- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

July 27

Miami Herald on fixing America’s deteriorating infrastructure:

Congress has a chance this week to provide a strong boost for America’s badly deteriorating infrastructure, but only if a promising solution worked out in the U.S. Senate prevails over a short-sighted fix passed by the House earlier this summer.

The House version provides a five-month extension of current programs, essentially kicking the can down the road, while the Senate version provides $350 billion in transportation programs for six years, although only three of those are paid for. Even so, it is a far better alternative than extending the bill through the end of the year, at which point another short-term fix would be necessary.

Adding urgency to the need to act now is a looming deadline on the federal program. Authority for federal highway aid payments to states will expire Friday at midnight without action. And if Congress doesn’t act before then, the balance in the federal Highway Trust Fund is forecast to drop below a minimum cushion of $4 billion that’s necessary to keep aid flowing smoothly to states.

“How can you plan, as a researcher or a civil engineer in a transportation department, if you don’t have long-term certainty” about funding, asked Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx. Answer: You can’t. States and local communities that rely on the federal funding are facing a dead end if the House and Senate can’t agree.

It’s no secret by now that the nation’s interstate highway system, a proud legacy from an earlier generation to ours, is badly in need of repair. The latest report from the American Society of Civil Engineers give the system a D. Nearly one-third of the country’s 4 million miles of roads are in poor or mediocre condition, the report found. Further, the Federal Highway Administration estimates it would take $170 billion a year to make a significant improvement in road conditions and performance.

In large measure, Congress has abdicated its leadership role in planning and funding our national infrastructure. Instead of being lured by the open road, American drivers face more potholes, more congestion and fewer safety improvements.

One particularly poignant reminder of the crumbling infrastructure is the deterioration of Memorial Bridge across the Potomac River between Washington, D.C., and Virginia, connecting two of the nation’s iconic landmarks: Arlington National Cemetery and the Lincoln Memorial. Earlier this year, two lanes of the iconic bridge were partially shut down for at least six months to repair corrosion damage. Safety experts imposed a 10-ton load limit across the bridge, thus eliminating most bus traffic for an even longer period until the entire structure is rehabilitated.

The Senate bill will provide six years of policy improvements and contract authority for highways and transit programs, thus ending a long cycle of short-term program extensions. It also offers three years of dedicated revenue to the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) so states can deliver more long-term projects and increases funding levels for highway, transit and passenger rail programs.

It won’t fix everything that’s wrong with the nation’s infrastructure. That would require an increase in the gasoline tax that provides a reliable stream of funding and has been stuck at 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993. Still, the Senate version represents a vast improvement over the House’s proposed short-term solution and should be approved by lawmakers before they go on their own summer recess starting next week.




July 25

Tampa (Florida) Tribune on using BP funds on land conservation in Hillsborough County:

Hillsborough County commissioners should use the county’s BP settlement money to bolster its underfunded land conservation program and otherwise enhance the county’s environment.

As Commissioner Stacy White says, the money should be used for “the county’s long-standing dedication to conservation and environmental priorities.”

It’s encouraging that, so far, most commissioners seem to agree and don’t appear to be looking at the settlement as a windfall for pet projects.

The county was awarded $28.5 million from BP, compensation for the damages caused by its 2010 oil spill. A blowout on an oil rig off the Louisiana coast killed 11 workers and spewed nearly 5 million barrels of oil in the Gulf of Mexico over 84 days.

Although the oil did not end up in Hillsborough waters, publicity about the spill caused tourists to avoid coastal communities, and Hillsborough officials could demonstrate its economy had been harmed.

Commissioner Kevin Beckner deserves credit for pushing the county to seek damages, understanding that declines in tourism could be directly linked to the spill. He also understood that law firms seeking claims work on a contingency basis, so there would be no cost to the county.

After legal fees are paid, the county will receive an estimated $22.8 million, which could be a lifeline for the Jan K. Platt Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program, which has saved more than 61,500 wilderness acres in Hillsborough.

The program, originally approved by voters in 1987, assessed up to 0.25 mills in property taxes to fund the purchase of environmentally valuable land. Unfortunately, the tax was not included in a 2008 referendum, in which voters overwhelmingly approved a $200 million bond issue for ELAPP. So now this popular program, without a revenue stream, is running out of funds - even as development heats up again.

