- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

May 12

Miami Herald on reforming prisons:

Gov. Rick Scott’s executive order affirms that the state of Florida is serious about prison reform. And his signature should just be the beginning of what must be done to eliminate the well-documented and flagrant brutality that has been allowed to fester behind prison walls.

When the 2015 legislative session lurched to an abrupt and unseemly end because of the House-Senate breakdown over Medicaid expansion, several important issues fell into the abyss, left unaddressed and, essentially, dead. Prison reform was one of the most pressing.

Scott, however, stepped in - and stepped up. Through his executive order, signed last week, the governor put remedial legislation that got derailed back on track. The Senate had taken the lead during the session to put reforms in place. The chamber was led, and pushed, by Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, who deserves all due credit for taking on this issue with resolve.

The stories unearthed by Herald writer Julie Brown - who this week won the 2015 Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for her work - were horrific. Corrections officers scalding an inmate to death, or meting out beatings, rapes and gassings - while supervisors looked the other way. Whistleblowers were punished. The inspector general was lackadaisical …

Sen. Evers held hearings, showed up unannounced at corrections facilities and was working on tough legislation when the session hit the wall - the House closing up shop three days early. The governor’s executive order puts initiatives from both the House and Senate in motion.

They tighten up on regulations governing the use of force in state prisons; protect staffers who report wrongdoing from retaliation and make administrators track more closely the use of the chemicals sprayed in order to subdue unruly prisoners.

In addition, any employee who resorts to physical force or who sanctions the use of force must sign a report, under oath, within a day of the incident.

In addition, sexual-abuse investigators will have to undergo specialized training.

Most, if not all, of these reforms were already within the power of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones to put in place. That Gov. Scott has added his own imprimatur to the push for change should give her the confidence to fully implement these more stringent guidelines - and to push for more. The reforms represent progress, yes; however, they also represent what had become a weak-tea version of reform initiatives in the Legislature.

The Senate pushed to create an independent prison-oversight commission, something that was opposed by leaders in the House. Why would House lawmakers not want to know what is and isn’t working in the prison system, how effectively taxpayers’ money is being spent and how to improve conditions not only for inmates but especially for corrections officers and other workers doing a difficult and dangerous job?

Sen. Evers and others on the Senate’s Criminal Justice Committee also are right to be concerned that the agency’s current inspector general’s office has been far from diligent in getting to the bottom of the many bloody, brutal incidents in corrections facilities and the coverups that followed. It’s doubtful that DOC can, or should, police itself.

The Senate was right to seek more muscular reform. It shouldn’t give up this fight. The reforms ordered by Gov. Scott are overdue and welcome, but they only skim the surface.




May 11

Tampa (Florida) Tribune on renewing the Seminole gambling deal:

Among the many issues left in limbo by the chaotic ending of this year’s regular legislative session is the fate of a gambling deal the state has with the Seminole Tribe.

Signed five years ago, the deal grants the tribe exclusivity for certain games in return for a piece of the profits. The deal has delivered over $1 billion to the state while preventing the spread of high-stakes gambling in Florida.

But the deal expires at the end of July unless the tribe and the state agree to new terms. Lawmakers should recognize the benefits the deal brings and make a new Seminole deal a priority when they meet again in June to consider a state budget. If nothing else, the state should reprise a bill that died at the end of the regular session and would have extended the Seminole deal for another year while the larger questions that surround gambling in Florida are sorted out.

Understandably, the Seminole Tribe is losing patience. In a letter to Gov. Rick Scott and legislative leaders, Tribal Chairman James Billie formally requested a return to negotiations in good faith. “The certainty provided by a multi-year agreement to renew the banked card games would allow the Tribe to move forward with plans to invest over $1.6 billion in capital improvements and hire thousands of new employees,” Billie wrote.

A big chunk of those capital improvements would be in Tampa, where the tribe is considering a substantial hotel expansion at its casino along Interstate 4.

Renewing the deal was lost in the debate about gambling expansion that occurs every legislative session. State Rep. Dana Young, a Republican from Tampa, introduced a wide-ranging bill that would have opened the state to resort-style casinos in South Florida and more slot machines, rather than renew the Seminole deal.

