- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

June 16

Miami Herald on state political endeavors:

In March, Gov. Rick Scott admitted he could have handled “better” his needlessly duplicitous firing of FDLE chief Gerald Bailey. Indeed, if he had, neither he nor his Cabinet members would now have to endure what we presume is the embarrassment of being elected state officials who must be reacquainted with - or, worse, introduced to - Florida’s Sunshine laws.

After all, the governor, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam - and especially Pam Bondi, who as attorney general is Florida’s chief law-enforcement officer - are the top elected officials in the state. And because it’s obvious that they acted mostly as a cabal instead of as responsible leaders, they decided to cut their losses and compromise their way out of a lawsuit accusing them of backroom dealings that violated Sunshine laws.

The lawsuit, filed by several media organizations, including the Miami Herald, stems from Bailey’s ouster as head of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Anyone serving in the post reports directly to the governor and Cabinet, as stipulated by the state Constitution. However, last December, when Gov. Scott decided that it was time for Bailey to go, he sent a minion, Pete Antonacci, to deliver the ultimatum: Resign or be fired. No explanation was given. OK, strike 1.

Scott compounded the misstep by telling Cabinet members that Bailey, a well-respected law-enforcement veteran, simply turned in his badge. Not quite true. Strike 2.

Once it became clear that Bailey was forced out, some Cabinet members expressed dismay that they were blindsided. However, that did not spur them to hold Scott accountable at a subsequent public Cabinet meeting. Strike 3.

They were derelict. Little would have been accomplished but for news outlets’ lawsuit - and Bailey’s impending testimony as to how things went down.

Unfortunately, Scott and his administration have had a very tenuous relationship with transparency, and it is to be hoped that this public chastising makes a difference. Otherwise, they will continue to corrupt Florida’s laudable history of conducting Floridians’ business out in the open, where they can see it.




June 17

Tampa (Florida) Tribune on Amendment 1’s intent being ignored:

The Florida Legislature was back to its old lottery tricks this special session, doing as they wish with Amendment 1 dollars without regard for citizens’ will or the law.

Amendment 1, aimed at providing reliable conservation funding, was the biggest vote getter on the ballot last year, backed by 75 percent of voters.

But that seemed to mean little to lawmakers in their budget agreement completed this week.

They are using Amendment 1 dollars to fund ongoing expenses, including salaries, to free up general revenue funds. Conservation efforts will not be notably improved. This is the same kind of switch lawmakers did with the Florida Lottery, which voters endorsed with the intent that funds would be used to enhance public education system with extra teachers and other new resources.

But lawmakers simply used the lottery revenue to meet schools’ basic needs and reduce the amount of general revenue funds that went to public schools.

Backers of Amendment 1 tried to write the measure in a way that would tie spending to conservation-related purposes. It requires one-third of the state’s existing documentary stamp revenues to be used for protecting and managing lands and should generate about $700 million a year. The measure did not raise taxes.

But lawmakers simply are ignoring the referendum’s intent, using the money for ongoing expenses, water projects that benefit agricultural operations and other efforts that have little to do with saving Florida’s natural heritage. They are risking a lawsuit by environmentalists, who may be able to make the case that the Legislature is ignoring a constitutional mandate.

Deciding appropriate Amendment 1 spending, particularly during a tough budget year, was always going to be a difficult task. Some spending caution would have been understandable.

But conservation simply did not appear to be a priority for this Legislature.

The budget agreement between the House and the Senates calls for only about $17 million to go for buying land under the Florida Forever program that seeks to preserve valuable natural land. Environmentalists had sought $170 million. Gov. Rick Scott had recommended $100 million for Florida Forever.

By way of comparison, back in the days of former Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida Forever would spend about $300 million a year to buy and preserve important tracts.

Funding understandably dropped during the recession, but as the economy recovered lawmakers still largely neglected the popular program, even as they made it easier for developers to bulldoze what remains of natural Florida.

The budget agreement does include some worthy expenditures on springs, Kissimmee River restoration and such. It covers debts service on past land buys.

We give Sen. Tom Lee of Hillsborough County credit for vainly trying to raise at least $100 million for land purchases. The Senate has been criticized for not agreeing to bond money for such transactions, but Lee says the Senate wanted to ensure any bond money only would go to projects that had been properly scrutinized, but such vetting could not be guaranteed this session.

Lee urges critics to be patient: that next year more money should go to conservation. Perhaps. But it is difficult to have much faith in a governing body that could so cavalierly dismiss 75 percent of voters.




June 16

Gainesville (Florida) Sun on voting:

When it comes to water, the Florida Legislature just cannot or will not act, and certainly will not act with any sense of vision, let alone urgency.

Even the voters’ overwhelming mandate on the distinctly named Water and Land Conservation Amendment, or Amendment 1, could not move our lawmakers to do not only the people’s will but what is undeniably in the state’s best interest.

As lawmakers wind down their special session to complete work they were unable to do during the regular session, it is clear that once again - for the second year in a row - the high-minded rhetoric we heard from legislative leaders about water policy reform and protections were nothing more than empty words and promises.

“Expectations, quite frankly, should be pretty low when it comes to water projects,” House Agriculture and Natural Resources Chairman Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula, told the News Service of Florida last week.

There you have it. We should have “low expectations” when it comes to the water projects that reduce pollution to our springs, rivers and lakes. These are the projects that are essential to ending the ever-increasing greening of waterways across Florida from too many nitrates. Those are the projects all parts of Florida are depending on to stop the draining of our aquifer.

The estimated $750 million that is supposed to be earmarked for Amendment 1, that is, water and land conservation, will largely not be dedicated to that purpose this year. No, lawmakers, led by Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, adopted their own interpretation of Amendment 1 and siphoned off some $200 million to fund existing agency operating expenses, salaries and such.

Lawmakers agreed Sunday to spend a comparatively paltry $55 million to acquire environmentally significant land - the lion’s share of which would go to improvements to the Kissimmee River.

Just $17.4 million would go toward the state’s Florida Forever land acquisition program, the News Service of Florida reported. The program had been allocated $300 million for that purpose before the cuts that prompted voters to pass Amendment 1.

One of the few bright spots was that $47.5 million in funding was directed toward springs restoration.

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, had promised Floridians broader water policy would be a priority this year. And what happened? On the third day of the regular session, the House passed a 94-page water bill that underwent a total of one committee hearing and was not even vetted by the Department of Environmental Protection. But rest assured, the varied business and agriculture special interests all had their say, effectively gutting what started out as promising legislation.

Florida is in a water crisis. Our aquifer is polluted and being drained. Our waterways and coastlines are being tainted by nitrates and stormwater runoff.

And what do we get from our lawmakers and governor? Empty words and promises.



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