don’t be fooled. House Bill 1, a priority of the Republican leadership in Tallahassee, is redundant, racist and totally political. It’s aimed at Black Lives Matter and will make it dangerous for the movement’s supporters to take to the streets, however peacefully.
Gov. Ron DeSantis first pitched the idea in September, in the wake of summer protests over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and former President Trump’s calls for law enforcement to crack down on them.
Sponsors of HB 1 say it would target bad actors while protecting peaceful protesters, but the 60-page legislation “is problematic from beginning to end,” according to Micah Kubic, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. We agree.
Florida already has laws that punish violence, theft, burglary and vandalism committed at protests. Last year, protests in the Sunshine State mostly were peaceful. But HB 1 would impose harsher sentences if those crimes are committed during participation in a “riot” or “unlawful assembly,” which are loosely defined in the bill. The proposal also would make it a third-degree felony to cause $200 or more in damage to a monument (by that, read Confederate monument) and would create a slew of new crimes.
It would fill up jails by ordering that those deemed as rioters be detained with no bond until a first-appearance hearing.
Worse, it lets vigilantes and counter protesters who injure or kill those considered rioters escape liability in a civil lawsuit. (Kyle Rittenhouse, anyone?)
The Legislature has gone down this racist road before. In 2005, lawmakers passed Florida’s notorious Stand Your Ground law, which eliminated a person’s duty to retreat before using deadly force against a perceived threat. A 2017 law made it even harder to convict citizens claiming Stand Your Ground by shifting the onus on the prosecution to disprove a claim of self-defense in a hearing before a jury trial takes place.
Broward state Rep. Shevrin Jones, a Democrat, has filed for the second time a bill to repeal Stand Your Ground. Of course, the legislation is all but dead on arrival in the GOP-controlled Capitol, but it should start a conversation about how the law has been used.
In states with similar laws, homicides are deemed justifiable five times as often when the shooter is white and the victim Black than when the situation is reversed, according to Everytown USA, a gun-safety organization.
Therefore, it’s no wonder Black and brown communities fear HB 1 would disproportionately affect their ability to protest — and to live. Its sponsor, Rep. Juan Alfonso Fernandez-Barquin, R-Miami-Dade, dismissed that concern and told a House committee last month that any law could be applied disproportionately against a group, including minorities. It’s a tone-deaf response. Is he saying he’s OK with such bias in how the law is applied?
BIASED AGAINST BLACK PEOPLE
We already have seen how Black protesters have been treated differently under existing laws. When Black Lives Matter supporters got into a verbal confrontation in New Port Richey with the far-right group Proud Boys and other counter-protesters, only the former were cited for violating a noise ordinance, the Washington Post reported. Police in the Tampa suburb later dropped the citations.
The question remains on whether peaceful protesters attending a demonstration that turns violent could be deemed “rioters.”
Fernandez-Barquin told the House committee that he doesn’t believe that would be the case. It’s unfortunate that he’s turning a blind eye to reality. The ACLU and others point out it would be up to law enforcement to determine who is and isn’t participating in a riot and, therefore, subject to harsher punishment.
That’s critical, for HB 1 creates a new crime of “aggravated rioting,” defined as nine or more people who cause great bodily harm, damage property or endanger traffic “by force or threat of force.” Would “force” include a protester who stops drivers by saying, “I’ll kick your car door if you move?” That threat isn’t justifiable, but should it be punishable by up to 15 years in prison?
HB 1 won’t stop bad actors determined to cause mayhem. It will create bad actors, then let them off the hook. Like Stand Your Ground, it will have deadly consequences and, as history has shown, Black and brown people will likely pay the price.
The Orlando Sentinel on the need for more environmentalists on Florida's water management boards:
Just five months ago, some of Florida’s water management districts were barely hanging on, their governing boards so decimated that a couple of them couldn’t muster a quorum.
We’re happy to report that all five districts now have enough board members to hold meetings and take votes.
