- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

Jan. 27

Tampa (Fla.) Tribune on state’s disaster of a land deal:

Pinellas state Sen. Jack Latvala perfectly describes the Legislature’s efforts to raise money for conservation by selling surplus land as a “disaster.”

The Legislature’s idea was half-baked from the start, and the Department of Environmental Protection completely botched the effort, which lawmakers should abandon this year.

Instead, the Legislature should begin adequately funding Florida Forever, the program that buys and preserves important natural tracts. It is traditionally funded by a portion of the documentary stamp revenue from real-estate transactions - an appropriate revenue source for a program made necessary by the state’s rapid development.

But lawmakers virtually abandoned Florida Forever during the recession and now refuse to restore its funding even as the economy rebounds and the state’s population growth soars, making the purchase of conservation lands even more pressing.

Last year lawmakers made a flimsy attempt to support Florida Forever, directing the DEP to sell unneeded tracts and use that revenue - as much as $50 million - for land acquisition.

There is nothing wrong with DEP getting rid of parcels that have little environmental value. Sometimes landowners require such outlying properties to be included when the state is purchasing a large conservation tract.

But this never should have never been considered a major funding source for Florida Forever.

The DEP ended up proposing a number of important refuges for potential sale. Even after citizens’ outrage caused the agency to drop many sites, critical resources remained on the for-sale list, including more than 2,000 acres in the Green Swamp, an essential regional water resource that is the source of four rivers, including the Hillsborough.

DEP also included barrier islands and land along the Wekiwa Springs State Park that serves as a corridor for black bears.

Latvala, a conservative Republican who understands the importance of stewardship, rightly scolded DEP officials at a recent state Senate subcommittee meeting when they told him the policy had generated no money and the for-sale list was still being prepared.

As the News Service of Florida reported, Latvala said, “This is just a charade that we’re going to sell land and we’re going to use it to buy land and replace a program put in place by Gov. (Bob) Martinez in 1990 and kept going by Gov. (Jeb) Bush.”

DEP officials say the final for-sale list should be ready by next month, but it’s impossible to have confidence in a process that has been so haphazard.

Like Latvala, lawmakers should recognize their Florida Forever shortcut has been a disaster and resolve to support a scandal-free program that is saving the best of Florida for future generations.

And citizens can take matters into their own hands by backing the Water and Land Conservation Amendment to the state constitution, which would ensure Florida Forever received adequate funding and was free of such ill-considered legislative ploys.




Jan. 23

Miami Herald on state rules erecting higher hurdles for the unemployed:

It’s no fun to be poor under any circumstances, but it’s especially tough in Florida. The state takes umbrage at helping the poor, doling out aid with a Scrooge-like mindset riddled with suspicion and skepticism.

Take Gov. Rick Scott’s 2010 campaign promise to give drug tests to Floridians on welfare. The Legislature approved the drug testing in 2011 and even made sure welfare beneficiaries paid the $35 cost for urine tests. After a federal judge ruled the tests unconstitutional, citing the Fourth Amendment’s protection against searches and seizures, Gov. Scott vowed to fight the ruling, spending tax dollars to press the state’s case.

Next, the Legislature refused to expand the state’s Medicaid program, even though, under the Affordable Care Act, the feds would pay for several years’ coverage for about a million Floridians not eligible under current Medicaid rules.

Now comes officials’ response to the state’s glitch-ridden new online unemployment-claim website, CONNECT. The site, like one recently launched in California, had a defective registration system, stopping unemployment checks in October because claimants’ eligibility couldn’t be verified. California took the humane route. It cut the checks first, then dealt with the online problems to determine eligibility later.

But Florida officials spent three months and hundreds of thousands of dollars to determine whether the roughly 10,000 jobless claims were legit. Rather than cut checks to help out-of-work Floridians the last three months and verify claims later, the state’s Department of Economic Opportunity spent $500,000 on overtime and, later, $165,000 a week to hire extra people to review and verify claims.

