- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

March 31

Miami Herald on proposed House and Senate state budgets:

Florida legislators have had a lackluster session, with few substantive bills passed and little political drama. That might change soon.

Legislators annually spend 60 days in Tallahassee crafting laws, but the one thing they must do each year is pass a balanced budget by the end of the session.

That must be done by May 1 this year, and all indications are that it won’t be easy. Plenty of compromising and fighting lies ahead. Here’s why: Last week, both the House and the Senate unveiled their proposed budgets. And the chambers are $4.2 billion apart.

The House’s proposed budget stands at $76.2 billion, which is less than current spending; the Senate’s is $80.4 billion, which would be the largest in state history.

Chipping the plans down to a middle ground will be painful. At the core of the debate is a philosophical difference on how to spend most of the money. And healthcare - specifically, how we pay for the medical needs of millions of low income Floridians - is shaping up to be the battle royal.

The heftiness of the Senate’s budget is mainly because it includes federal dollars to cover the uninsured at Florida hospitals through the Low Income Pool, or LIP. Florida was notified that the LIP would be funded only through June 30. “Coming up with a new LIP model that the federal government approves is, I believe, the most critical question facing the Florida healthcare system,” State Sen. René García, R-Hialeah, head of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services, told the Editorial Board.

An alternative to Medicaid expansion, now called the Florida Health Insurance Affordability Exchange or FHIX, is also on the table and also merits approval. Pending federal consent, this would allow Florida to tap federal Medicaid money to allow low-income Floridians to purchase private healthcare coverage. Some of our poorest residents desperately need this break and we think they should get it. In the long run, it will save money for all Floridians, money now spent in emergency room care.

We agree with García.

But the gauntlet has been thrown down. House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, has said the House is not for any expansion, whatever it’s called.

Senators have indicated they are willing to hold up the budget process over the issue. “Addressing Florida’s healthcare challenges is a priority of the Senate, and the budget reflects our hesitation to fund other issues without resolving this problem,” said Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, chair of the Miami-Dade delegation. We hope the Senate is successful in its efforts.

Education is another budget sticking point: The House includes more money for school construction and maintenance than the Senate. But neither increases per-student funding to meet the governor’s recommendation of $7,176 per student.

As anticipated, environmental spending from voter-approved Amendment 1 - this year estimated to be $757 million - is another bone of contention.

Once each chamber approves its version of the 2015-16 budget, the process known as the “budget conference” will begin. That’s when representatives from each chamber meet to bargain and compromise.

Capitol watchers say this year lawmakers may actually have to call a special session, which is what it may take to fix our healthcare, education and environmental needs. It’s not easy, but we urge legislators to blend their budgets and do what’s best for Florida.

Online:

https://www.miamiherald.com

____

April 1

Tampa (Florida) Tribune on conflicting Mideast signals:

In the struggles raging among rival Arab powers in the Middle East, the United States appears to find itself either on the sidelines or, curiously enough, on both sides, and that’s discouraging - and revealing.

President Obama’s uncertain leadership is causing our Mideast allies’ anxiety.

Saudi Arabia, an American ally, has not even asked Washington to help in the fight to repel the Houthi rebels who have seized power in adjoining Yemen. Egypt and Pakistan, however, have announced plans to help.

And yet the Obama administration finds itself allied with Iran - Saudi Arabia’s most bitter regional rival and the main supporter of the Houthis - in fighting Islamist jihadis in Iraq.

That would appear to suggest that the administration has fallen to a new low in the difficult and infinitely complex attempts to advance - or at least preserve - America’s interests in the Middle East.

Should the situation worsen and impede all the shipping that passes Yemen on its way to or from the Persian Gulf and the Suez Canal, those Americans who can’t find Yemen on a map would quickly feel the consequences of the fighting.

But, at least at this point, this conflict is less about economics and more about power.

Experts describe it as a critical struggle for regional political dominance between Saudi Arabia on the one hand and Iran on the other, with various countries lining up on one side or the other.

By intervening in Yemen, where the rebels have seized the upper hand, Saudi Arabia has made it clear it has every intention of challenging Iran’s bid to expand its sphere of influence in the region.

And Saudi Arabia’s intervention has sent a signal that it will not count on the United States to protect its own vital interests in the Middle East. No doubt, many Americans who are weary of the United States playing policeman to the world will welcome that signal.

