- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

Feb. 23

Gainesville (Fla.) Sun on student loans:

The letter was short and sweet, just four sentences telling me that I was free from the shackles of my student loans.

The message arrived last week, nearly nine years after my last graduate school class. Thanks to a major assist from my wife, I finally paid back more than $27,000 in student loan debt.

The next generation of students has a bigger burden to bear. The average debt load for a college senior graduating in 2012 was $29,400, according to the Institute for College Access and Success.

Student debt has grown at an unsustainable pace. Total student loan debt in the U.S. reached a record $1.08 trillion in December, a figure that has increased since the Great Recession even as credit-card and mortgage debt declined.

Student loans have even been blamed for holding back the economic recovery. A recent report that found the number of first-time home buyers is well below historical norms, a trend blamed on student loan debt limiting major purchases.

The problem has led to a flood of ideas for controlling and repaying college costs, including a proposal this month from U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida.

Rubio has personal experience with the issue. In a speech announcing his plan, Rubio said his undergraduate loans attending the University of Florida were manageable but his law degree at the University of Miami landed him $100,000 in debt.

He proposed having an income-based system be the automatic repayment method for student loans. Under the system, graduates make payments in proportion to the amount they earn.

Income-contingent loans have actually been around for a while. The current option limits federal student loan payments to 10 percent of the borrower’s discretionary income. Those making payments on time for 20 years can have their loans forgiven.

Rubio also is promoting the idea of private investors paying a student’s tuition in exchange for a percentage of their income for a set period of time after graduation. Companies such as Upstart, founded last year by former Google executives, are starting to offer such services online.

Critics have compared the concept to indentured servitude. An alternative approach would be the system in place in Australia: funding college through a tax on all graduates pegged to how much they earn.

The state of Oregon is studying a proposal dubbed “Pay It Forward” that would eliminate public university tuition in favor of such a system. Students would be required to pay a percentage of their incomes for a certain number of years after they graduate.

Other proposals would allow student borrowers to refinance at lower rates or declare bankruptcy in cases of hardship. Of course, all of these ideas fail to address the problem driving rising student debt: the constantly increasing cost of a college education.

Addressing that issue will require states to reverse declining fiscal support for higher education, along with universities controlling administrative expenses and other costs that have little to do with the classroom.

In the meantime, students deserve new options for paying for college. They shouldn’t have to sell themselves into indentured servitude in order to earn a degree.




Feb. 23

The Tampa (Fla.) Tribune on state schools and commerce:

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam offers a practical way to generate desperately needed funds for school construction that merits the Legislature’s support.

The proposal also includes a business tax cut aimed at making Florida more competitive.

Putnam’s plan is to cut in half over three years the 7 percent tax on energy used by businesses. Residents pay no such sales tax. Putnam says large corporations are exempted, so the tax affects mostly mid-sized businesses.

At the same time he would direct the tax’s revenues be used for the construction and maintenance of Florida’s public schools and universities.

The bulk of such funding has come from Public Education Capital Outlay fund, a tax on electric, telecommunications and cable bills.

Because of widespread cellphone use and energy efficiency advancements that have cut electricity use, PECO funding has dropped precipitously.

In 2006-07 it generated $1.8 billion. The PECO fund now has $73.4 million, thanks to lawmakers transferring funds from general revenue. The Hillsborough school district alone faces at least $117 million in unfunded renovations projects.

As Putnam says, PECO is no longer a sustainable revenue source. The business energy tax would be. The tax now raises about $450 million a year. If Putnam’s plan were to be adopted, after the three-year phase-in period Florida schools would receive about $225 million that could be bonded for capital projects. His tax cut would save commercial enterprises as much.

Lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott are floating other appealing tax-cutting ideas this session, but Putnam’s proposal deserves a serious look.

Easing the energy-use tax could be seen as weakening an incentive for conservation, since additional energy use increases the tax bill.

But Putnam points out that Florida businesses pay more taxes on energy consumption than half the other states in the Southeast. Slashing the tax might encourage companies to move or expand here. Most businesses, after all, try to minimize energy costs - regardless of any tax.

And Putnam’s proposal includes another tax-cutting provision that would promote conservation. It would offer a tax-free holiday weekend for energy- or water-efficient appliances of up to $1,500.

We find tax-free holidays a bit of a gimmick, but there is no question they are popular. Putnam’s staff estimates the holiday would save consumers about $375,000 and generate about a 20 percent increase in sales for retailers.

Although no substitute for more substantial - and enduring - conservation policies, the tax holiday could make Floridians more discerning in their purchases.

Lawmakers may debate whether the business energy tax cut is the best of the many tax cuts they’ll consider this session. But there should be little debate about the need to find a reliable source of school construction funds.

Putnam offers a smart solution.




Feb. 22

Miami Herald on Venezuela being on the brink:

On the surface, the upheaval in Ukraine and the political unrest in Venezuela seem far apart in distance and character. But dig a little deeper and the parallels are striking - and ominous.

Protesters in Ukraine want their country to join the West by becoming closer to the European Union, but President Viktor F. Yanukovych prefers to sidle up to Russia. The conflict playing out on the burning streets of Kiev may be the last battle of the Cold War as a new Europe emerges.

In Caracas, as in Kiev, the underlying issue is whether the country will follow a worn-out and discredited authoritarian model from the last century - Cuba - or ally itself with regional democracies that honor human rights and political freedom.

In both countries, the strain between competing forces has produced a polarized society. And in both places, the elected leaders have opted for repression instead of addressing the legitimate grievances of the protesters.

The result: The streets in Kiev are on fire, and Venezuela’s cities are teeming with protesters and growing unrest.

Demonstrations in Venezuela have not yet reached the deadly levels of those in Ukraine, and hopefully they never will. What happens next depends on the choices made by President Nicolás Maduro. Thus far, unfortunately, he has opted for a show of force rather than a show of compromise.

Maduro’s supporters make much of the fact that he is the freely elected leader of the country. That is precisely why he should be held to a democratic standard. In democracies, leaders represent all the people, not just their own followers. They have a duty to listen to the other side and engage in dialogue before political differences degenerate into violence.

Maduro is having none of it so far. He has chosen to put government-supported paramilitary thugs and club-wielding riot police on the streets, cursed his opponents as fascists and tried to impose a media blackout (on Friday he kicked out reporters for CNN en Español). In some cities, the military has been called into the streets to restore order.

All of these actions serve only to exacerbate the crisis rather than to turn down the heat.

Furthermore, Maduro also jailed opposition leader Leopoldo López on what are widely seen as trumped-up charges of inciting violence, though he dropped ridiculous charges of murder and terrorism. This, too, is a tactical mistake that elevates López, who has adopted confrontational tactics, into the position of de facto leader of the opposition. The longer López remains in custody, the more his stature will grow and the more difficult it will be for the government to end the crisis.

As this is written, the opposition has called for more street protests over the weekend. Former opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, who does not agree with the defiant wing of the protest movement, has pleaded for demonstrators to avoid violence, but Maduro is playing into their hands by staying wedded to a hardline stance that promises to generate greater bloodshed.

In Ukraine on Saturday, Parliament voted to remove Yanukovych and released jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko. In response, some barricades in the streets came down.

Maduro should pay heed. It’s not too late to pull Venezuela back from the brink, but it will require compromise and dialogue rather than tear gas and bullets. Is he capable of that?



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