- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:


May 16

The Florida Times-Union on a constitutional amendment related to primaries:

In the cynical world of party politics, many voters will have to change party registration just to have a voice.

According to a 1998 Constitutional Amendment, if there are only members of one political party qualified to vote, then primaries would be open to all voters.

Now, political parties in Florida don’t like that. So candidates file as write-ins in order to close the primary. The general election then becomes a formality with one candidate’s name on the ballot next to a space to write in a candidate’s name.

Republicans do it in North Florida.

Democrats do it in South Florida.

In Clay County, for instance, there are 76,331 Republicans but nearly as many Democrats and others - 64,303.

Closing a race to only Republicans shuts out a lot of voters.

This clearly is not what voters intended.

Simple, right? Not so fast.

So how did the Constitutional Amendment become distorted?

Katherine Harris - yes, the former secretary of state best known for her role in the disputed 2000 presidential election - got in the act.

She issued a ruling that write-in candidates count as opposition, thus closing the election.

And the Florida Supreme Court validated the issue by ruling that write-in candidates have the same basic rights and duties as other candidates on the ballot.

In cases like the State Attorney’s race locally, everyone should be able to vote for all the candidates, including write-in Kenny Leigh.

Bottom line, this is certainly is not what voters had in mind when they approved the Constitutional Amendment to open up primaries to all voters.

Since political parties are unlikely to close this loophole, citizens will have to lead the effort to amend the Constitution. A group that is bipartisan or nonpartisan would be ideal.

Voting is a sacred right in a democracy. To limit it to close to half the voters in a county is simply undemocratic.

So don’t allow yourself to be disenfranchised. And that means at least for the State Attorney’s race in Duval, Clay and Nassau counties, you’ll have to be a registered Republican.




May 18

The Tallahassee Democrat on environmental standards to protect Florida:

Nature blessed Florida with two abundant resources, sun and water.

The sun is 93 million miles away, so nobody has found a way to mess with it yet. Water, though, is all around us and seems to be permanently under siege by big builders, farming interests and energy companies.

A half-century ago, it was the Everglades Jetport, an idea that seems utterly mad today. They wanted to build a giant airport far enough from Miami and Fort Lauderdale - hey, it’s just a big swamp, right? - for the supersonic transport (which, itself, is no longer a threat.)

Then there was the Cross-Florida Barge Canal, planned to link the Gulf of Mexico and the Jacksonville ports by digging a big ditch from the lower St. Johns River to Yankeetown. As usual, the promise was jobs and commerce, and never mind a few gators and ospreys.

From time to time, different plans to permit offshore oil drilling pop up. Florida and adjoining states have been squabbling, and suing, over Apalachicola River water quality for decades.

And in the past legislative session, a bill to stop cities and counties from banning the injection method known as “fracking” was mercifully put to sleep. It will be back.

Sometimes, we have to wonder which side state government is on.

The Department of Environmental Protection is revising limits on toxic chemicals allowed in surface waters. It is updating human-health limits for 43 chemical compounds that are already regulated, and adopting first-time standards for 39 others.

Of the 82 various toxic substances, most would have lower standards than recommendations from the Environmental Protection Agency. And of the 43 chemicals now regulated, about a couple dozen would see limits increased beyond those currently allowed.

Senior writer Jeff Burlew reported Sunday that Tom Frick, director of the state Division of Environmental Assessment and Restoration, said new standards are “using the latest science and Florida-specific data to ensure Floridians can continue to safely eat Florida seafood and recreate in our waters.”

The state points out that the number of regulated pollutants would nearly double, from 43 to 82. The proposed new standards were developed with EPA-approved risk levels.

DEP Secretary Jon Steverson sharply disagreed with Burlew’s reporting. Like Frick, Steverson said Florida “has some of the most comprehensive water quality standards in the country, including the most advanced numeric nutrient criteria in the entire nation.”

Still, red flags pop up within the numbers. Allowable levels of chloroform would rise significantly, though still comparable to EPA guidelines. Arsenic levels would be unchanged - but still 1,000 times higher than the EPA recommends for drinking water.

