- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

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Feb. 19

The Palm Beach Post on medical marijuana legislation:

Medical marijuana is now legal in Florida for a number of debilitating ailments such as HIV/AIDS, post-traumatic stress disorder and Lou Gehrig’s disease. It’s in the state Constitution, thanks to Amendment 2, swept in by 71 percent of voters in November.



But the law, enacted on Jan. 3, has barely gone into effect. Under the amendment’s terms, the Florida Legislature is supposed to draw up regulations by July 3 which are to go into effect by Sept. 3. Meantime, the state Department of Health (DOH) is drafting interim rules while the Legislature crafts a more lasting law - and so far the proposals fall far short of what the Florida public is looking for.

The shortcomings became clear earlier this month when Department of Health officials held hearings in Jacksonville, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, Orlando and Tallahassee. Almost 1,300 people turned out to press for far less restrictive access to a medical form of marijuana. And they let their displeasure fly.

“You are the Office of Compassionate Use,” said a Tallahassee participant named Josephine Canella-Krehl, according to WFSU News. “We are the 71.3 percent. Hear. Us. Roar.”

Why the outcry? Let’s start with how the marijuana is to be grown, processed and sold as oil and pills to patients. The department’s idea is to leave that solely in the hands of seven licensed grower/distributors - those already chosen under the narrower medical marijuana law passed by the Legislature in 2014.

A bill proposed by state Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, (SB 406) would keep that framework, though five more licenses would be issued within six months of there being 250,000 patients in the state.

Whether seven or a dozen, limiting the entire medical marijuana industry to that small universe of companies is bound to be inadequate for the huge number of potential patients in this state. The lid is likely to keep prices artificially high. And it’s surely contrary to the usual conservative demand that government stay out of the free market.

A better idea comes from Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who has filed a bill (SB 614) that would break up the monopoly system that now requires a single company to grow, process, transport and dispense medical marijuana. The bill would eliminate a cap on the number of medical marijuana treatment centers in the state, but limit licenses to one for every 25,000 people in a county.

Another doozy of a proposal from DOH officials would require doctors to wait 90 days after first seeing a patient before they can write a medical marijuana prescription. This is taking bureaucracy to the point of cruelty. Yes, the state has an interest in ensuring that prescriptions be written for the genuinely ill. But why force someone with a painful cancer to wait three months for relief?

Perversely, that doctor could, in the meantime, legally prescribe an addictive opioid. We know from our current heroin crisis how well that can work out.

Yet another DOH regulation would limit the ailments covered by medical marijuana to the 10 “debilitating medical conditions” listed in the amendment. The state Board of Medicine would have to approve any changes - even though Amendment 2 says doctors can prescribe the drug whenever they think it’s appropriate.

Whatever happened to the insistence that government never get between doctors and patients? Or does that apply only when criticizing “Obamacare?”

So far, we’re seeing too many regulatory proposals that seem designed to offer medical marijuana in the most begrudging way: limit this, prolong that.

What we need are rules that reflect the spirit of the amendment: to make medical marijuana as easily and widely available as possible for the hundreds of thousands of sick Floridians who are impatient for it.

Online:

https://www.mypalmbeachpost.com

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Feb. 17

Tampa Bay Times on Florida’s state colleges:

Florida’s state colleges - once known as community colleges - are the primary access point to higher education for many high school graduates. But an effort championed by Senate leaders would hinder state colleges’ ability to add programs and respond to workforce demands. After opening up the possibilities for colleges, turning the clock back to limit them would be a mistake.

In 2008, the Legislature authorized community colleges to offer four-year degrees in fields where demand is high for professionals, such as nursing and teaching. The institutions were renamed “state colleges,” and they followed St. Petersburg College’s lead in offering baccalaureate degrees. The system has built-in checks, including restrictions such as limiting four-year degrees to fields that lead directly to jobs rather than liberal arts degrees in areas such as history or English. Neighboring universities and private colleges could weigh in on proposals and object if the community colleges were trying to start duplicative programs. In Pinellas County, the relationship between SPC and USF St. Petersburg works well. SPC president Bill Law calls it “the best public policy I’ve ever been associated with.” USF St. Petersburg chancellor Sophia Wisniewska calls SPC “a longstanding and a valuable partner.”

That is why some aspects of the Senate’s College Competitiveness Act, SB 374, seem like solutions in search of problems. The bill would extend the notice period from 100 days to a year that state colleges must provide for proposing new four-year programs and eliminate the requirement for a university to suggest alternatives if it objects to the college’s plan. It would establish a new governing board to oversee state colleges. And in the name of avoiding “wasteful duplication” of degree programs, it would cap state college enrollment in four-year programs at 8 percent of the student body. But wasteful duplication is difficult to find, especially with enrollment in state college bachelor’s programs up 102 percent since 2011. With demand so high, why limit them?

