Sun Sentinel. April 30, 2021.

Editorial: Florida’s shame: Ten terrible decisions by a broken Legislature

The 2021 session of the Legislature ended Friday — and not a moment too soon.

The policy wreckage lawmakers leave behind is astounding in its scope. It hurts working families, punishes kids and is downright mean. This session exposes the tragic consequences of arrogant one-party Republican dominance in a Capitol closed off to the public it represents.

Where to begin? Let’s start at the beginning with House Bill 1, the No. 1 priority of Gov. Ron DeSantis. More than any legislator, the governor bears the most responsibility for this shameful body of legislative work. His fingerprints are everywhere.

‘Anti-riot’: A trifecta of stupidity: a racially motivated attack on citizens’ First Amendment rights, a national embarrassment and a disaster waiting to happen. Under the pretense of public safety, this law provides legal immunity to crazies who drive SUVs into crowds of protesters. Signed into law by DeSantis before a conspicuously all-white crowd, this monstrosity is a device to advance his presidential hopes. Floridians will suffer just so DeSantis can spout right-wing “law and order” talking points on Fox News.

Big Tech: Rubber-stamping another DeSantis priority, Republicans imposed new regulations on social media platforms with fines of up to $250,000 a day for de-platforming or censoring politicians (SB 7072). We condemn censorship, but Republican politicians are the last ones who qualify as protectors of speech (see HB 1, above). This is a distraction from the real problems Floridians face, a sop to Donald Trump and his followers, could protect hate speech and is probably unconstitutional. Lawmakers added a carve-out for any social media channel whose owner also has a theme park, which shows their real priority is deep-pocketed donors like Disney, not Fox News viewers.

Elections: Republicans won big in Florida in 2020, but they’re jittery about how many Democrats voted by mail. So they insisted on a partisan crackdown on mail ballots and the use of drop boxes that Democrats favored in 2020. The GOP shunned voter advocates and local election supervisors and silenced opponents at hearings in Tallahassee. These unnecessary restrictions will be attacked in court and should be. The state association of election supervisors said Friday the bill (SB 90) will make it harder for people to vote.

Guns: Even an NRA neutered by its own misdeeds can’t make lawmakers show any gun sanity. They legalized guns in churches that share property with schools (HB 259) and expanded a decades-old preemption of local gun regulations (SB 1884) by adding unwritten gun policies, such as verbal instructions to local police officers.

Preemptions: You name it, power-hungry politicians in Tallahassee want to control it at the expense of cities and counties, from guns (SB 1844) to energy policy (HB 919) to seaports (SB 1194) to home-based businesses (HB 403). The latter guts local oversight and makes it easier for the guy next door to open an auto body repair shop or massage parlor. It’s total overkill, a glaring contradiction to the small-government idea that government closest to the people governs best. If you want to fight City Hall, head for Tallahassee.

Transgender kids: For sheer cruelty, this one beats them all. Republicans revived a bill thought dead and used their raw power to ram through a ban on transgender female athletes competing in girls’ and women’s high-school and college sports (SB 1028), sticking it in a charter school bill. This heartless ostracizing of a marginalized community took place despite protests from Democrats, such as Sen. Victor Torres, D-Orlando, who made a deeply moving speech about his trans granddaughter. “We don’t need this!” Torres shouted. “But obviously some don’t care.” No, they don’t.

Unemployment: Despite billions of dollars from the Biden administration, stingy lawmakers refused to raise Florida’s jobless benefits. They will remain $275 a week for a maximum of 12 weeks, among the lowest of any state (HB 1463). And the long-overdue collection of sales taxes on sales by out-of-state online retailers (SB 50) won’t help working people. The $1 billion a year will replenish the fund that pays jobless benefits, making it a Republican giveaway to businesses who normally support the fund through unemployment premium taxes.

Vaccines: Pandering to the anti-vaxxer crowd, lawmakers banned so-called vaccine passports, making a misguided DeSantis executive order permanent (SB 2006) and trampling on counties where the COVID-19 virus has been harder to control — especially South Florida. The result means that businesses, schools and governments cannot force people to prove they’ve been vaccinated.

Vaping: Republicans tried to fool the public into thinking they were doing something by raising the age to smoke and vape from 18 to 21 (SB 1080). But that’s already in federal law. What the bill really does is wipe out stronger local regulations to curtail marketing and sale of tobacco and vaping products (more preemption). To no one’s surprise, makers of e-cigarettes are reliable donors to political campaigns. (more kowtowing to moneyed interests).

Vouchers: The privatization of public education continues. Lawmakers expanded school vouchers so more parents can send their children to private schools at public expense. A bill (HB 7045) consolidates two popular scholarship programs for special needs students with a third program for low- and middle-income families and expands eligibility to incomes of nearly $100,000 for a family of four. At the same time, lawmakers cut a $600 book stipend for some Bright Futures scholarship recipients.

