Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:
The South Florida Sun Sentinel on major problems with the state's unemployment system:
Comedian John Oliver largely dedicated last week’s episode of his HBO show to Florida’s deeply flawed unemployment system. In it, he played a clip of now-Sen. Rick Scott bragging before a conservative audience that, when he left office, only 61,000 of Florida’s 22 million citizens were drawing on unemployment. He received scattered applause.
“Wow, that is some nervous applause,” Oliver said. “Even in that room, you can feel people thinking, ’61,000 out of 22 million, oh that feels way too low. Is what he did terrible? Are we all terrible? Oh never mind, we’re clapping.’”
Oliver’s show, which quoted the Sun Sentinel’s work, was devastatingly on point. But given its half-hour format, it could only get through a few of the findings of Florida Chief Inspector General Melinda Miguel’s damning report on our failed unemployment system, which was so maddeningly difficult to navigate during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic that people in crisis simply gave up. For Scott, that meant the state saved money and the unemployment rate remained artificially low.
Until now, the chief villains of this story have been Scott, who in his first year as governor signed a series of changes that made it much harder for laid-off workers to get benefits; Deloitte, the accounting and advisory firm that designed the system, which launched in 2013; and the Florida Legislature, which failed to address the system’s many flaws revealed in audits over the years.
But Miguel’s report has brought new players to the forefront.
Deloitte is one of what are known as the Big Four in the accounting industry, along with Ernst and Young, KPMG and PricewaterhouseCoopers. According to her March 4 report, only PWC was not involved in creating Florida’s unemployment system. While Deloitte designed it, KPMG provided project management and Ernst and Young provided independent oversight.
Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity, which oversees state unemployment services, said in its contract that the website should be tested to handle 200,000 simultaneous visits. But the audit found the provision was never enforced. It said Deloitte only stress-tested the system with 4,200 simultaneous users.
The system passed the test like an honors student in a remedial class, which seems to have been the point — not truly testing the system, but designing a test to make sure the system passed.
The report also contained new revelations about the lack of oversight by Ernst and Young, which apparently handled its duty with less care than its oversight of sealed Emmy-winner envelopes. In fact, Ernst and Young, which was paid more than $2 million “to provide an unbiased review and assessment of the project to help ensure that it is meeting its desired goals,” performed so badly that it was forced to return $500,000 to the state. Miguel’s report found that Ernst and Young’s services were “neither fully independent nor adequately rigorous.”
How was its oversight not independent? Was it in communication with Deloitte? With KPMG? With the governor’s office? The report is silent on the specifics.
Aside from the mention that it provided project management, KPMG is not further discussed in the report; of course, in the context of this report, no news is good news.
Florida spent $81 million of our money to set up this system that, whether by design or incompetence, failed what Miguel called “countless people.”
No one knows exactly how many laid-off people got busy signals or were hung up on during the early months of the pandemic, but they are more than a “countless” statistic. Each one is a human being, and as Floridians, our family, our friends and our neighbors. Each one represents a desperate man or woman who could not pay rent, who perhaps was lurching toward bankruptcy, or who had a hungry child at home.
Deloitte representatives told a Florida Senate panel March 8 that their work ended in May 2015 and neither they nor their company were responsible for any of the misery foisted upon us. The company’s representatives said at their Senate hearing that it made a system “designed to comply with Florida’s specific rules, requirements and policies.”
If that is the case, then we move from mere incompetence to what many have long suspected — that this was a system designed to fail, designed to harm, designed to ruin anyone unfortunate enough to lose a job in an economic crisis.
Incompetence is agonizing, but understandable. We are all human, and prone to human error and to failures of imagination. These can be forgiven.
But if Deloitte designed this system to the state government’s exact specifications and no one did anything to address its known failures, that is not incompetence, but sheer malice.
The Orlando Sentinel on Gov. Ron Desantis rejecting a pardon for a voting rights advocate:
On a day that should have been a celebration of second chances, Desmond Meade’s plea for a pardon was rejected by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
The governor, a Navy veteran, can’t stomach the fact that Meade — who won acclaim for his voting rights work — has a dishonorable discharge on his military record.
Abraham Lincoln was willing to pardon the Confederate soldiers who participated in an armed rebellion, as well as Union soldiers who deserted their posts. But DeSantis can’t find the compassion to forgive a man who got caught stealing three decades ago to support a drug habit while serving in the Army.
DeSantis might share Lincoln’s party affiliation, but last week's fit of pettiness shows he lacks the 16th president’s wisdom, compassion and capacity for forgiveness.
The state Cabinet meeting had been one of its most significant since early 2019 when it pardoned the Groveland Four, the young Black men wrongly accused of rape in 1949.
