- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:


April 26

The South Florida Sun Sentinel on proposed solar amendment:

Consumers for Smart Solar has won the right to put the group’s proposed constitutional amendment on the November ballot.

Further, a spokesman says the group - which is supported by major utilities including Florida Power & Light, Duke Energy Florida, Gulf Power and Tampa Electric - “looks forward to making our case to the people of Florida that we must advance solar energy - and do it in the right way - a way that protects all consumers, whether they choose solar or not.”

OK. We’ll listen to their arguments in the coming months. But the Florida Supreme Court opinion barely approving the ballot language - as well as the history of how this proposed amendment came into being - leave us for the time being in the Highly Skeptical category.

We are skeptical that the high court should have approved the amendment’s ballot language. And we are skeptical that the substance of the amendment - if it should become state policy at all - belongs in the state Constitution rather than in statute.

The Supreme Court approved the amendment’s language, including the ballot title “Rights of Electricity Consumers Regarding Solar Energy Choice,” by a slim 4-3 majority.

The ballot summary says the amendment gives individual consumers a constitutional right to own or lease solar equipment, that governments have the right to regulate solar and that “those who do not choose to install solar” are not required to “subsidize” those who do.

The approval means only that the language meets the legal requirements. It does not mean that the justices think voters should approve the amendment.

The key legal requirement is that the ballot language must not be misleading. The three dissenting justices make a plausible case that the language is indeed misleading.

Justice Barbara Pariente writes: “Let the pro-solar energy consumers beware. Masquerading as a pro-solar energy initiative, this proposed constitutional amendment, supported by some of Florida’s major investor-owned electric utility companies, actually seeks to constitutionalize the status quo. The ballot title is affirmatively misleading by its focus on ‘Solar Energy Choice,’ when no real choice exists for those who favor expansion of solar energy.”

Pariente continues that “there is already a right to use solar equipment for individual use afforded by the Florida Constitution and existing Florida statutes and regulations.” She emphasizes that the word “subsidize” is vague and open to wildly different interpretations.

Those are very strong words of caution that suggest that, if the amendment is passed, utility companies could use it to block competitors by claiming they are insufficiently regulated or somehow impose a subsidy.

The Smart Solar amendment is the survivor in confusing, dueling attempts to put solar-related amendments on the ballot. The first to try was Floridians for Solar Choice. In the end, it was not able to collect the necessary signatures.

That amendment’s supporters said it was necessary to allow solar firms and individuals with rooftop solar to provide alternatives to Florida’s big utilities, which, those supporters said, have been using their economic and political clout to squelch competition.

The utilities, in reply, claimed that the Solar Choice amendment would allow unregulated utilities to sprout in Florida and further, could force customers who didn’t benefit from solar power to subsidize those who did.

There really is no need for the Smart Solar amendment since the Solar Choice proposal failed. But Solar Choice could be revived in another election year. Besides, the utility-backed Smart Solar folks see a chance to do a political victory dance.

What are voters to make of all these allegations of obfuscation? We hope it makes them skeptical, too. The supporters of Smart Solar brag that an early poll shows significant support. If so, it is unearned because no full debate has taken place.

Would Smart Solar be good policy? Should it be in the Constitution? Approval would require 60 percent of voters to say “yes.” It is not at all clear that would be smart.




April 24

The Citizen on the Zika virus:

Not by choice perhaps, but again an island in Florida is proposed as the test site for the biologic control of a seriously damaging insect pest. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has determined that there are not deleterious effects on the environment or people by the release of genetically modified mosquitoes. At present, there is a waiting period to allow public comment on the proposal of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control district to release the genetically modified Aedes aegypti mosquitoes in Key Haven to ascertain if the existing population of this mosquito can be greatly reduced or even eliminated. The modified male mosquitoes possess a lethal gene that prevents their offspring from developing. Recent tests in the Cayman Islands, Panama and Brazil have shown that this procedure reduces mosquito populations enormously, up to 99 percent. In this context, it should be noted that the lethal gene does not persist following the collapse of a treated population; this was recently established in Panama.

In spite of vigorous efforts at mosquito control in this hemisphere, the mosquitoes have been winning and are more difficult to control because of growing to insecticides. Further, possibly due to warmer than normal seasons, Aedes aegypti has been on a steady northward march and is now well entrenched in our southern states. They are thriving in the Florida Keys; one notices them in our homes and yards regularly with their darting flight, small size and ability to breed in small amounts of water.

Back in the 1950s, Sanibel Island was the test site for irradiated screwworm flies which had been decimating the cattle industry. The irradiated screwworm flies, like the GM mosquitoes, could not produce offspring when they mated. Millions of the irradiated screwworms were dropped from small planes in cattle grazing areas and the concept worked, ultimately eradicating screwworm disease from the United States, Mexico, Guatemala and Belize - an enormously successful insect control story.

By now, we are all well aware of the inexorable march of the Zika virus into our country. So far, close to 1,000 cases have been identified but all seem to have been contracted while in other countries suffering from the Zika epidemic or in Puerto Rico, where the virus is already circulating locally. In recent weeks, it has been medically confirmed that the Zika virus indeed can cause microcephaly and other brain defects in human fetuses. In some countries, there are governmental recommendations to delay pregnancy until the epidemic has run its course. There is also fairly strong correlation between Guillain-Barre syndrome and Zika infection in adults.

