- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:


Dec. 12

The Tampa Tribune on fracking legislation:

We are not among those who view fracking as an unmitigated horror. The practice has produced an abundant supply of cheap energy, increased U.S. oil to near record highs and is helping make the nation energy self-sufficient. And because the natural gas it produces burns cleaner than oil, it even has helped reduced the United States’ carbon emissions.

Nevertheless, Floridians should be alarmed by fracking legislation that would rob local elected officials of any say over whether the practice could take place in their communities.

It is a typical Tallahassee ploy: seize control of such decisions at the urging of industry lobbyists, who know they are unlikely to get their way with the local elected officials who would have to live with the consequences.

In fracking, a mixture of water, sand and caustic chemicals is pumped deep into the ground to fracture shale rocks and release natural gas. On its face, such a process would seem unsuitable for most of Florida, with porous limestone below the surface and underground aquifers providing most of the state’s drinking water.

It’s true a comprehensive study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found no evidence the process had a widespread impact on drinking water, but the places where fracking is taking place now do not have Florida’s geology, nor its critical water needs.

As Dr. Lonnie Draper, a member of Physicians for Social Responsibility, told The Associated Press, the very process is designed to create leaks in the layers of earth that contain oil and gas, increasing the risk to Florida’s underground water supply.

The EPA study, after all, did document cases of damaging spills and leaks. Fracking also has been linked to minor earthquakes, hardly an insignificant concern to homeowners and builders.

For such reasons, as The Associated Press reports, about 20 Florida counties and 40 cities have banned fracking. Yet the legislation advancing in Tallahassee eliminates local control, not only over fracking but over any decisions concerning the processing, storage or transportation of oil and gas. A similar bill made it through the House last session but not the Senate.

The Florida League of Cities opposes the measure because it strips local governments of the ability to protect residents. As Tom Shelly, a Belleair commissioner, says, “We would lose our authority over land decisions. We couldn’t stop fracking even it was planned next to a school.”

If lawmakers do anything, they should adopt minimum safety standards. But local governments should retain the authority to adopt whatever regulations they deem necessary, or to prohibit the mining altogether.

Environmentalists are pushing for a statewide ban on fracking. That may be an overreaction, but is more responsible than stripping local governments of any say over such critical decisions and essentially encouraging companies to pursue fracking here.

Florida, already the nation’s third-largest state, cannot continue to grow and prosper if it does not rigorously protect its water sources and natural appeal. Lawmakers should bury the fracking push.




Dec. 11

The Gainesville Sun on water quality bills:

Supporters of a massive water measure oppose delaying the legislation, yet the bills would only delay protections for our imperiled water bodies.

State lawmakers promised for the past two legislative sessions to finally approve protections for our polluted and depleted springs and other water bodies. Yet after promising starts, they watered down protections and then still failed to pass them.

The upcoming session appears to be different, with lawmakers poised to vote on identical House and Senate water bills as one of their first orders of business. But instead of cheering the legislative breakthrough, some of our state’s leading environmental advocates are rightly asking lawmakers to put on the brakes and do better.

More than 100 organizations and businesses, from local environmental groups such as Alachua Audubon to statewide organizations such as 1000 Friends of Florida, have signed onto a letter to legislators criticizing the proposed measures.

The bill’s improvements are undermined by loopholes and “needlessly forestall necessary action to protect and restore Florida’s impaired waters,” they wrote.

“Various regulated industries, agriculture, and their lobbyists are leading a retreat from protective policies and are instead relying on the same tools that have, for decades, failed Florida’s citizens and our waters,” the letter states.

As an example, the bills would allow up to 20 to 32 years before water-quality targets must be achieved. A failure to act sooner only makes it more costly for future generations to do the job right. The letter calls for accelerated deadlines.

It also calls for setting deadlines on legal tools that cap the acceptable amount of pollutants in water bodies and establish plans to reduce the flow of pollutants from land to water. In the current bills, those deadlines only apply to areas near springs designated as outstanding.

The bills would also create a massive transfer of public money to private pockets with no assurance of cost effectiveness. As an example, nearly $1.8 billion worth of Central Florida water projects would be funded with tax dollars and run by private companies - with no requirements for conservation.