This year marks the 25th year of Republican control of both houses of the Legislature. The GOP secured a majority in the Senate in 1994 and the House in 1996. This is no way to mark that milestone. The Florida Legislature is broken, and the only fix is at the ballot box, starting next year.


Miami Herald. May 4, 2021.

Editorial: If DeSantis truly believes in law and order, he’ll sign Florida’s hard-won police-reform bill

Halfway through Florida’s 60-day legislative session, this Editorial Board declared lawmakers were pushing an anti-people agenda.

We’re not here to retract that statement. Lawmakers did, after all, wrap up their work on Friday after passing an unnecessary “anti-riot” bill that will have a chilling effect on people’s right to protest; reversing the will of Key West voters who limited cruises at the city’s port; and banning transgender athletes from women’s sports.

But a late-session police-reform package turned out to be this session’s biggest, and most encouraging, surprise (Passing legislation to improve a program that aids families with children who were brain-damaged at birth — and whose shortcomings were well documented in a Herald series — also is deserving of an honorable mention).

It is remarkable that a Legislature that has taken a sharp turn to the ideological right passed anything that will increase police accountability. The Editorial Board now urges the governor to sign this thoughtfully and thoroughly negotiated House Bill 7051 into law. This law-and-order governor who went over and beyond in stifling protests, should insist on law and order within police departments, too.

There are things in the bill that lawmakers can be proud of:

▪ A requirement that law-enforcement job applicants disclose whether they are under investigation by another agency for wrongdoing. That will help prevent bad apples from changing jobs to evade accountability.

▪ A requirement that agencies report to the state shootings and use-of-force incidents that result in death or serious injury. This will provide crucial data for future reforms (assuming there’s legislative appetite for that).

▪ A requirement that an outside agency investigate police-involved shootings and a ban on the arrest of children younger than 7 years old. (Though should kids 8 to 12 years of age be arrested except for the most egregious of acts?)

▪ State standards for use-of-force, de-escalation and mental-health training and a requirement that officers intervene when they see another officer use force inappropriately.


It’s a no-brainer that Gov. Ron DeSantis, who’s remained mum on this issue, should sign HB 7051. Let’s hope that if, and when, that happens he does it with the same fanfare surrounding the signing of the infamous “anti-riot” bill, HB 1.

But let’s also be clear: HB 7051 is no sweeping reform. It is, in the words of advocates who spoke to the Editorial Board, a “start.”

“It’s a start, but my deepest concern is that instead of this being a start, this is the end from a legislative perspective in Tallahassee,” Melba Pearson, policy director at FIU’s Center for the Administration of Justice and a former prosecutor told the Editorial Board.

The legislation sets the floor for training, but it doesn’t say how that will take place or how stringent the standards should be — that will up to the Florida Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission. It also puts into law what some law-enforcement agencies in Miami-Dade and elsewhere in Florida already are doing on their own, so it’s unclear what it will actually accomplish in those jurisdictions.


The bill limits the use of choke holds, which police departments in Miami-Dade, the city of Miami and Hialeah have already done. The duty to intervene and de-escalation training already are policy at the city of Miami Police Department, thanks in part to a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice in 2016 after a string of fatal shootings of Black men. The Miami-Dade Police Department also provides de-escalation training, and officers must exhaust all other alternatives before firing a weapon, the Herald has reported.

When it comes to police-involved death investigations, most agencies in Florida and Miami-Dade County already use the Florida Department of Law Enforcement or an outside agency, as HB 7051 requires.

Still, putting these requirements into state law is important because it creates uniformity across the hundreds of police departments and sheriff’s offices in Florida. Here’s an example of why that matters: The Brevard County Sheriff’s Office in Central Florida notoriously refused to bring in the FDLE to look into the death of an Army veteran in the county jail (the FDLE later reviewed the sheriff’s in-house investigation and said it was complete and thorough).

“The good thing about this bill is that it pushes for standardization, and I think standardization is a very good thing especially when it comes to policing, and just the criminal justice system in general, because it starts to eliminate disparity in treatment,” Pearson said.

However, bringing in the FDLE, another police department or a state attorney’s office to conduct these investigations isn’t a fool-proof solution. States attorney and police departments often have close relationships with each other. The role of civilian oversight is missing from the bill, said Rodney Jacobs, assistant director of Miami’s Civilian Investigative Panel, which reviews complaints of abuse filed against officers.

Like with most legislation, the devil is in how HB 7051 will be implemented. While “training” has become a buzz word in talks of police reform, not all training is the same — a couple of hours mandated each year won’t really move the needle, Jacobs told the Board.


Another important issue: Gathering use-of-force data as the bill would require is “very important,” but Jacobs pointed out that, “Police departments aren’t very good at collecting data.” It remains to be seen how quickly and efficiently the FDLE will be able to create a database. When the Legislature tasked the agency in 2018 with creating a database for statewide arrests and other information, it missed several deadlines, the Florida Times-Union reported last year.