Once a Zika infected individual is bitten by an Aedes aeqypti mosquito in our fair city where that species is already dominant, that mosquito simply has to bite someone else, transmitting the virus, and the disease will begin its inexorable move throughout southern Florida, unless we are already moving vigorously to eliminate Aedes aegypti mosquitoes. And clearly our best means of doing this is the intent of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control district to utilize the genetically modified males.

Another great advantage of this mode of biological control is that we would avoid drenching the Keys with pesticides, which will be necessary if we have no alternative. Under this scenario, “good insects” such as Ladybugs and Monarch butterflies will be dissipated, birds, reptiles and fish that eat insects will pick up significant body burdens of insecticides, and so will we human beings.

It needs to be stressed that the proposed trial involving Key Haven is not intended to determine safety of using genetically modified mosquitoes - that has already been thoroughly confirmed and vetted by the FDA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other governmental agencies. Brazil is breeding and utilizing these mosquitoes to fight Zika as fast as they can be created, and they also went through a deliberate and careful evaluative safety evaluation. Our need now is proof of efficacy, that is, will the procedure result in a rapid diminution in the Aedes aegypti population currently thriving on and around Key Haven. There are strong expectations, based on the experience in Brazil, the Cayman Islands and other locales that indeed, the field trial will work. In that fortunate event, it becomes cost effective to get a large scale program under way. Incidentally, in a recent Purdue University survey, some 78 percent of respondents supported the use of genetically engineered mosquitoes to counter the Zika virus.

Genetically modified tends to elicit a negative reaction when in reality, much of the food we eat is the result of significant genetic intervention. Clearly, better education and understanding is in order. It is helpful to remember the work of Norman Borlaug, credited with the “Green Revolution” and winner of the Nobel Prize in 1970 and subsequently the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Borlaug is credited with saving billions of lives by his genetic interventions with wheat and other food plants. He developed higher-yielding, shorter, sturdier varieties, initially in Mexico converting that country into an exporter of wheat. We consume wheat and other plant varieties he developed on a daily basis. He overcame hostility from native farmers, and fellow scientists. When he tried to introduce better fertilizing and farming techniques to Africa, he was initially stymied by conservation biologists but he ultimately prevailed, when famine occurred in Ethiopia and he emerged from retirement to transform farming in many African countries and thereby stave off hunger. One of his last publications was titled “Ending world hunger: the promise of biotechnology and the threat of antiscience zealotry.”

We need to push ahead with the solution to an imminent Zika threat and listen to the good science provided to us.




April 26

The Orlando Sentinel on legislation regarding payday loans:

Florida’s congressional delegation is in rare bipartisan accord on an issue. Unfortunately, it’s the wrong position.

The issue is the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s plan to regulate payday loans. Since 7 percent of Floridians must resort to this predatory form of small-dollar credit - nearly the highest rate in the nation - the state delegation should back the push for regulation. Instead, Democrats and Republicans are backing the industry.

The issue has attracted attention in South Florida recently because Tim Canova, who is challenging U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston in the Democratic primary, has criticized the incumbent for her support of House Resolution 4018. It would delay federal regulation for two years and could prevent federal regulation in states like Florida that have created rules for payday lenders. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Wasserman Schultz has received $68,000 in contributions from payday lenders.

Rep. Dennis Ross, a Lakeland Republican, sponsored HR 4018, but Wasserman Schultz signed on as a co-sponsor. So did Rep. Patrick Murphy of Jupiter, who’s running in the U.S. Senate Democratic primary. So did Rep. David Jolly of Indian Shores, who’s running in the Republican Senate primary.

Also among the co-sponsors are Democrat Corrine Brown of Jacksonville, whose current district includes parts of Central Florida, and Republican Bill Posey of Rockledge. Half the 24 co-sponsors are from Florida. Many have received contributions from payday lenders. Their argument against federal regulation rests on the false premise that Florida’s 2001 regulation is adequate.

Payday loan customers get a cash advance, to be repaid from their next paycheck at very high interest rates. Most customers live paycheck to paycheck. Payday lenders are especially visible in minority neighborhoods. Military officials have complained that payday lenders target the nation’s soldiers and sailors.

The Legislature did cap the loan amount at $500 and restricted the term to no more than 31 days. But the Florida Alliance for Consumer Protection said that what lenders and their supporters call “best practices” for the industry are “well-disguised loopholes for their high-cost loans.”

Indeed, no credible evidence supports the idea that Florida’s legislation is what Ross called the “gold standard.” There is much credible evidence to the contrary.

Last month, the Center for Responsible Lending presented a report called “Perfect Storm: Payday Lenders Harm Florida Consumers Despite State Law.” For the year ending last May, the report calculated that the average loan was about $400 and came with nearly $43 in fees. Based on a 14-day loan term, the typical payday loan thus had an Annual Percentage Rate of 278 percent. Many lenders advertise rates of more than 300 percent.

As payday lenders have acknowledged, the big money comes from repeat customers, whom critics say become trapped in a cycle of debt. For the most recent year in Florida, 83 percent of customers took out seven or more loans in a year.

Wasserman Schultz’s spokesman noted her many votes against Republican legislation to weaken the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, whose creation she supported. By backing the payday loan industry, however, she goes against the president whom she serves as Democratic National Chairwoman and - more important - the constituents whom the industry exploits.

Wasserman Schultz and the others should not swim with loan sharks.



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