- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

June 2

Miami Herald on reining in over-reach on national security:

The revised eavesdropping program that the U.S. Senate finally passed on Tuesday and sent to the president doesn’t go as far as some civil-liberties advocates wanted, but it’s the first time that Congress has placed limits on the government’s ability to spy on Americans after 9/11.

That alone should bring a measure of satisfaction to Americans who fear that the national-security apparatus of the government in Washington has gone too far in the direction of snooping, at the expense of the legitimate privacy rights of U.S. citizens.

The USA Freedom Act, as it is now called, will end the National Security Agency’s wholesale phone-records collection program and replace it with a more-restrictive measure to keep the records in the hands of phone companies. Most of the programs of the old Patriot Act will remain intact in the new law, but significant, and welcome, changes have been enacted.

Now the government will need court orders to obtain data connected to specific numbers from the phone companies, which typically store them for 18 months. That represents a meaningful improvement in the law. Moreover, the new law creates a panel of outside experts to advise the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which up to now has largely gone along with whatever the Bush and Obama administrations have requested.

To their credit, members of the Senate also resisted a push by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, to strike a provision that would declassify some significant opinions by the secret surveillance court. In the end, Sen. McConnell, who fought against all the improvements in the House-passed version of the bill that the Senate ultimately approved, was effectively rebuked by members of his own party, who refused to follow his lead on a variety of bad amendments.

Beyond the actual changes in the law, the best aspect of the months-long effort to revise the old Patriot Act is that the people’s representatives in Washington actually held a long-overdue public debate on the fundamental question of the struggle between privacy and national security.

The revelations of Edward Snowden showed that the government had stretched the provisions of the Patriot Act to a point that shocked many Americans, not to mention more than a few members of Congress, and it was all done in secret. Repeated assertions by intelligence officials, and even President Obama - that it was all “for our own good” - did little to erase suspicions that the government was enhancing its powers of surveillance and intrusion without regard to the rights of citizens and the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution.

There is a lesson here for future administrations, and for future generations.

The first is that if the government wants Americans to accept a controversial program, it must never fear to present its arguments in public, where they can be subjected to the rigor of debate and skeptical inspection. That’s basic democracy.

The other lesson is that citizens who are stampeded into accepting encroachments on their liberties wake up one day and find the government has gone too far. In the wake of 9/11, there was little public support for those who questioned whether the Patriot Act was an overreaction that did more harm than good, posing a threat to basic liberties. The public’s fears were understandable, but, with the advantage of hindsight, it now appears the skeptics were right.




May 31

Tampa (Florida) Tribune on getting Amendment 1 correct this time:

Florida lawmakers keep reaching deeper in their bag of excuses for their refusal to faithfully implement Amendment 1, which voters overwhelmingly passed last fall to ensure adequate conservation funding.

Some lawmakers claim the state doesn’t need to buy more land, which is nonsense, given that state officials have identified 2 million unprotected acres that should be saved.

The claim also ignores the fact that many of the acres to be protected would remain private property, with the state preserving aquifer recharge areas, river corridors and key wildlife habitat by acquiring the development rights. This allows cattle and other operations to continue, but prevents the land from being paved over.

Other lawmakers say the state should concentrate on managing the land it already owns, ignoring the amendment, which clearly provided for preservation and management.

Now there is talk among legislators about how the amendment’s sponsors emphasized it did not remove appropriation powers from lawmakers when making the case for the ballot initiative before the Florida Supreme Court.

It’s another maneuver in the continuing attempt to defy voters.

Amendment 1 clearly and appropriately gives lawmakers reasonable latitude in spending, as was made clear to the court. But the amendment’s language that was approved by the court and the supporting campaign also made clear the amendment’s goal is land conservation. It is not intended to pay park ranger salaries or other such expenses, as some propose.

The amendment requires one-third of the state’s existing documentary stamp tax revenues be used for protecting and managing lands. It is expected to generate about $700 million a year. The measure did not raise taxes, and sunsets after 20 years.

It won 75 percent of the vote in November because voters understood the need to safeguard Florida’s vanishing natural treasures, which an indifferent Legislature had largely neglected in recent years.

Voters had no trouble appreciating the importance of protecting springs, rivers, lakes, beaches and forests in the nation’s third-largest state, which is again experiencing rapid population growth. Indeed, a voter needed only to survey Florida’s landscape, where natural lands are constantly being bulldozed and water resources being degraded, to erase any doubts about the measure’s necessity.

Amendment 1 offered a way to protect Florida’s natural riches - and without cumbersome regulations. The state could simply buy - or purchase the development rights to - environmentally important tracts.