Fortunately, the bill was watered down and lost in the ugly meltdown that marked the end of the regular session. Because of that meltdown, lawmakers must still approve a state budget when they meet again next month.

But any other business outside of budget talks will have to be outlined in the call for a special session. Finding a way to renew or extend the Seminole deal merits inclusion on the special session’s agenda.

The deal was negotiated by Gov. Charlie Crist and has turned out to be beneficial for the state on a number of fronts. It allows the Seminoles to offer blackjack, slot machines and certain other games at five of its seven casinos in return for giving the state at least $1 billion over the five years of the deal.

The tribe has delivered on that return. Moreover, gambling in Florida has been restricted by the exclusivity agreement.

Eliminating the deal and allowing resort casinos and more slot machines into the state will damage its family-friendly reputation and cause more harm than good to the economy. And it might force the Seminoles to seek relief from the federal courts, which could order the two sides into mediation with an uncertain outcome.

The deal struck five years ago is working. Lawmakers should fashion a similar deal when they meet again this summer.




May 13

News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Florida, on governor’s commission on hospitals:

Gov. Rick Scott’s newly formed Commission on Healthcare and Hospital Funding is at best a distraction from the Florida House’s abdication of its responsibility to address health care funding for the uninsured - and at worst a crude and transparent attempt to intimidate hospitals that supported the Senate’s proposal to expand Medicaid.

With the state facing a $1.3 billion shortfall in federal funding for low-income health care, the governor has sided with the House in blaming Washington for turning off the money spigot, despite the fact that the Obama administration notified the state months ago that it would stop contributing to Florida’s Low-Income Pool. That gave state officials plenty of time to come up with alternatives to assist hospitals with the costs of providing indigent care.

The Senate responded by drafting a program that would accept federal money for expanding Medicaid coverage to 800,000 Floridians, but add conservative, free-market “guardrails” on how those funds are spent. The proposal is widely supported by hospitals around the state. However, the House not only refused to consider the Senate plan, it declined to offer a serious counterproposal. That has created a stalemate whereby the Legislature failed to pass a budget in its recently concluded regular session, forcing it to convene a special session in June for another attempt.

Instead of brokering a compromise in Tallahassee, Scott is employing his executive powers to put pressure on the hospital industry (and by extension, the Senate) to relent. Last week he used his governor’s pen to create a commission that will examine the financial data of hospitals and insurance companies - the salaries and benefits of their executive staffs, management, lobbyists and legal counsel; their revenues and their profit margins with regard to Medicaid, Medicare and private insurance; their amount of debt; inpatient and outpatient admissions; and how much charity care they provide.

In addition, Scott has called on hospitals to start sharing what he calls “record-high profits” in order to balance the state budget, and wants them to submit plans to the commission by May 26. That’s a recklessly short timetable for a proposal that ignores fundamental differences in how private for-profit, private nonprofit and public hospitals operate.

The whole exercise promises to be the most uncomfortable kind of invasive exam. And it will be conducted by those with little or no knowledge of the industry.

Monday, the governor appointed the commission’s nine members - none of whom has ever been a hospital executive, and only one of whom appears to have significant medical experience. The chairman, Carlos Beruff of Sarasota, is a homebuilder who donated $80,000 to Scott’s re-election campaign and another $15,000 to the Republican Party of Florida during the 2014 election cycle.

There are legitimate questions about the relationship between health care funding and patient outcomes. But that is a deeply complex issue that requires a thorough investigation by a diverse panel, at least some of whose members should have the expertise to know what to ask and how to interpret the answers.

Furthermore, the facade of the commission’s justification - the governor’s supposed desire to ensure that taxpayer dollars are being spent wisely and effectively - is undermined by the supreme irony that Scott served as CEO of Columbia/HCA, the nation’s largest for-profit hospital chain, which was fined a record $1.7 billion by the federal government for Medicare fraud that occurred on Scott’s watch.

A genuinely objective Commission on Healthcare and Hospital Funding might be appropriate in the future. But now is not the time to launch it, when it will be employed as a blunt instrument in a political and budgeting crisis.



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