Dozens of toxins on the EPA’s recommended criteria list would remain unregulated. That includes dioxin, the scourge of the Fenhollway River - the Taylor County waterway which our Legislature, in less enlightened times, once decreed to be an industrial stream, put there by Mother Nature to carry off pulp mill waste.

And the carcinogenic compound benzene would have its limit tripled under the DEP proposal. Although benzene is one of the things used in fracking, the DEP insists there’s no connection.

Critics are rightly skeptical.

“All this is about is that somebody wants to pollute,” Dr. Lonnie Draper, president of the Florida chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility, said of the new limits. “And in this case, it’s probably the fracking industry.”

DEP’s proposals could go before the Florida Environmental Regulation Commission in September. The commission rejected the agency’s previous recommendations in 2013.

With all due respect to the commission, its seven members are appointed by a governor who doesn’t let DEP use terms like “global warming” or “climate change.” Gov. Rick Scott’s administration has funded Everglades cleanup and springs protection, but he’s also the governor who’s proposed camping and horse trails in Wakulla Springs - to mention just one example of monetizing state parks.

Scott wiped out the Department of Community Affairs, which controlled growth, and the rap on DEP has been that its initials stand for “Don’t Expect Protection.”

It’s good that the state is reviewing and revising its limits, as required by the Clean Water Act. We’d feel a little safer, though, if Florida had a reputation for putting science and public health ahead of needs of the pulp and phosphate industries, big farming and developers.




May 13

The Tampa Bay Times on Florida’s death penalty:

The arguments before the Florida Supreme Court this month exposed the state as an outlier in its use of capital punishment, despite evolving social norms that have moved other states away from this outdated form of punishment. The court, seeking to respond to a recent U.S. Supreme Court opinion that struck down the state’s death-sentencing process as unconstitutional, should ensure the death penalty is at least applied fairly. It should commute the sentences of all 390 death row inmates to life in prison, and the state needs to get the message that capital punishment is inherently flawed.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in an 8-1 opinion, ruled in January that Florida’s death-sentencing statute was unconstitutional because it vested final authority with judges rather than juries. In response to that ruling, the state Supreme Court heard arguments over whether inmate Timothy Lee Hurst, who was sentenced to die for the 1998 murder of a co-worker in Pensacola, should have his death sentence commuted to life in prison. Hanging in the balance are the lives of every death row inmate whose death sentences came before Florida lawmakers changed the law this year in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling.

The legislative fix was the bare minimum, as lawmakers sought protection to retain the death penalty rather than impose the real checks and balances needed to reduce the arbitrary nature of capital punishment. The new law requires at least 10 of 12 jurors in a capital case to agree on a death sentence, up from a simple majority. In addition, jurors must be unanimous in finding aggravating factors to warrant a death sentence. While these changes give more authority to the jury, they still leave open a window for unfair treatment. And they don’t address the cost of death penalty cases, the racial disparities in prosecutions or the errors in witness testimony and forensic science that have driven other states away from imposing the ultimate punishment.

The issue for the court is more narrow: Is it fair to uphold a death sentence when the process used for assigning death was so flawed as to be unconstitutional? Attorney General Pam Bondi wants the original death sentences carried out. She argues the sentencing method was struck down - not the death penalty itself. And she argues that the U.S. Supreme Court’s Hurst decision should not be applied retroactively, because the Legislature changed the law in response the court’s decision.

But the sentencing process is not some arcane part of the law. It is the foundation of the death penalty statute. And as Hurst’s attorney, David Davis, argued to the court: “You cannot separate the punishment from the procedure.” Without a sentencing process, he noted, there is no death penalty. Three former justices of the Florida Supreme Court, all appointed by a Democratic governor, filed a brief in the Hurst case urging the court to commute the 390 death cases to life without parole. And last week, a Miami-Dade circuit judge ruled the state’s death penalty was still unconstitutional because the recently enacted changes fall short of requiring unanimity among the jurors, adding to the uncertainty of the death penalty in Florida.

The state’s high court should recognize the Legislature’s fix fails to fully correct the flaws of the past. Carrying out a punishment that was so flawed that the sentencing procedure was abandoned would be fundamentally unfair. The court should reduce all death sentences to life in prison and the state should rethink the usefulness of the death penalty.



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