- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

March 3

Miami Herald on Gov. Scott’s State of Speech:

Floridians saw a looser, more relaxed Gov. Rick Scott on Tuesday when he delivered the first State of the State speech of his second term. He even drew laughter when he called the occasion “a chance for me to show off my world-renowned oratorical skills.”

Good one, governor.

Unfortunately, the welcome change in style was not accompanied by a similar change in substance.

The governor reiterated his goals of cutting taxes, spending more on public education and freezing graduate school tuition, but he offered few hints about how to reach those goals. Also absent was any mention of some tough problems facing the Legislature. Lawmakers would have found guidance from the governor far more useful than repeated praise for Florida’s “exceptionalism.”

The governor’s proposed budget contains prime examples of the issues he failed to address. His call for reduced taxation makes good on a promise to voters, but lawmakers say they still don’t have the money to pay for all of Mr. Scott’s campaign vows, and he offered no clue about how to select priorities.

The governor wants $700 million in tax cuts and, commendably, record per-pupil spending in public schools. As Rep. Mark Pafford of West Palm Beach pointed out in the Democratic reply, though, the education increase is accomplished by raising school-district taxes at the local level, in addition to what the state can pitch in. That’s hard to square with the repeated mantra of lower taxes coming from Mr. Scott.

That surplus that his budget envisions is no sure thing, either. To get there, it ignores a huge hole created by the upcoming end of a federal program for hospitals that treat low-income patients. Without that $1.3 billion, the “surplus” turns into an illusion.

A related and glaringly obvious problem is that Florida has one of the highest rates in the nation for individuals without health insurance - not the kind of “exceptionalism” to brag about.

Accepting federal funding for Medicaid expansion would end that unhappy distinction, a move bravely supported by Senate President Andy Gardiner. Here’s a perfect opportunity for Mr. Scott to expend some of the political capital that comes with a new second term, but he was silent on Tuesday instead of urging reluctant lawmakers to undergo a change of heart.

Likewise, he had nothing to say about the scandal in state prisons. Mr. Scott needs to weigh in on a legislative proposal to wrest control away from the executive office and place it in the hands of an appointed commission, but on that topic, as well, Mr. Scott had nothing to say.

Gov. Scott has shown leadership and good judgment in some areas, such as testing public school students. That makes it all the more baffling that he skirted the issue altogether in his speech, even though the epic statewide failure of the test system one day earlier underlined the urgent nature of the problem.

The governor wisely ordered a partial halt to one series of tests recently, drawing praise from parents and teachers, but he passed up the chance to speak up about the obsession with testing.

None of this augurs well for the upcoming legislative session. The Republican-led Legislature needs guidance on all of the above issues, as well as on others that carry equal urgency. Lawmakers may agree or disagree with the state’s chief executive - as will we - but getting his input and ideas is far preferable to leaving the impression that the state is rudderless.




March 2

Tampa (Florida) Tribune on flood insurance:

The best way to fix the state’s looming flood insurance crisis is to create a marketplace that makes it easier for private companies to sell policies. State Sen. Jeff Brandes, who pushed last year to create a private market, is back this year with another proposal that would give private companies and customers a range of coverage options while at the same time giving assurances to lenders that the policies meet or exceed those offered by the federal government.

The proposal would also build an accurate database of flood elevations in the state’s counties, rather than rely on a flawed federal effort that has been stalled for years.

Brandes, a Republican from St. Petersburg, should be applauded for continuing to attack an issue that caused panic a couple of years ago as changes to the Federal Flood Insurance Program threatened to slam tens of thousands of Florida homeowners with huge rate increases.

In many instances, the homes weren’t near the water and of modest value, exposing flaws in a federal program that had fallen $24 billion in debt.

State Rep. Larry Ahern, a Republican from Seminole, is sponsoring a companion bill in the House. “It’s about finding ways to reduce premiums,” he says. “Let’s get this thing going in the right direction.”