The environmental groups held simultaneous press conferences Wednesday to deliver their letter to the Merritt Island district office of House Speaker Steve Crisafulli and Orlando district headquarters of Senate President Andy Gardiner.

Local environmentalists rallied near Glen Spring, a small former swimming area in Gainesville in desperate need of restoration. Frank Jackalone, Florida staff director for the Sierra Club, told The Sun that some parts of the legislation work against water conservation and protection of groundwater and water bodies.

He pointed to the current allowable time frame of at least two decades to restore a river or spring to its adopted minimum flows and levels, a tool intended to stop their decline.

“You know what that says to me - it’s not going to happen,” he said.

Gardiner’s office released a statement Wednesday saying he was happy to receive input but “believes the Senate has reached consensus on this important legislation.” He wrote that he looks forward to bringing the legislation to the Senate floor for a vote during the first week of the session starting in January.

The organizations signing the letter simply want amendments to improve the legislation, something the Legislature should be able to do without scuttling the measures. As the letter states, “making bad water use decisions now will result in even costlier fixes in the future.”

The declining flow and green waters of our region’s springs are evidence of long legislative neglect. Lawmakers need to get it right this time rather than passing water legislation that delays real fixes and provides an excuse to again ignore the program for years to come.




Dec. 11

The Tampa Bay Times on Children’s Medical Services:

The state of Florida should not balance its budget on the backs of sick children. But that is exactly what state health officials have done since May, when they kicked about 9,000 children out of a health care program by using a deceptive screening tool. Department of Health officials should reinstate eligible children immediately. It is unconscionable that the state would abandon some of its most vulnerable residents to cut costs.

Children’s Medical Services is a state-funded collection of programs for children with special needs from low-income families. Typically, children became eligible for the services through Medicaid or Kidcare, a low-cost health insurance program. According to a recent report in the Miami Herald, CMS was essentially a victim of its own success. The program’s Medicaid claims grew by nearly $100 million from 2010 to 2014, from $713.3 to $811.1 million. To control costs, lawmakers in 2011 changed CMS from a fee-for-service plan, in which insurers paid doctors for treating sick children, into state-run managed care, where a predetermined pot of money was divided by insurers.

In May, Health Department officials determined that they could cut costs and comply with state law by eliminating children from CMS. The department introduced a screening tool that included a trick question about participating children’s limitations. Many parents’ hopeful answers for their children’s future or their belief the question referred only to life-threatening injuries resulted in an answer of “no.” The state responded by booting them from the program, a callous move that even some of the Johns Hopkins University doctors who created the questions say violates their original intent.

Tallahassee’s Reema Shabaneh’s two children were kicked out of CMS. The children, 6 and 9, are nearly blind and have severe retinal detachment. Other children ejected from the program include some with HIV/AIDS, severe facial deformities and patients with liver transplants who will need anti-rejection drugs for life. In all, about 9,000 children lost the state aid. Shabaneh’s children were reinstated after she sued the state with the help of a law clinic at Florida State University. Good for them. But who will stand up for the others?

The Health Department denies it has intentionally used the screening tool or other means to save money by reducing access to health care for sick children from poor families, but the results are clear. An administrative law judge ruled the Health Department could not use the screening tool without adopting it through a rulemaking process, and the state has been working on a revised screen and expects to reopen the program next month. The department needs to figure out which children are truly eligible for CMS programs, but it shouldn’t use trickery to do it.

It is bad enough that the state turned its back on sick kids who have no other reasonable options for specialized care. But what’s worse is the state is resorting to such unconscionable measures at a time when Florida is enjoying a modest budget surplus. Gov. Rick Scott is asking lawmakers for $1 billion in tax cuts that primarily benefit businesses while the state scrimps on health care to poor and needy families.

Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, has a son with Down syndrome and is a longtime advocate for children with special needs. He has asked the state to explain its actions. While we wait for an answer, lawmakers should find a way to restore CMS’s funding and revisit the 2011 law that changed its payment structure. Keeping Floridians healthy, especially its neediest children, is a responsibility the state should honor rather than shirk in the name of dollars and cents.



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