- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

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July 12

The Tampa Bay Times on the Zika virus:

Florida set another record Monday with 13 new cases of Zika, the most in a single day. But as new infections mount, the dysfunctional Congress lumbers toward a seven-week summer break with no action to prevent a mass outbreak. It is a failure of leadership that will have consequences for an untold number of Americans, particularly in this state.

The timeline of inaction started in February when President Barack Obama first requested $1.9 billion to fight the spread of the virus. Americans were beginning to see photographs from Brazil, a viral hot spot where babies born to infected mothers were stricken with microcephaly. The irreversible condition, in which the infant’s head is abnormally small, is associated with lifelong health problems such as decreased brain development. Within a month, 32 people in Florida were infected, including four pregnant women and one person who caught the virus through sex.

Florida’s two U.S. senators, Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio, backed Obama’s request. Gov. Rick Scott declared a public health emergency and pleaded with Washington leaders to act. House Speaker Paul Ryan promised “bipartisan action,” and Senate Majority Leader Mitch Mc-Connell called it a “serious crisis.” And yet the issue devolved into yet another partisan showdown, with Democrats making all-or-nothing demands and Republicans - even members of Florida’s delegation - second-guessing the amount of money Obama requested and demanding budget offsets. This was in late April, when health officials called the virus “scarier than we initially thought” and the United States had recorded its first Zika death.

A deal emerged for $1.1 billion in funding, short of what Obama sought but better than nothing. Or was it? House Republicans used the bill to take aim at their favorite targets - Planned Parenthood and the Affordable Care Act - and cut their funding, making the legislation unacceptable for Democrats. Never mind that those two programs provide contraceptives that could prevent sexually transmitted Zika cases and unwanted pregnancies for women at high risk of contracting the virus.

So Congress remains in a standoff as more than more than 200 people in Florida have been infected. More than 40 pregnant women are afflicted, and the first baby with Zika-related microcephaly has been born. A last-ditch effort by Nelson on Tuesday to salvage something, anything, was blocked by McConnell. A hearing on Zika that Rubio will chair today appears more for show than for action.

The science about Zika’s threat is not in dispute. Its link to birth defects is certain, and terrifying. But just as unsettling is what’s not known about the disease. Zika has existed for decades but only recently became a public health menace. Before this year, scientists had not seen sexually transmitted cases. They don’t know how long it lives in men’s bodies, or how long women who contract it face danger if they become pregnant. For some people, Zika is little more than a bad cold. But none of those mysteries will be understood as long as money is not dedicated to study it.

It’s midsummer. Congress is days away from a seven-week recess. No bill will be passed and no money will be allocated, but Zika will continue to spread. That much is known, because on Tuesday Florida reported six new infections.

Online:

https://www.tampabay.com/

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July 11

The SunSentinel on Florida courts:

The Florida Supreme Court is weighing whether to drop the standard used to evaluate testimony from expert witnesses after legislators raised it. Justices should keep the higher standard.

It sounds like a technical issue that only lawyers would care about, but all Floridians - because any of us could wind up in court some day - have a stake in a dispute over what standard to apply to testimony from expert witnesses in state courts.

State legislators passed a bill in 2013 to raise the standard for admitting expert witness testimony to the same one, known as Daubert, used in federal courts. The House sponsor of the bill, Republican Rep. Larry Metz, is a Lake County lawyer. But leaders in the Florida Bar , the state lawyers’ organization, have recommended that the state Supreme Court reinstate the previous standard, known as Frye. The court has fielded comments on both sides and is scheduled to hear oral arguments later this year.

Justice would be best served if the court upholds the will of the Legislature and keeps the more stringent standard.

This issue is widely viewed as a battle between businesses and plaintiffs’ lawyers. Businesses, often the target for lawsuits, favor Daubert to exclude “junk science” from expert witnesses for their opponents. Plaintiffs’ lawyers, on the other hand, contend that hearings associated with applying the higher standard delay cases and raise legal costs, which restricts access to the courts for their clients.

But many criminal defense lawyers and public defenders are on the same side as business in this battle. They argue testimony that could put their clients behind bars, or even on death row, should be held to a higher standard. It’s a compelling argument - especially in light of some notorious convictions in Florida, later overturned, based on the testimony of dubious “experts.” It explains why the Innocence Project of Florida, a group that has helped wrongfully convicted prisoners gain their freedom, favors Daubert.

Florida was among a minority of states still using Frye, which originated in 1923, when legislators replaced it with the newer Daubert standard in 2013. Daubert is not only used in federal courts, but also in some form in 35 states - which would make Florida an outlier if it reverted to Frye.