Landowners rights were protected. The state only buys from willing sellers. Moreover, the doc stamps already were being collected; there was no tax increase. The stamps traditionally had been used for environmental purposes, but recent Legislatures have retreated from the land preservation championed by former Govs. Bob Martinez and Jeb Bush.

Lawmakers seemed to take offense at voters’ remarkable support for the amendment, as if they resented voters getting involved.

Legislative leaders have continually belittled the Amendment 1 vote and sought to minimize the need for land preservation.

There can be debate about the amount of money that should go to buying land. Those involved in the campaign wanted $170 million to go to the Florida Forever land acquisition program this first year, but were not offended by Gov. Rick Scott’s call to start that funding at $100 million.

In contrast, the Legislature has minimized land conservation. The House at one time proposed $10 million for Florida Forever; that was revised to $33 million. The Senate offered $37 million. The numbers have been fluid, and lawmakers do point out land that purchases would take place under programs other than Florida Forever.

But lawmakers, so far, are not using Amendment 1 to significantly bolster the effort to preserve our endangered natural heritage.

With the special session beginning Monday, the Legislature still has a chance to right what would be a historic wrong.

Voters told lawmakers what they want. Legislators should respect their will and the democratic process.




May 31

News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Florida, on health care funding:

The Florida Legislature this week goes to overtime with one objective: Pass a balanced budget. That’s the constitutionally mandated responsibility lawmakers shirked when their regular session ended in May, mired in an intraparty impasse over health care funding.

Failure to adopt a budget before the new fiscal year begins July 1 would trigger a government shutdown. With that untenable scenario hanging over the Capitol when it begins its special session Monday, Senate President Andy Gardiner has assured that legislators will “get a budget done” - and that this time, health care will not be an obstacle to it.

Unfortunately, that’s not optimism that a solution will be found. Rather, it means legislators are willing to punt the issue.

No one wants to see the stalemate on spending continue, but achieving a temporary truce on health care merely delays Florida’s day of reckoning. As the mechanic in the old car care commercial said, “You can pay me now, or pay me later.” Soon, the state is going to have to find a new way to fund health care for the indigent and uninsured.

The Obama administration recently gave Florida some breathing room when it tentatively approved a funding limit for the state’s Low Income Pool, the mix of state and federal money that compensates hospitals for providing care for the uninsured. Previously, it was widely believed that Washington would completely cut off its $1.3 billion contribution to the $2.2 billion LIP. Instead, the Obama administration signaled the LIP would continue but be drastically reduced - $1 billion in 2015-16, with the feds contributing about half. The next year, the LIP total would drop to $600 million, with the federal share similarly reduced.

Meanwhile, hospitals’ costs of providing care to the uninsured aren’t declining.

Washington at least has given the Legislature a budgeting target, should it decide to use state dollars to make up the difference from the feds. That could necessitate cutting spending in other areas of the budget, and/or scaling back the $600 million to $800 million in tax cuts Republicans are seeking.

The Senate would prefer to use federal funds, not state tax dollars, to pay for low-income health care. It has proposed accepting federal money to expand Medicaid coverage to 800,000 Floridans, which would replace the need for the LIP, as most of the uninsured who usually use emergency rooms for care would become insured.

The Senate, however, attempts to inject some market forces into the system by using the Medicaid funds to create a state exchange that offers private insurance to the uninsured. Its plan also would require participants to pay modest premiums and co-pays, and to be either employed or in school - provisions that proponents have called “conservative guardrails.”

The House rejected the Senate plan outright - it considered it lipstick on Obamacare - and refused to present an alternative, which left the two chambers about $4 billion apart in their budgets.

The Senate last week modified its proposal to make it more palatable to the House. For example, participants would no longer be required to enroll in Medicaid before joining the Florida Health Insurance Affordability Exchange. It also strengthened work requirements.

House Republicans remain unimpressed, and are skeptical the Obama administration would even approve such a plan. Gov. Rick Scott has effectively threatened to veto the Senate plan if it passes. However, the House finally unveiled its own set of health care reforms aimed at increasing competition in the marketplace to reduce costs. It could be a basis for negotiating a compromise with the Senate.

Let’s hope so. The Senate so far has been doing all the heavy lifting on this. It’s time the House rolled up its sleeves and got serious about a solution.

The LIP is an expensive and inefficient way to cover health care costs for the indigent. It was intended to be a stopgap measure when it was created a decade ago, and finally is being phased out by the federal government. The state must come up with a new and better way of addressing uncompensated care, because the problem isn’t going away - Florida has the second-highest total of low-income, uninsured adults in the nation.

The longer the Legislature waits to act, the more costly it will be to fix.





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