Washington is in good standing with the Saudis and is optimistic about mending the frayed relations with their best-friend neighbors, the Egyptians. Also, Washington would like good relations with another Saudi ally, Pakistan, so logic would seem to suggest that American policy would be to oppose Iran’s ambitions in the region.

At the State Department, perhaps that’s the goal: to lend support to friendly Saudi Arabia and do whatever can be done to stymie Iran as it vigorously pursues its disruptive regional agenda.

But in the important fight against the radical jihadis known generally as the Islamic State, the United States has joined hands with Iran, the nation that supports the present governments of Iraq (America’s friend) and Syria (America’s enemy) against the rebels.

Also, the United States and others are deeply involved in negotiations with Iran over its nuclear capabilities and must hope that the outbreak of fighting won’t derail that project.

President Obama’s collaboration with Iran has angered the United States’ most resolute ally in the Mideast, Israel.

In a recent Washington Post article, Frederic Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said that it has been decades since so many Arab states and factions were engaged in so many wars in “quite confusing configurations.”

“It’s so dangerous,” he said. That’s an understatement.

As the Post article noted, Iran supports Hezbollah in Lebanon; has been instrumental in propping up Assad in Syria; and now wields power over more territory in Iraq than even the Iraqi army.

The situation in the entire Middle East is grim: Rival groups, representing different religious beliefs, have been fighting each other throughout the region, causing a deeper-than-ever polarization and widespread instability.

“The challenges facing Arab national security are immense,” Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi said at a recent session of the Arab League summit.

Yezid Sayigh of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut told reporters that Saudi forces lack the experience needed to launch large ground offensives.

“There are all sorts of potential pitfalls” that would accompany a ground incursion in Yemen, he said.

It is never easy to establish and maintain positive relationships with the various countries that make up the Middle East. Their rivalries, usually based on religion but fueled by other differences, are simply too deeply ingrained to be easily overcome.

To be fair, the Obama administration is by no means the first to have serious difficulties dealing with these regional issues. But the administration’s inconsistency and lack of resolve only contribute to the chaos. Clarity from Washington certainly is needed right now.

Online:

https://tbo.com

___

March 31

The Gainesville (Florida) Sun on fixing Florida’s broken prison system:

The Florida House of Representatives has proposed a partial solution for the state’s broken prison system.

But the part left undone is the most important part of all.

The House prison reform bill focuses on more funding for the system, including $16 million to close an operating deficit and hire new corrections officers, $15 million for capital improvements and an increase of $11 million for food services.

More money is certainly needed. Yet the problems with Florida’s prison system go far beyond the lack of funding.

Testimony by several current and former Florida prison inspectors at a state Senate committee hearing this month showed that corruption and cover-ups are “rampant” in the system, the Miami Herald reported.

The inspectors told the committee that “bosses repeatedly ordered them to ignore evidence of possible criminal wrongdoing by corrections officers,” the Herald said. Problems cited ranged from faulty medical care to widespread smuggling of contraband by staff and corrections officers.

The testimony came amid an investigative series by the Herald that found that Florida’s prisons have experienced a sharp rise in use-of-force cases by officers, with numerous fatalities and incidents of violence, abuse and corruption.

As a result of the Herald investigation and the testimony, the Senate proposed an impressive 51-page bill (SB 7020) designed to combat abuse and corruption.

Besides calling for funding increases similar to those in the House bill, the Senate’s proposal would establish an independent oversight commission that would hold DOC officials accountable for prison budgets, discipline and investigations.

It would also demand additional oversight of prison medical care and more transparent reporting of use of force by prison guards against inmates.

The House bill threw all of that out and slashed the Senate bill from 51 pages to 12.

The House bill is still in committee and it’s possible that it could be amended to move closer to the Senate version. But remarks last week by Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, didn’t hold out much hope for increased and independent oversight.

“Ultimately, the governor is accountable for the actions of the secretary and the secretary is accountable for the success of the department,” Trujillo said. “If the department is a failure, they need to search for new leadership.”

The state has been there, done that, and it hasn’t worked. Florida has had seven DOC secretaries in the past eight years. The current secretary, Julie Jones, has been on the job less than four months and has no direct experience in the field of corrections.

If abuse and corruption are as widespread as the inspectors’ testimony indicates, the prison system doesn’t just need money - it needs a more accountable culture. At a minimum, the system needs an independent, objective oversight board.

The time to fix the broken prison system is now. Floridians should demand that the House adopt the Senate reform proposals, and that Gov. Rick Scott sign them into law.

Online:

https://www.gainesville.com

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