Gov. Ron DeSantis went on an appointment tear toward the end of 2020, naming more than a dozen people to positions that wield enormous influence over how Florida protects and uses its water resources.
The bad news is that the boards remain packed with development and agricultural interests, which wouldn’t be so much of a problem if they were complemented by board members whose life’s work was focused more on protecting water resources.
A review of DeSantis’ 33 appointments since he took office shows nearly half were people either in the real estate and development game or who make their living in agriculture or forestry.
Why is that significant? Because those industries often create a demand for water. In many cases they also generate pollution that has a direct impact on water quality. If that’s how the people on district boards make their living, it’s fair to ask what they priorities are.
Some of those appointees have legitimate environmental bona fides. Ron Bergeron, appointed to the South Florida Water Management District in 2019, is a wealthy road builder and home developer but also a fierce advocate for the Everglades. Another South Florida appointee, Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch, also has solid credentials.
Our St. Johns River Water Management board didn’t fare as well. Among the DeSantis appointments was Ron Howse, a Cocoa developer whose primary qualification is his generosity to the Friends of Ron DeSantis political committee.
Beyond development and agriculture, DeSantis’ picks have included a grab-bag of people in various businesses — a pawn broker in the Suwannee River district, a Chick-fil-A franchise owner in the Southwest Florida district, and a restaurant owner in the Northwest Florida district, Nick Patronis, who is the brother of Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis.
The governor has appointed some attorneys, too. And though none of their bios indicate work in environmental law, one of them, Cole Oliver of Brevard County, has been involved in efforts to restore the ailing Indian River Lagoon.
Missing in action, though, are environmentalists with the technical expertise to present arguments that might counter those of developers like Ron Howse.
They’re not hard to find. Florida is silly with residents who have made a life’s work of understanding how environmental systems work and what’s needed to ensure those systems continue to function.
One of them, Robert Knight, heads the nonprofit Florida Springs Institute near Gainesville, where experts study springs and ways to manage and protect them. Knight is a scientist with some four decades of aquatics knowledge in his head.
But when Knight applied for a position on the St. Johns board in 2019, he was passed over. Instead, DeSantis chose Daniel Davis, who ran Jacksonville’s chamber of commerce. Oddly, Davis was never confirmed by the state Senate and stepped down in May 2020.
He was replaced a few months later by attorney Rob Bradley, a powerful former state senator with a poor record on the environment over the last couple of years, according to the Sierra Club.
Robert Palmer was passed over for the St. Johns appointment, too. Palmer serves on the board of the Florida Springs Institute and his credentials include a doctorate in marine biology and serving more than a decade as staff director for the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.
Either of them would have brought genuine expertise to the table, particularly about Florida’s springs, which hasn’t captured the governor’s imagination in the same way the Everglades has. We’d like to have people like Knight or Palmer at the table when bottled water companies like Niagra come around asking for a permit to use Florida’s spring water.
There’s nothing wrong with having a robust discussion among governing board members who have varying points of view and different areas of expertise. Florida has a history of it, with environmental stalwarts like Nathaniel Reed and Bill Sadowski working alongside developers and farmers on boards.
Each of the state’s water districts ought to have at least one member with impeccable environmental credentials.
We still want to believe that DeSantis was serious about being a green governor. He’s definitely been an improvement over Rick Scott, but that is one low bar to clear.
DeSantis still has nine open positions to fill on water boards across Florida. Nine chances to do right by Florida’s environment and burnish his green credentials.
The Sun-Sentinel on efforts to privatize public education in Florida:
Florida’s public schools do not need what the Legislature almost certainly will give them this year.
That would be Senate Bill 48, the latest and most ambitious effort to privatize public education in Florida. If the content of the legislation is terrible, the timing is worse.
According to the Florida Department of Education, enrollment at traditional public schools was down 70,000 at mid-year from 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many parents — especially in South Florida — to keep their children home. Some districts aren’t sure where all those children are or whether they are even learning remotely.