With HB 7051, lawmaker reached for the low-hanging fruit. If they are serious about police reform that will have meaningful impact, they will return in following years and look at making the use of body cameras mandatory — and providing funding for that — and making it easier to de-certify and/or prosecute officers with a history of abuse.

Their overall goal should be to reduce unnecessary encounters with law enforcement by approaching police reform from a “public health” perspective, Jacobs said. Lawmakers should look at expanding pilot programs from places such as Orange County that dispatch mental-health workers with officers to certain calls.

That’s only a wish list for the future. In 2021, we don’t know if a better product would have been possible, given HB 7051 was a compromise between Black lawmakers, law enforcement and House Republicans led by Speaker Chris Sprowls, a former prosecutor and the son of a police officer reluctant to pass anything more sweeping. To get a “dream bill,” a new legislative makeup would be necessary, and that’s not something we predict happening anytime soon.

So we’ll deal with what we have, praise the work that has been done and hope that the momentum for police reform doesn’t end in the coming legislative sessions.


Orlando Sentinel. May 3, 2021.

Editorial: ‘Because we can’ — the Florida GOP’s arrogant slogan for lawmaking

Florida’s 2021 lawmaking session was summed up best last week during a House debate over the state’s $101.5 billion budget.

State Rep. Susan Valdés, a Democrat, wanted to know why school districts were being forced to apply for state grants to get money from the federal American Rescue Plan, when the money was supposed to go directly to districts with no strings attached.

Rep. Randy Fine, a Republican who was defending the bill, tersely replied, “Because we can.”

Those three words — because we can — perfectly encapsulated the Republicans’ breathtaking arrogance in shaping new laws to govern Floridians in 2021.

Republicans broke legislative rules, rejected legitimate objections, ignored basic constitutional principles and steamrolled opposition so they could pass what may be the most radical political agenda in modern state legislative history.

More than once the majority party was described as “drunk with power,” a sometimes overused phrase that, in this instance, works fairly well in describing the 2021 Florida Legislature.

“Because we can” was the Republican mantra behind most everything of consequence that occurred during the just completed lawmaking session.

Why did Republicans use COVID concerns to ban the public from the Capitol during the lawmaking sessions even as they boasted of living in the “free state of Florida?”

Because they could.

Why did they resurrect a dead bill at the last minute to ban transgender girls from playing organized sports with other girls?

Because they could.

Why did they create new obstacles to voting after boasting that Florida ran a perfect election in 2020?

Because they could.

Why, with Florida’s working class desperately struggling to find housing they can afford, did Republicans vote to permanently cut in half the amount of money available to the state’s affordable housing trust fund?

Because they could.

Why did they make it harder for the cruise industry to start sailing again by passing a law that prohibits companies from asking passengers if they’ve been vaccinated against COVID-19?

Because they could.

Why — after telling cruise lines they can’t ask passengers for proof of vaccinations — did Republicans allow businesses like a private school in South Florida to fire employees if they choose to get vaccinated?

Because they could.

Why did they pass a law making it harder for local governments to react in times of emergencies?

Because they could.

Why did they once again expand the state’s private-school voucher program without imposing even the most basic accountability standards, like requiring teachers to have high school diplomas?

Because they could.

Why did they override a vote by citizens of Key West to limit the size of cruise ships docking at the city’s port?

Because they could.

Why did they expand sales taxes and then use the new revenue to cut unemployment taxes for businesses, while refusing to use a nickel of that money for even a modest increase in unemployment benefits for workers?

Because they could.

Why, in a record-setting year for the state budget, did they cut by $11 million the budget for Nikki Fried — the agriculture commissioner and Democrat who might challenge Ron DeSantis for governor?

Because they could.

Why did they place punitive new campaign finance restrictions on citizen-led efforts to amend the state constitution?

Because they could.

Why did they make it illegal for social media platforms to police offensive and untrue content, while exempting theme parks owners from those restrictions at the last minute?

Because they could.

And why did Republicans crack down on the constitutionally protected right to protest, going so far as to create new legal protections for motorists who decide plow down protesters with their cars?

You guessed it: Because they could.

Republicans hold the governor’s mansion and sizable majorities in the state House and Senate, so Randy Fine is right, they can do these things just because. Elections have consequences, and Floridians seem to embracing the GOP’s “my way or the highway” approach to authoritarian governing.

Weird, though, how Florida Republicans complain that the White House isn’t compromising enough, considering the disdain for compromise they displayed displayed during the two-month session that ended on Friday.

Floridians at least have judicial avenues open to them.

As we’ve said before, we’re not lawyers here on the Orlando Sentinel’s Editorial Board but some of these new laws seem clearly unconstitutional, like the crackdown on social media companies, elements of the protest law and the campaign finance law designed to thwart citizens from changing the constitution.

We hope people and organizations who still believe in good government sue the pants off the state, and use the courts to their full advantage to overturn these rotten-to-the-core laws.