It got off to a promising start, with DeSantis and the Cabinet voting to finally do away with former Gov. Rick Scott’s mean-spirited and unjust mandate that ex-felons had to wait five to seven years before they could even apply to have their rights restored.
The Cabinet went a step further and decided to almost automatically restore the rights of ex-felons who have paid off all of their court-ordered fines, fees and restitution, clearing the way for thousands to serve on juries and hold public office.
It’s important for people who have paid their debt to society to be allowed to rejoin society as full citizens.
It was a good day until it came time for DeSantis to act on the request for a pardon from Meade, who embodies what it means to find redemption.
Meade was dishonorably discharged from the U.S. Army, not for rebelling against the government or deserting his post but for getting caught stealing to support a cocaine addiction he acquired while stationed in Hawaii, according to a 2018 New York Times profile.
He served three years in a brig, was released in 1993 and returned home to Florida. He got into more trouble, served more time and ended up homeless.
Meade’s life was a mess. Then, in 2005, as he stood on a set of railroad tracks contemplating suicide, something changed.
“I thought about how many people would come to my funeral and the answer was only four,” Meade recalled in March 2019, after the Orlando Sentinel Editorial Board named him the Central Floridian of the Year. “I questioned my significance on this earth, with the relationships and the places that I have been, to only have four people care if I died.”
Meade got into a drug-treatment program, got clean, got into college and eventually earned a law degree.
He became involved in the effort to do what elected officials refused to do — overturn Florida’s lifetime ban on voting for felons. Meade led the way to eliminating it through a state constitutional amendment that voters approved in 2018, an outcome DeSantis later called a mistake.
Meade had his right to vote restored thanks to Amendment 4, but he still can’t join the Florida Bar and practice law because of his criminal record. Nor can he serve on a jury or hold public office.
Which is why he ended up in front of DeSantis on March 10 for the second time in less than a year, hoping the governor would dispense mercy and grant a pardon.
DeSantis sent Meade packing, saying the dishonorable discharge was a deal killer.
It’s possible DeSantis feels that strongly about the military’s most punitive discharge. It’s also possible he’s punishing Meade for his advocacy of Amendment 4. Maybe the governor’s intransigence is linked to his feud with Democratic Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Cabinet member and Meade supporter who is positioning herself to run for governor.
What all of those reasons have in common is they’re not just.
Desmond Meade is a model of what society hopes for — a person who pays their debt, owns up to their mistakes and becomes a productive and valued member of the community.
If DeSantis plans to run for president in 2024, as many expect he does, he should try to be more like Lincoln, who understood what it means to forgive.
The Sarasota Herald-Tribune on closing the Gulf Coast’s ‘digital divide’:
From segments of Sarasota’s Newtown neighborhood area to swaths of DeSoto County, from sections of North Port to pockets in areas up and down Interstate 75, there are still too many locations in Southwest Florida where residents are hindered by poor or effectively nonexistent broadband access.
Sorry, but there’s something wrong when in the year 2021 there are still places in Southwest Florida like Arcadia, a 7,000-population community where – as the Herald-Tribune’s Justin Garcia recently reported – at least one resident has never had internet connection speed faster than 3Mbps (compared to the national average of 86 Mbps).
Such digital inadequacies, of course, have only been exacerbated by the pandemic –and the forced emphasis it has placed on having adequate broadband access to learn, work and even receive health care.
That’s why it’s encouraging that the Florida Association of Counties – the group that advocates on behalf of the state’s 67 counties – has listed expanding broadband access among the five priorities it wants to see the Legislature actively address during the current legislative session.
During a recent Zoom interview with the Herald-Tribune Editorial Board, Sarasota County Commissioner Christian Ziegler and Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay – two leading members in the Florida Association of Counties – hammered on the need for the state to invest more in filling Florida’s existing digital gap.
Ziegler noted that greater broadband access holds the key to keeping Florida on pace in everything from education to agriculture – and that it will play a major role in determining the economic futures of working-class Floridians as well as those of college graduates.
“We really need more investment in fiber internet,” Ziegler said. “We just don’t have the infrastructure where we need it to be.”
There have been some strides made to repair the broadband fissures that remain across the Gulf Coast: last fall, for example, the Sarasota County commissioners admirably used some of the coronavirus relief funding that the county received from the federal government to expand internet coverage to thousands of poor students taking part in remote learning.
But the heavy lifting necessary to bring all of Southwest Florida up to proper broadband speed must be done by the state – not local governments – and the burden is on Florida’s lawmakers to make technology horror stories like Arcadia’s tortoise-like connectivity a thing of the past.