- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

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Dec. 6

The Ocala Star-Banner on state higher education goals:

Florida’s political leaders want a lot out of state colleges and universities: higher graduation rates, an increase in degrees and certificates granted, and top-ranked quality.

But such lofty goals come at a cost - and thanks to the decisions they’ve made in recent years, the state won’t have much if any new revenue to pay for these priorities.

At least state leaders’ rhetoric shows they recognize that high-quality colleges and universities are key to Florida’s economic prosperity. The research and students produced at state institutions are critical to diversifying Florida’s economy and ensuring it has the workforce for 21st century jobs.

State Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, has said he wants Florida’s universities to be elite, national destination schools. Gov. Rick Scott has said state universities shouldn’t settle for anything less than being No. 1 in the country.

Scott has also pushed for colleges and universities to improve graduation rates and better place students into jobs. The state Higher Education Coordinating Council recently set a goal for 55 percent of Florida’s working-age population to have college degrees and professional certificates by 2020, up from 47 percent today.

Achieving such goals won’t be easy - or cheap. Yet Scott has suggested universities should be able to improve quality and cut costs, while opposing any increases in tuition rates that are among the nation’s lowest.

Negron has proposed increasing state higher education funding by $1 billion over two years but faces a budget reality that will make the plan difficult to accomplish. The Joint Legislative Budget Commission has projected just a $7.5 million surplus next session, with deficits in subsequent years.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, has made more dour predictions. He said last month that he considered the surplus figure to be “fictional” and expects revenues “are going to be at best flatlined and at worst we could have a deficit.”

The Republican-led Legislature and governor have made for a more difficult revenue outlook by pushing through tax cuts in a state already lacking a personal income tax. As a result, state colleges and universities will be pitted against K-12 schools, environmental initiatives and health care programs in seeking needed funding rather than cuts.

Colleges and universities have the advantage of being able to raise tuition - if Scott would agree to it. Schools such as the college of Central Florida and the University of Florida have been successful in ensuring students graduate and get jobs, efforts that could be enhanced and expanded with an adequate investment.

CF has been ranked among the top community colleges in the nation by the Aspen Institute in part due to programs that have improved student retention and degree completion. UF was No. 1 among public universities in the U.S. for graduate employability in recent rankings by London-based Times Higher Education magazine.

Replicating such achievements statewide will require funding. Given the unlikelihood of any tax increase, the money will have to come from slashing other important programs or raising tuition. And any tuition hike makes it more important to fund need-based aid, or ensure the merit-based Bright Futures scholarships are more widely available by putting a means test in them.

The lofty rhetoric of state officials when it comes to state colleges and universities is soon going to come into conflict with hard budget realities. If they truly want Florida to have the best higher education system in the nation, they’re going to have to come up with a way to pay for it.

Online:

https://www.ocala.com/

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Dec. 3

The Naples Daily News on the 2017 legislative session:

The 2017 legislative session is three months away, but forecasts about the state’s revenue for the next two years stalling or declining already should be creating angst in Southwest Florida.

Even the recent collegial assurance that the legislative chambers will work collaboratively despite philosophical differences doesn’t ease our concern. After all, we heard the same statements before the start of the 2015 session that melted down into early adjournment and overtime on adopting a budget.

Stoking our worry are estimates that, just when we were seeing our economy stabilize after the Great Recession, state revenue is forecast to remain flat in 2017 and create a $1 billion hole in the Florida budget the next year.

State Rep. Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula, cited those sobering figures Wednesday night at a Naples Daily News forum about Florida beaches. It came following the “Shrinking Shores” series that pointed out Florida is committing a meager $30 million annually toward beach preservation in a state where half of the 825 miles of shoreline is categorized as critically eroded.

In addition to money for signature beaches, we now worry more about other issues important to Southwest Florida that we’ve recently addressed:

- We were encouraged by new Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, proposing use of bond money to acquire 60,000 acres for a water-cleansing reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee. Negron wants to commit $2.4 billion to reduce lake discharges into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers.

- We were persuaded during the recent Collier legislative delegation hearing of the societal and taxpayer benefits of an increased commitment to mental health programs in Florida, which now ranks 49th among states in per capital mental health spending.

- We’ve identified safe, affordable homes for all as the No. 1 issue facing Collier and believe part of the answer lies in the Legislature parting from past practices of raiding a real estate tax-driven trust fund to support affordable housing. That was done to balance the budget.

- We still feel slighted by the maneuver two years ago that left Collier, top-rated for a veterans nursing home, without one. The community chosen instead is still waiting, with costs having escalated from $39 million to $59 million. That’s not encouraging for the future for one here.

- Although House leadership doesn’t support it, we’ve seen value in Gov. Rick Scott’s call for $85 million to help keep and lure companies to Florida, provided an in-progress remake of Enterprise Florida is successful.

