Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

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Aug. 26

The Palm Beach Post housing assistance from the CARES Act:

Desperation is mounting for thousands of homeowners and tenants in Palm Beach County who are falling farther behind on their mortgages and rent while landlords grow more miserable by the day.

Yet almost 90% of some $40 million provided to the county for housing assistance is yet to make into the hands of the people who need it.

The money is part of the $2 trillion federal CARES Act, which includes funds for property owners who have been impacted by COVID-19. For the past three months, county officials and housing advocates have struggled to advertise the program’s existence, which has hampered efforts to distribute the funds to eligible property owners.

“I’ve been trying since June to get the word out, and I haven’t found the magic to make it happen,” said Suzanne Cabrera, president and CEO of the Housing Leadership Council of Palm Beach County, a nonprofit that addresses affordable and workforce housing issues.

If there was ever a bottleneck that needs to be cleared, it’s this one.

The CARES Act provides up to $7,500 for rent and utilities and a maximum of $10,000 for mortgages to property owners who have been impacted by the virus. The key word here is “property owner,” as payments go directly to either the landlord or entity responsible for mortgage payments.

To date, the county has helped about 800 households and paid out almost $4 million. That’s a start, but not the numbers we’d like to see in helping residents stay in their homes.

Since Gov. Ron DeSantis first signed an evictions moratorium in April, there have been 1,366 evictions and 764 foreclosures filed here, according to the Palm Beach County Clerk of Courts. The current measure ends in six days. Given the problems with launching a new program to address an overwhelming need, the governor shouldn’t wait to extend the moratorium for another 60 days to allow localities more time to publicize the CARES program and dispense the money.

Clearly, there is confusion surrounding recent efforts to protect individuals from losing their homes. The CARES Act includes an evictions moratorium, but that expired last month. Florida’s moratorium only prevents the clerks of the court from issuing the legal notices needed to force tenants to vacate the property.

To offset any COVID-related financial losses due late mortgage, rent, utility and HOA payments, federal CARES Act money has been distributed to counties across the country. Funds are still available, but property owners — along with their tenants in the case of rental and utility relief — must apply online for benefits. (For more information regarding CARES mortgage assistance, Google “PBC CARES Mortgage Assistance Program.” For information on applying for rent and utility assistance, go to “CARES Act Assistance FAQ.”)

Like any government initiative, this program took time to set up and comes with enough eligibility requirements to deter a rush of applications. For example, applicants must prove that their inability to pay is COVID-related, either through a furlough, job loss or being infected by the virus. And landlords must work collaboratively with their tenants, as it’s the tenant who must apply while the landlord receives the CARES money.

“We want to slide these dollars out the door,” County Administrator Verdinia Baker told the Post Editorial Board. “But, if we don’t have the appropriate documentation when the auditors come in, we’re going to have to either take money, ad valorem dollars, from other programs to pay the feds back, or go after individuals and you can’t go after someone who doesn’t have anything.”

Baker says the county has worked with the federal government to simplify the application process. And, it’s teamed with community organizations to spread the word about the program and assist people in applying. She insists, however, that spending money on media ads would use funds for assistance, something she is reluctant to do. We disagree. Given the massive need and the unacceptable alternative, now is not the time to be pennywise and pound foolish.

Right now, the only thing standing in the way of further confusion, frustration and possible evictions is the governor’s soon-to-expire moratorium.

What housing advocates and local government officials need is enough time to come up with a way to speed up the distribution of the housing money that’s available, something a moratorium extension would allow.

Online: https://www.palmbeachpost.com/

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Aug. 26

The Miami Herald on Miami-Dade restaurant reopenings:

Ready or not, Miami-Dade is reopening restaurants — again.

On Tuesday, County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, under pressure from financially strained restaurant owners, announced that limited indoor seating will be allowed at eateries starting Monday.

The last time Miami-Dade reopened, a spike in COVID cases followed, as happened statewide. What will be different this time?

It’s true that in the past few days, coronavirus infection numbers have been dropping. Hospitalizations are down; so is the number of new cases. The county’s infection rate hovered near the red-line level of 10 percent.

There is reason for optimism, but not to let our guard down. This virus has nine lives — and has taken more than 2,200 in Miami-Dade alone.

Gimenez said at a news conference that he received the blessing from the top members of the White House coronavirus task force — Drs. Andrew Fauci and Deborah Birx — to, again, open dining rooms, which restaurant owners have been clamoring for to survive. We understand, but lives are at stake here.

STRICTER RULES

When restaurant doors swing open Monday, it will be under enhanced rules and regulations. Curfews remain in place.

Restaurant owners have been pushing for a second wave of reopenings and have agreed to take extra steps to maintain 50 percent of their business indoors. They will be required to ventilate by keeping doors and windows open and keep air-conditioners running to increase air flow; up to six people will be allowed at each table, inside or outside. Customers also must wear masks until drinks or food are served at a table, a tweak from the prior rule that waived masks when at restaurant tables.

Since July 9, emergency orders from the mayor have banned most indoor dining at commercial establishments — and dozens of restaurants have closed permanently under the financial strain.

“This is a first step; we’re going to take things cautiously,” Gimenez said. Enforcement is key. Restaurant workers should not be the first and last line of defense against defiant diners who refuse to wear masks. Law enforcement should be prepared to provide the heft.