White says officials have identified additional natural acres, worth more than $24 million, that should be preserved. So spending the BP funds on ELAPP could have a significant impact. And the expenditure would have enduring benefits.

Commissioners should listen to Sheriff David Gee, who sees ELAPP as essential to the county’s continued appeal.

“It’s what distinguishes us from other large urban counties that didn’t think ahead,” he says. “Here, you don’t have to go far to be walking in scrublands or other natural Florida land. I don’t always think people appreciate the importance of that investment. What ELAPP does is going to be here 100 years from now.”

That investment is going to be all the more important now because home sales are sizzling and development will likely claim many of the natural refuges if ELAPP is not bolstered.

White proposes a settlement spending breakdown that would use $15 million on ELAPP, with some of this going toward maintenance, but not less than half for land acquisition; $5 million for hiking, biking or kayaking trails; and $2 million to fund beach renourishment projects on Tampa Bay. The rest would go toward rebuilding boat ramps, restoring native vegetation and promoting ecotourism. That looks to be a reasonable breakdown.

We hope White’s colleagues share his sense of urgency about saving ELAPP and the county’s remaining natural wonders.

He aptly frames the issue: “ELAPP for all intents and purposes is bankrupt, even as the real estate market begins to boom. If we are serious about reinvigorating land conservation, now is the time.”




July 25

News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Florida, on congressional redistricting:

Florida legislative leaders announced last week that in August they will convene their second special session of the year, this time to take their third crack at drawing congressional districts that comply with state law. All that’s missing from that numbers salad is the partridge in a pear tree.

The third attempt at redistricting had better be the charm, and not just because the session was mandated by the Florida Supreme Court July 9 when it ordered lawmakers to redraw eight of the state’s 27 congressional districts. The Legislature’s defense of its redistricting maps has cost taxpayers more than $8 million.

In addition, after going to overtime in June to pass a balanced budget they couldn’t achieve during the regular session, legislators will spend another $150,000 on a special session Aug. 10-21 to redraw the maps.

The special budget session was the result of ideological disagreements among House and Senate Republicans. At least that was a debate over the proper role of government in health care spending. The yearslong dispute over the congressional maps, though, was the product of a conscious effort by GOP consultants and staffers to rig the electoral system in their party’s favor in blatant violation of two voter-approved amendments to the state constitution.

The Fair Districts measures, passed in 2010, stipulated that when lawmakers redraw legislative and congressional boundaries, they could no longer favor incumbents or members of a political party. Even though House and Senate leaders earnestly vowed to follow the law and conduct the most transparent redistricting process in history, with the public’s input, the final maps bore a remarkable resemblance to the old gerrymandered ones.

When the League of Women Voters and other interest groups challenged the maps in court, evidence surfaced of back-room political shenanigans influencing the redistricting process, such as correspondence between Republican legislative staffers and GOP consultants on how to draw districts.

In 2014 a circuit court judge found “unconstitutional intent” on the Legislature’s part and ordered the lawmakers to redraw two districts, which he later approved. However, earlier this month the state Supreme Court overturned the circuit court’s decision to approve the remedial map, declaring the need for “a more meaningful remedy commensurate with the constitutional violations it found.”

So this time, the Legislature has to remake eight districts, including the egregious District 5, which stretches from Jacksonville to Orlando and skirts Flagler and Volusia counties. A significantly redrawn version is almost certain to impact local congressional lines.

Although that will be disruptive, as they say in sports with instant replay, the goal simply is to get the call right. Florida’s elected officials must obey the letter and the spirit of the Fair Districts amendments.

Unfortunately, this may not be the last word on redistricting. A lawsuit similar to the one challenging the U.S. House districts is pending against the state Senate map. Seeing as how it is a product of the same discredited process, expect changes there, too.

Once the Legislature concludes its forced-against-its-will duty to comply with the constitution, the redistricting process should be taken from its hands. Following the 2020 Census, Florida should create an independent commission to redraw the maps, one that truly is open and transparent and which dilutes the politics that have polluted redistricting.



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