Delegation requests

On top of these, we note some of the impressive presentations made at the recent Collier legislative delegation meeting:

- Florida Gulf Coast University, which to its credit looked for another way - not the state — to pay to build a wellness center to replace a cramped and outdated one, requested $44 million for construction of an additional academic building for its growing student population. Lab space is nearly exhausted, FGCU President Wilson Bradshaw said.

- Florida SouthWestern State College, which likewise went to donors - not the state — to enable it to build the newly opened arena on its Fort Myers campus, requested $6.1 million to renovate a 25-year-old Collier campus building. Such projects don’t get less expensive with time and FSW isn’t asking for a replacement new building.

- The Healthcare Network of Southwest Florida seeks $5 million to help build a treatment center in Golden Gate, estimating it can serve a working-class area numbering 50,000 and 10,000 children - including many families without financial means for medical, dental and behavioral health care.

- An agricultural industry representative urged support for $1 million in a state institution’s budget to further research efforts in the fields and $8.5 million in a state agency budget that could aid citrus research.

- Against a backdrop of $112 billion in the last six years stolen by fraud, Hodges University wants $175,000 to develop and maintain ID Navigator as a focal point for protecting the assets of individuals and businesses.

We hope such requests get substantial consideration, despite the revenue forecasts.

Online:

https://www.naplesnews.com/

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The SunSentinel on state gun laws:

It’s not as if Florida is in desperate need of more laws that let people carry guns in more places.

But that’s what we’re seeing in the opening volley of bills for the legislative session that begins in March. Why? Because certain gun-loving legislators believe the biggest issues facing Floridians are the restrictions on where people can carry guns.

So look for bills with shorthand names like airport carry, campus carry, open carry and even lawmaker carry.

That’s right. After holding onto strong Senate and House majorities in November’s election, the Republican-led legislature is again talking about letting lawmakers carry guns in the Capitol.

Given how tempers flare during legislative battles, the last thing the rotunda needs is lawmakers packing heat.

The first gun bill filed was HB 6001, by Rep. Jake Raburn, R-Lithia, who hopes to let concealed-weapon permit holders carry loaded guns in airport terminals.

Here’s the argument: if a terrorist opens fire, people with concealed weapons - who happen to be dropping off family members, dining in airport restaurants or walking someone to a gate - could protect themselves and others.

But if bullets start to fly, these same folks also could cause unintended consequences, particularly if law enforcement officers don’t know which person with a gun is the bad guy. No wonder the measure is opposed by the Florida Airports Council, which represents 19 commercial airports and more than 75 general aviation airports, including Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.

A similar proposal failed last year, but like bad weeds, unpassed gun bills return every spring for another go-round.

“Certainly we are going to continue to work to try to promote the rights of the Second Amendment and for concealed-carry permit holders,” said Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, an avid gun-rights legislator and the new chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

It’s not as if Floridians are clamoring to carry concealed weapons in airports. In fact, Florida is one of the few states that don’t allow guns in airports. Let’s keep it that way.

Last year, it must be said, we saw some real backbone in standing up to the National Rifle Association. Three highly publicized pro-gun bills - one to let people carry concealed weapons on university campuses, one to let gun owners openly carry guns in most places and one to make it easier to use a Stand Your Ground Defense - were defeated.

But Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, who kept the bills from being heard in the Senate Judiciary Committee he chaired, lost his re-election bid in November. And as we mentioned, Steube is the new chairman.

Still, there’s hope.

As outlined on Politico, several obstacles face this year’s pro-gun bills:

- Incoming Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, has made improving the state’s universities a top priority. And the presidents of Florida’s colleges and universities strongly opposed last year’s push to let people carry concealed weapons on campus. Certainly, they would oppose it again.

- Negron appointed Sen. Randolph Bracy, a Democrat from Orlando, to chair the Criminal Justice Committee, which would presumably hear any proposed gun legislation. Bracy is opposed to campus carry and open carry. If his committee refuses to hear the bills, he could become this year’s best hope for blocking passage of these measures.

That said, if the NRA wants gun bills passed, you can bet there will be pressure. Because more times than not, the NRA gets what it wants in Florida.

New Broward County Commissioner Nan Rich, who served 12 years in the Florida House and Senate, fought the NRA plenty when she was in Tallahassee. Besides bad gun bills, she’s concerned that the state refuses to let cities and counties opt out of gun laws they find inappropriate for their region.

“If we want to get rid of the gun show loophole (in Broward), we can’t do it,” Rich said. “They don’t need any reason (to pass more gun laws) other than the NRA telling them what to do.”

Florida has many pressing concerns - including the environment, education and the economy - that need to be heard in the upcoming session.

What we don’t need is more laws to allow more guns in more places.

Online:

https://www.sun-sentinel.com/

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