Districts have incurred added expenses for new safety measures and for continuing to provide food that low-income students otherwise wouldn’t have. They don’t know whether the state will withhold money next year for students who don’t return to classrooms.
Districts thus need resources and reassurances from Tallahassee. Instead, they face another expansion of state-financed vouchers for private schools. Vouchers siphon money from traditional public schools.
Florida has five private scholarship programs. SB 48 would combine the two for students with disabilities — the Gardiner and McKay programs. We have no problem with that change. Those programs do not represent competition with traditional public schools.
More significantly, however, the legislation would change the school voucher program that runs on corporate tax revenue — which is diverted from the state treasury — and the one for students whose parents claim that their children have been bullied. They would become part of the Family Empowerment Scholarship Program. About 140,000 students are in those three programs.
The legislation, which was set to be heard by the Senate Education Committee last week, is about much more than consolidation, however. It would greatly expand eligibility for programs that supporters have said are aimed solely at poor parents whose children are trapped in “failing schools.”
SB 48 would widen voucher eligibility to families with incomes up to 300 percent over the federal poverty level. A family making about $80,000 a year could qualify. According to the Census Bureau, Florida’s median household income — half above, half below — in 2019 was about $56,000.
In 2014, the Legislature expanded the voucher program to incomes up to $62,000. In an editorial, the Sun Sentinel warned that the precedent could mean expansion to as much as $82,000. Vouchers supporters dismissed the possibility. But here we are.
In addition, SB 48 would allow parents to use public money for private school tuition, home schooling and college savings funds. The money could go for purchases such as laptops.
The Republican-led privatization effort revved up in 2006. The Florida Supreme Court — not yet packed with Federalist Society members — had struck down a voucher program that began under former Gov. Jeb Bush.
The court ruled, correctly, that the Florida Constitution does not allow public financing of private schools. So the Legislature got creative by allowing companies to get a tax credit — and earn political goodwill — by financing the program indirectly.
Two years ago, with Gov. DeSantis in place, the Legislature dropped even that pretense. The Family Empowerment Scholarship Program uses money directly from the state treasury. Now it will be the sole source of school vouchers. Tallahassee began it in 2019 when money for the corporate tax credit program came up short and expanded it last year.
Critics talked about a lawsuit. But a very different Florida Supreme Court would support the privatization push. Having the courts might be protection enough. But self-interested political influence also boosts the privatization campaign.
Step Up For Students is the non-profit entity that distributes the voucher money, taking a percentage for its services. President Doug Tuthill makes nearly $287,000 in salary, based on the group’s 2019 IRS 990 form.
John Kirtley is the unpaid chairman of Step Up For Students. He’s also co-chairman of the Florida Federation for Children, a political action committee that donated $1.4 million during the 2020 election cycle.
Then there’s Diaz himself. During six years in the House and two years in the Senate, he has been part of every charter school and voucher-related bill. In a public-minded, ethical Legislature, Diaz would be his own conflict of interest.
Diaz is chief operating officer of Doral College. As the Sun Sentinel reported in 2016, “Diaz has benefited personally to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars as charter schools owned by the for-profit Academica” pay Doral College — which also is affiliated with Academica — “for college courses that are not transferrable to any other school.”
Charter schools use public money, but are run by private entities. Every expansion of charters and vouchers could benefit Diaz. But because his bills apply to an entire industry, not just himself, he doesn’t violate Tallahassee’s loose ethics rules.
The Legislature could make helpful changes to the voucher program. Tallahassee could require that they give the same tests that traditional public school students must take. Such a comparison might show whether the schools actually are helping at-risk students.
But voucher supporters resist such accountability. Indeed, SB 48 would require an audit of Step Up For Students only every three years, not annually, as is the case now.
Voucher supporters have been politically savvy, making low-income, minority students the face of the program. But the privateers’ real ambitions always have been clear — and never more so than this year.