DEO executive director Jesse Panuccio announced Saturday that the payments can now resume, citing clearance from federal officials to proceed. Yet it remains unclear why federal approval was needed in Florida, since it wasn’t necessary in California.

What is clear is that the state wants to accommodate the folks who pay for jobless benefits. Florida businesses pay taxes on employees to pay for the unemployment fund - plus there are federal subsidies for the system. A 2011 state law makes it harder for the unemployed to gain access to benefits, therefore helping businesses’ bottom lines by reducing jobless claims overall.

The law requires recipients to take a 45-minute skills test and file proof every week that they’ve sought work from five employers - the highest number in the nation. The law also cut the number of weeks, currently at 16, people are eligible for jobless assistance, based on the state’s unemployment rate, and makes it easier for the state to deny benefits for “misconduct.”

The law brought down the number of unemployed receiving benefits to 15 percent, one of the nation’s lowest rates.

There are two ways to look at the state’s policies: One, Florida’s tough rules have pushed jobless people into finding new work sooner; two, the rules are so stringent that many out-of-work residents simply stop trying to find another job or seek benefits. In both cases, though, Florida businesses are the winners by keeping their unemployment taxes down. That can be seen as a positive for a state still struggling to recover from the recession, which, in turn, could ultimately increase job creation.

But Tallahassee needs to strike a better balance between being business-friendly and semi-hostile toward those who need a hand.




Jan. 26

Gainesville (Fla.) Sun on springing into action:

Florida’s springs and other water resources are finally getting deserved attention.

But it’s going to take public pressure on elected officials to ensure that talk translates to measures that truly protect water quality and quantity.

Last week was filled with promising signs. Rallies were held around the state promoting the Floridians’ Clean Water Declaration.

The declaration, which can be signed at wewantcleanwater.com, says in part that the state has the responsibility to provide clean water for future generations.

Even Gov. Rick Scott showed he’s paying attention to the issue, calling on the Legislature to spend $55 million in the upcoming budget for springs protection.

It was a welcome acknowledgement that protecting water is essential for the state and its economy. But a closer look at Scott’s proposal and other developments raises cause for concern.

While Scott’s pledge seems like a lot of money, it comes at a time when fiscal analysts are projecting a $1.2 billion surplus. Local nature photographer John Moran pointed out that the pledge amounts to the cost of a cheeseburger for each Floridian.

State senators are talking about appropriating seven times as much for springs protection - but face resistance from the House.

While spending on water projects is a needed investment, it won’t solve the state’s water woes. That will require the regulation of septic tanks, fertilizer applications and other pollution sources along with water managers actually turning off the spigot on endless groundwater withdrawals.

Last week’s hearings in Gainesville on minimum flows and levels, or MFLs, illustrate the difficulty of that effort. The long-delayed standards establish the point at which withdrawals from water bodies and groundwater harm the environment.

As MFLs are being finalized for the Ichetucknee and Lower Santa Fe rivers, Gainesville Regional Utilities is seeking a 20-year permit to pump up to 30 million gallons a day of groundwater. Regulators are considering limiting permits to five years.

GRU officials rightly note the absurdity of Jacksonville’s utility, JEA, already getting a 20-year permit, despite evidence that its withdrawals are causing problems through the region.

GRU deserves credit for implementing more conservation and water reuse measures than a number of other utilities. But GRU officials shouldn’t push for a 20-year permit if they think there isn’t enough accurate information right now on the impact of groundwater pumping, as Alachua County Environmental Protection Director Chris Bird noted.

GRU does have a responsibility to prevent water rates from skyrocketing. Yet while more conservation and recharge projects would be expensive, the investment would be far less than later building pipelines from rivers or desalination plants because there’s not enough groundwater.

Last week made it clear: The message that our springs are in trouble has reached everyone from the governor to the public. The months ahead will show whether it’s all a lot of talk or we’re finally ready to accept the tough and costly measures needed to protect our water resources for future generations.



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