Daubert establishes a three-part test for judges to evaluate whether expert testimony is admissible in court. Is it “based upon sufficient facts or data?” Is it the “product of reliable principles and methods?” Has the witness “applied the principles and methods reliably to the facts of the case?” The Frye standard, by contrast, essentially applies just one test: Does the testimony represent principles that have gained “general acceptance” in their field?

One of the principal arguments of Daubert opponents - that it would burden Florida courts with costly hearings over expert testimony - has not been borne out since the state adopted the standard, according to Metz. He’s well qualified to deliver that assessment as chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees court spending.

“In my conversations with trial judges, none of them reported an excessive number of Daubert motions filed in their courts since 2013,” Metz wrote in an April 1 comment filed with the Supreme Court. And neither he nor his staff received any requests for additional funding “related to the cost of implementing the Daubert standard,” he added.

The Legislature’s Republican leaders, frustrated by multiple setbacks in Florida’s courts, have made numerous attempts in recent years to retaliate. We strongly opposed those impulsive attacks on judicial independence.

The switch to Daubert doesn’t belong in the same category. Legislators debated it for several sessions before they voted to adopt the higher standard.

Raising the bar for testimony from expert witnesses is an achievement. It deserves the high court’s blessing.

Online:

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

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July 7

The Ledger of Lakeland on Florida’s citrus industry:

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is making mounds of political hay with middle class voters by promising to reverse the fortunes of blue-collar workers who lost their jobs to overseas factories, especially competitors in China and other parts of Asia.

We wonder if there’s anything Trump could do to help Florida’s slumping citrus industry, which is losing crops, profits and jobs to a different kind of menace from the Far East, the sinister Asian citrus psyllid, the bug that spreads the greening disease.

Over the past dozen years the greening disease has afflicted 90 percent of Florida’s half-million acres of commercial citrus groves, per a University of Florida study released in April. As a result production, depending on the fruit, has plummeted between 70 percent and 80 percent from the near peaks recorded in 2004, the year before greening was discovered in the Sunshine State.

Last week, as The Ledger reported, we saw the latest effect of growers and state citrus managers seeking to deal with the crisis.

The state Citrus Department hacked 15 people from the payroll, including two top marketing executives who each earned a six-figure salary and four scientists. The Citrus Commission also cut the agency’s budget by 32 percent, which wasn’t nearly as deep as growers asked for earlier this year but seemed to suffice for the current fiscal year.

“The commissioners did what we asked them to do. They worked long and hard and made difficult decisions, and (department Executive Director) Shannon Shepp is making difficult decisions,” John Barben, president of Citrus Mutual, the industry’s trade group, and an Avon Park grower, told The Ledger last week. “You always hate to see good people lose their jobs, but that’s happening all over the citrus industry.”

Yes, you do. And yes, it is.

It’s definitely a sad time out in the groves. And the department’s retrenchment is reflective of the embattled industry it serves.

It might seem counterproductive to lay off people who are responsible for boosting sales of your products and who are researching ways to combat the disease that is killing your crops.

But growers are looking for fiscal relief from the hardship, and, short of a greening cure, cutting the budget was the next and most logical place to look.

Unlike other aspects of state government, the Citrus Department is funded by a special production-related tax growers assess on themselves. Because of that, the agency over its 81-year history has eschewed funding from the state’s general budget. In the 2017 budget cycle, which started last week, the department will receive almost $8 million in general revenue from the state, one of the rare instances this fiercely independent industry has sought help without a natural disaster decimating crop production. The state money will allow growers to cut the so-called “box” tax.

But, frankly, the tax and job reductions will do little to affect what’s happening out in the groves. And right now, despite tens of millions in state and federal dollars being funneled toward researchers, the bugs are winning.

Last week, though, a new law took effect that might help stymie their gains. Modeled after the work of Polk County Property Appraiser Marsha Faux, owners of abandoned groves can now receive a tax break for clearing those lands.

Previously, the tax break covering agricultural lands ended once the trees were removed. That created a disincentive for doing anything to eradicate infected trees, giving the greening bugs a breeding ground and a launch pad to neighboring groves. Now, that tax cut outlives the tree removal so long as the land doesn’t go for a “higher and better” use.

Faux’s policy has fueled a significant reduction in the acreage of abandoned groves within Polk. Hopefully, it will spread statewide.

It’s difficult for the citrus industry to remain positive about a future that looks so bleak. But the good news is that from myriad research ideas, to tax cuts, to budget reductions, growers and those in government who support them are indefatigable in seeking methods to counter the greening epidemic.

Online:

https://www.theledger.com/


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