Senate leaders cite “mission creep” as a concern, arguing state colleges may be losing sight of their primary role - to provide access to higher education and workforce readiness - while intruding on the purpose of universities. But state colleges, 28 of them, serve many parts of the state with no nearby university - Marianna, Daytona Beach, Fort Pierce. Their students are older, on average, than university undergrads and many are mid-career, seeking a degree that will help them earn advancement. Often balancing work and family, many are not enrolled full time. That’s a very different profile from the fresh high school graduate heading off to Tallahassee ready to assume a full course load.

The bill does not make sense cost-wise, either. A state college degree is considerably cheaper than a university degree. But by limiting the availability of programs at state colleges, students would be forced to pay more and assume more debt.

Senate leaders have big plans for higher education in the legislative session that begins next month. They’ve offered smart ideas to expand financial aid and help students graduate faster and save money, backed by a promised $1 billion investment over two years. But revamping Florida’s state college system is an unnecessary part of the plan. These institutions are serving a specific student population, turning out career-ready graduates and doing it for a bargain. Imposing new, arbitrary barriers on their growth would be a regrettable reversal that would hamper access and affordability for students.

Online:

https://www.tampabay.com

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Feb. 17

Orlando Sentinel on state funding for affordable housing:

Rick Scott has been in a pitched political battle with Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran over the fate of the state’s economic development and tourism marketing agencies. Last week Scott said House members who voted to eliminate Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida “didn’t care about jobs.” Hasn’t the governor heard the old warning about throwing stones from glass houses?

In the budget proposal Scott submitted to legislators in December, he called for diverting $224 million from affordable housing trust funds to spend for other purposes. That’s more than three-quarters of the $292 million projected to flow into the funds next year under a 1992 law that reserves a share of documentary stamp taxes on real-estate transactions to invest in affordable housing.

If Scott left that money alone, it would be enough to create $3.78 billion in positive economic impact for the state’s economy and 28,700 jobs, according to the Sadowski Housing Coalition. The coalition includes groups representing business, local governments and churches, along with advocates for veterans, senior citizens, people with disabilities and the homeless.

Scott has routinely treated the affordable housing trust funds as a piggy bank for other spending, or to fill in budget gaps left by his tax-cut proposals. His latest budget calls for $618 million in tax cuts, including a $454 million break for businesses on the tax they owe on rent.

Just last year, Scott recommended diverting $172 million from the affordable housing trust funds. Legislators only lessened the damage, reducing the raid on the trust funds to $117 million in the final budget they sent to the governor.

This is a bad time to be diverting any dollars at all from affordable housing in Florida. A recent survey from the National Association of Realtors ranked Florida as the nation’s sixth-least affordable housing market - a reflection of rising real-estate prices and rents amid lower-than-average wages in the Sunshine State.

A shortage of affordable housing in Central Florida led Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs to call a summit on the problem in October. In Orange, Lake, Osceola and Seminole counties, nearly 100,000 residents are spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing - a level that makes them “cost burdened,” according to the University of Florida’s Shimberg Center for Housing Studies.

Speakers at Jacobs’ summit stressed that housing was unaffordable not just for low-wage workers, but also for many recent college graduates struggling with debt and entry-level salaries. It’s an issue for teachers, nurses, social workers and first responders, among many other essential workers. Sometimes they can’t afford to live in the communities where they work.

The money that Scott called for diverting would boost the state’s short supply of affordable housing by multiple means. Down payments and closing costs for first-time homebuyers. Repairs for low-income homeowners. Construction and rehabilitation of rental housing. It’s a flexible approach that communities can adapt to fit their unique needs.

And when the state invests in affordable housing, businesses jump in. Every $1 spent by the state attracts $4 to $6 in private investment, according to the Sadowski Coalition.

If legislators fully restore the funding due affordable housing in the next budget year, local governments in Central Florida can look forward to sizable grants. Orange County would receive the largest share, at more than $10 million, but Lake ($3.2 million), Osceola ($2.5 million), Seminole ($4.5 million), Orlando ($2.7 million) and Kissimmee ($700,000) would also get state help in providing more families in their communities access to homes they can afford.

Legislators could prove, contrary to Scott’s accusation, that they do care about jobs by fully restoring next year’s state funding for affordable housing.

Online:

https://www.orlandosentinel.com

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