The crisis over flood insurance premiums erupted after Congress passed the Biggert-Waters Act, which targeted the unsustainable subsidies offered under the Federal Flood Insurance Program.

But eliminating the subsidies meant thousands of property owners were suddenly faced with flood insurance bills that were 10 times or 20 times more expensive than the previous year. The sharp increases left many homeowners in financial peril and threatened to drive buyers away from property sales at a time when the housing recovery was beginning to rebound in Florida.

Congress reacted by passing legislation that lessened some of the increases and delayed or softened the crisis for many homeowners, but that left commercial property owners and the owners of second homes without relief.

Now the trick is to create laws and policies that will provide affordable flood insurance without government-funded subsidies, and that will reflect the actual risk.

Attracting private insurers into the market is the most reasonable solution. As the Tribune’s Josh Boatwright reports, the bills by Brandes and Ahern would attempt to lower premiums by providing plans that cover only the value of a home’s mortgage, rather than the full replacement cost. Or policies that could exclude a detached garage from the coverage. The idea is to provide choices for property owners that might be more affordable.

In Congress, U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross, a Republican from Lakeland, and U.S. Rep. David Jolly, a Republican from Indian Shores, are considering ways to encourage lenders to accept private insurance coverage on mortgages backed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac.

And Jolly has filed a bill to bring immediate relief to the owners of second homes and commercial property owners passed over in the fix Congress passed last year.

The need to fix the flood insurance market is particularly acute in Florida, which is home to 37 percent of all the policies written by the National Flood Insurance Program. Yet despite that outsized participation, the state has received just $3.7 billion of the $50 billion paid out by the federal government over the years. In other words, we are a huge donor state to a broken program.

Whether private insurers or lenders embrace the changes remains to be seen. But working to end the subsidies, eliminate the debt, and fashion policies that reflect the risk represent a sensible way forward.




March 1

The Gainesville (Florida) Sun on early education:

Research shows that 85 percent of children’s brains are developed by age 3, yet our country spends an inadequate amount of time and money on educating children in their early years.

Florida is one of just three states to offer free pre-kindergarten to all 4-year-olds. Today, around three-quarters of eligible children participate in the voluntary program.

But like so many things in Florida, we haven’t properly funded the program. Per-child spending dropped after its inception, before finally starting to creep back up.

Florida is among the best in the nation in pre-kindergarten access, but ranks 35th in state spending, according to a 2013 report by the National Institute for Early Education Research.

The report found the state met just three of 10 benchmarks related to early learning standards, falling short in categories such as teacher degrees and training. Only Texas met fewer standards.

While Florida’s program has been found to prepare students for kindergarten much better than those who don’t participate, it could be doing far more. Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman has found that investing early in low-income children helps produce higher graduation rates and earnings and lower crime and other social problems down the line.

In recent years, the rhetoric around early learning has finally started to acknowledge this reality. Officials from President Barack Obama down to Alachua County Public Schools Superintendent Owen Roberts are focusing on the importance of early childhood education.

Last week, Roberts revealed the latest part of his plan for local schools: transforming the under-enrolled and low-performing Duval Elementary into an early education center. It will serve pre-K, kindergarten and Head Start students.

The idea comes on the heels of his plan to transform six buses into mobile parent academies, teaching parents skills to help educate their children. The plans show that Roberts understands that the success of students can be determined before they enter the K-12 system.

More can, and should, be done. Among Florida’s early-learning deficiencies is a wait list of about 63,000 in a school readiness program, including about 300 in Alachua County.

State lawmakers are considering boosting standards for pre-K and school-readiness providers, but that must come with a meaningful funding increase. Providing training for early-education providers is better than simply creating another unfunded mandate.

Locally we shouldn’t wait for the state to act. If our business community wants an educated workforce, it must help ensure students don’t enter the school system already behind.

Expanding and enhancing early childhood education isn’t some touchy-feely idea. The benefits are supported by hard data from brain research to economic studies. If we’re smart, we’ll spend more on our youngest children and all reap the rewards later.





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