- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

March 23

Miami Herald on prison:

The state Senate is on its way to getting the most bang for the 6.9 million bucks that the Appropriations Committee wants to put into pulling the Department of Corrections out of its pit of iniquity. It would create an oversight commission to investigate abuse. It’s a signal that state Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, and committee members are off to a good start.

Not so in the House, unfortunately.

Last week, the committee voted unanimously in support of SB 7020, which would create the Florida Corrections Commission. Its nine members would have the authority to investigate allegations of corruption, fraud and abuse in Florida’s prisons. Commission staffers could make surprise inspections of the state’s prisons, including, most important, those run by private contractors. It would require special training for sexual-abuse investigations and “in the effective, nonforceful management of mentally ill inmates who may exhibit erratic behavior.”

The big push is a direct result of reports in the Miami Herald and other media outlets of horrific instances of torture, abuse, gassing and killings that corrections officers have meted out, mostly with impunity, and the many cover-ups that followed. In some instances, cover-ups weren’t necessary because those in authority did a great job of ensuring that no outside scrutiny ever intruded.

The proposed Florida Corrections Commission, however, can only be as effective as its membership. As the bill wends its way through the session, lawmakers should reconsider how its nine members are appointed.

Right now, the governor would name all of its members. That could be a recipe for maintaining a dangerous status quo if a governor decided to pack the panel with industry insiders. It’s been done, which is why little progress was made under Gov. Rick Scott in comprehensively reforming negligent assisted living facilities.

To really get the difficult task of prison reform done, lawmakers should allow independent bodies of experts from areas such as the legal and mental-health communities, the judiciary and, yes, the prison industry to make recommendations to the slate of nominees.

Last year, 346 inmates died behind bars in Florida prisons, a record. Most died from natural causes. Of course, when sick prisoners die because they were denied medical attention, an accusation made against several institutions, is the death from natural causes or from calculated neglect?

Sen. Evers has done a laudable job putting his legislative muscle behind substantive reform. He has made unannounced visits to tour facilities in North Florida, held hearings seeking testimony from corrections employees and now is pushing his reform bill.

Credit, too, South Florida lawmakers on the Appropriations Committee - Sens. Anitere Flores and René García, both Republicans, and Democratic Sens. Gwen Margolis and Chris Smith - for recognizing the need to act.

So it’s a baffling disappointment that the House version of this bill decimates SB 7020’s attempts to impose oversight. In fact, the House completely eliminates the Florida Corrections Commission. This would be an irresponsible, head-in-the-sand approach. People are being raped, tortured and killed in the institutions that lawmakers, ultimately, sanction - and that their constituents, indeed all taxpaying Floridians, are funding.

It’s still early in this 2015 legislative session, and we can only hope that House lawmakers come to their senses.




March 23

Tampa (Florida) Tribune on flawed write-in law:

The folly of the state’s write-in candidate laws was on full display last year in the Florida House District 64 race in the Tampa Bay area.

A write-in candidate, who didn’t live in the district, elbowed his way onto the ballot by filling out a few forms. His entrance sparked a lawsuit over residency requirements that resulted in the District 64 election being postponed from November until April.

That means 158,000 people who live in the district, which covers parts of Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, have nobody representing them in the state House of Representatives during the ongoing legislative session until after the April 21 special election, which, by the way, will cost taxpayers as much as $400,000 to hold.

It’s another embarrassing testament to a flawed write-in law in desperate need of an overhaul. We urge lawmakers to put party loyalties aside and back efforts not only to fix the ambiguity over the residency requirements, but to eliminate the bigger problems associated with laws that allow write-in candidates to corrupt the primary process.

Voters in 1998 backed a referendum that opens a primary to all registered voters when only two candidates from the same party qualify. That gives voice to all voters in a district when deciding who represents them.

But the law fails to address write-in candidates, creating a loophole that allows the presence of a write-in to close a primary to only those voters registered to the same party as the candidates on the ballot. It also forces a general election between the primary winner and the write-ins who are, with few exceptions, candidates with no earthly chance of winning. In fact, many are puppets recruited to run by political parties wanting only their voters to decide a primary, at the exclusion of voters from competing parties and independents.

Add to that giant loophole the flaw in election law that resulted in conflicting judicial rulings this past year. The District 64 write-in candidate didn’t live in the district when he filed to run, but established a district residency at the time of the election. The courts split on whether the write-in had to live in the district at the time of his filing. The legal fight led to delays that pushed the election to April.

Because his Republican primary opponent didn’t qualify for a rescheduled primary, District 64 incumbent state Rep. Jamie Grant now faces a phony candidate in a special election he is sure to win. Meanwhile, Grant has been reduced to sitting on the sidelines while legislators in Tallahassee consider water policy, the spending of Amendment 1 appropriations, gambling and other issues.

There are proposals to fix these write-in problems. State Rep. Joseph Geller, a Democrat from South Florida, has filed bills to clarify the residency requirements, eliminating future legal fights over that question, and to open the primary to all voters regardless of whether a write-in candidate appears on the ballot. The loophole allowing phony write-in candidates, Geller rightly says, “is the kind of thing that fosters public cynicism in the electoral process.” Yet the parties are reluctant to change the law, preferring to have the loophole available when it suits their purposes.

Not surprisingly, the measure to end the ambiguity over residency requirements is moving ahead in the Legislature, while the measure to eliminate the closing of a primary with a write-in on the ballot appears stuck in committee. It’s even been stripped from a similar bill in the Senate.

As we’ve said before, it’s an outrage that the law allows write-in candidates to get on the ballot without having to pay a fee or gather signatures - as is required of traditional candidates - and that their presence closes primaries and triggers a general election. Be mindful that no write-in candidate has ever won an election in Florida.

The remedy is simple: Write-in candidates should be included in a universal primary where everyone votes. This would allow them to participate, but preclude them from throwing an election into disarray. It would end the abuse by both parties, and it would recognize the importance of including the growing number of independent voters in Florida.

Every lawmaker should by sympathetic to the ridiculous circumstance Grant finds himself in, and use the lessons of the 2014 District 64 primary as a springboard for enacting all of the needed changes.



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