Plus, asymptomatic diners are a real danger.

FINES IN HIALEAH

The mayor of Hialeah, Carlos Hernandez, announced Tuesday he would no longer prevent restaurants from opening their dining rooms in his city due to the hardship it has caused small business owners. Gimenez said if Hialeah eateries open earlier or do not follow the rules, the county will hand out fines in that city.

Gimenez is not alone in venturing toward normalizing life. Miami-Dade and Broward school superintendents also hinted this week they might be ready to end distance learning and reopen schools sooner than expected.

And even the Miami Dolphins and the Miami Hurricanes announced they’ll be letting in 20 percent of fans into the stands at Hard Rock Stadium when their seasons begin.

But there are also troubling numbers. At the University of Miami, some 140 students have come down with the virus, a clear outbreak.

“I’m very concerned. . . . I want to know what is the plan at the university to curtail what young people do,” said the mayor.

Gimenez’s decision to reopen more restaurants puts Miami-Dade in a vulnerable position again.

The last time restrictions were lifted, there was a second surge of pain and suffering. Yes, we need to save livelihoods, but not by putting lives in danger.

Online: https://www.miamiherald.com/

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Aug. 21

The Orlando Sentinel on unknown campaign contributions:

If you had dreamed up a campaign financing nightmare after the Citizens United ruling, it might have been Floridians for Equality & Justice.

Don’t be fooled by the political committee’s high-minded name. It was a dark money operation and Exhibit A for why state and federal governments need to start doing their jobs and restore public faith in American campaigns.

The Miami-based committee parachuted into the state Senate District 9 Democratic primary in late July, about a month before the election and armed with nearly a quarter-million dollars in mystery money.

State financial reporting documents normally would show where a political committee got so much cash.

Not this committee. Its one and only contribution entry was a “starting balance” of $249,925.54, with the contributor listed as the committee itself. Starting balance? What does that even mean?

We may not know where that money came from, but we know how it was spent. At least 15 mailers from the committee either attacked one of the Democrats, Patricia Sigman, or lauded one of the others, Rick Ashby. Sigman typically was identified as the Democrats’ “establishment” candidate, while Ashby received praise for his progressive policies.

The mailers themselves were the standard-issue, unimaginative rubbish you expect to find festering in your mailbox during election season. Less typical, but not unheard of, was the goal of the mailers, which almost certainly were intended to help a weaker, more liberal Democrat — Ashby — win the primary, giving the Republican in the general election — Jason Brodeur — a better shot in a purple Senate district.

It didn’t work. Sigman won 50% of the vote in the five-way primary, with Ashby coming in third.

The dirty politics don’t matter as much as the political committee’s brazen flouting of state rules.

In its three weeks of official existence, the committee sent out mailer after mailer trashing a candidate without ever revealing who was paying for the attacks, though it did file a couple of reports showing it spent more than $163,000 on its dirty work.

Once the Orlando Sentinel revealed what was going on, and after Florida Democrats filed a complaint with the Florida Elections Commission and the Miami-Dade state attorney, Floridians for Equality & Justice notified the state it was closing up shop.

Is this what Florida wants its elections to look like — shadowy organizations conducting nighttime raids on political races, armed with money that no one knows the source of, then melting into the background, accountable to no one?

We’ve seen this coming for a long time, this slow-motion deterioration of campaign accountability.

After the Citizens United decision unshackled corporate contributions in the name of free speech, the U.S. Supreme Court justices said not to worry.

“With the advent of the Internet, prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions and supporters,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority’s 2010 ruling.

Prompt? Disclosure? Information? Accountability? The public may have the internet but it has none of those other things Justice Kennedy promised, at least when it comes to the short-lived campaign against Patricia Sigman by Floridians for Equality & Justice. What we have is anonymity and murkiness.

Disclosure as the cure for near unlimited money is the big lie of Citizens United, made worse by weak-kneed state laws like Florida, which sanctions the equivalent of campaign money laundering.

In Broward County, for example, campaign attacks on incumbent state Sen. Perry Thurston, an influential Democrat who faced three primary challengers, were paid for by a political committee calling itself “Progressives.” That committee’s chairman and treasurer is William S. Jones, the former chairman of the Alachua County Republican Party.

Progressives got most of its money — $30,000 on July 4 — from a political action committee called “Social Justice,” which received $30,000 on July 3 from the “Foundation for a Safe Environment,” a nonprofit whose tax return said it was headed by the same person who chairs the Progressives Committee, William S. Jones. How circular.

The money trail goes cold after that because nonprofits don’t have to publicly disclose their donors.

See how the game works?

In the end, all we really get to see are a series of transactions, a shell game between committees and nonprofits usually under no legal obligation to reveal the true source of the money behind these campaigns. We don’t know — and probably never will — who wanted to see Sigman and Thurston lose so badly. (Perry also won his primary race, by the way.)

If they cared, there’s a lot Florida lawmakers could do. For starters they could outlaw the practice of washing donor money by letting committees contribute to other committees. That way, if a person or a company or an institution wants to support a committee’s cause, they can write a check and let the public judge whether they’ve done a good thing or not.

What we have in place now is a cancer on our election process. Floridians deserve to know who’s bankrolling political campaigns. Little surprise that lawmakers don’t share that sentiment, considering that might upset their big-money masters.

Online: https://www.orlandosentinel.com/