- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

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July 23

The Gainesville Sun on how rising ocean levels would affect Florida:

While some skeptics argue that climate change is an overhyped issue, the science suggests it might not be hyped enough.

GateHouse Media’s “Rising Seas” series explores the monumental threat that climate change poses to Florida in particular. The first installment, published in The Sun last Sunday, cites scientific research that has found sea levels are rising and projected to make a more dramatic jump as the planet is further warmed due to carbon dioxide emissions.

Coastal areas in Florida from Miami Beach to Cedar Key are already seeing effects such as sunny-day flooding and powerful storm surges, and conditions are likely to worsen. Even mid-range projections by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists put the seas around Florida up to 17 inches higher by 2030 and up to 5.5 feet higher by 2070.

Just three feet of sea level rise could force at least 1.2 million Floridians to leave low-lying communities for higher ground, according to one study cited in the article. But any Alachua County resident who dismisses climate change as a problem just affecting the wealthy owners of beachfront homes has another thing coming.

Long before low-lying parts of Florida are inundated, researchers project that coastal rivers and tidal creeks will see rapid increases in the frequency and duration of flooding. Rising sea levels can also cause saltwater intrusion in groundwater, threatening drinking water supplies.

Those leaving the coasts will have to go somewhere, stretching the resources of inland areas such as Alachua County. These areas at the same time will be coping with other impacts of climate change, such as shifting agricultural conditions and weather patterns.

Another study, published last month in Science, found that Union County and other rural counties in our region will experience some of the worst economic damage from climate change in the U.S. So the harm posed by climate change will cross over Florida, from coastal areas struggling with the effects of rising seas to poorer inland areas suffering from the effects of rising temperatures.

Some public officials in Florida are facing the challenge, such as Miami Beach officials working to improve infrastructure to deal with flooding. But too many of the Republicans running the state and federal governments have refused to acknowledge the reality of climate change or do anything to prepare.

Thankfully there are exceptions such as U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a Miami Republican who co-chairs the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus. The group of 24 Democrats and 24 Republicans banded together recently to ensure a defense bill required a report detailing climate change’s impact on national security.

Other policy makers need to stop listening to climate change skeptics and starting looking at the scientific evidence. It shows rising seas will be a rising threat to the coastal areas of Florida and other parts of our state in the decades ahead. We all have a responsibility to reduce carbon emissions and prepare for the problems that can’t be prevented.

Online: https://www.gainesville.com/

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July 25

The Ledger of Lakeland on a new education law:

The pending arrival of the new school year can incite angst among students, parents and educators - with the bulk of the dread tied to standardized testing and its related effects on student advancement, teacher evaluations and school grades.

But this year, thanks to Gov. Rick Scott and a solid majority in the Legislature, including some lawmakers from Polk County, the public schools and those they serve now have a new concern: whether the instructional materials they present can pass muster with those who pay for the system.

Last month Scott signed House Bill 989, the main provision of which created a process whereby any resident of a county school district can challenge textbooks or other classroom materials. Upon fielding such a complaint the school board must appoint an “unbiased and qualified” hearing officer (who is not a district employee) to listen to the complaint and render a recommendation to the school board, which ultimately decides whether to retain the material.

Under the previous law, such challenges were restricted solely to parents and adjudicated by the school board without an intermediary’s input.

The doomsdayers among us believe Scott - abetted by the measure’s supporters, such as Polk County Reps. Neil Combee, R-Polk City, and Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula, who were co-sponsors - has thrust open an educational Pandora’s box, exposing school districts to the “anti-science” whims of flat-earthers, Bible-thumping creationists and climate-change deniers.

To them we reply: Deep breaths, folks, deep breaths.

For one thing, the law changes little from past practices.

Previously under state law, parents - and just parents - had possessed the authority to critique and challenge the materials presented to their children. The law, according to a House staff analysis of HB 989, mandated that school boards post what materials they intended to buy 20 days before doing so, make them available to parents who request them and then host a public hearing to allow comment on those items. Parents then had 30 days after the materials were adopted to challenge their use.

The key wrinkle in the new law is that such protests now go before an independent hearing officer who is not aligned with the school district. Yet the appointment of a supposedly impartial judge does not mean the materials will automatically be tossed out. In fact, it’s doubtful that will happen at all. To succeed, a critic still must convince a majority of a school board that the material is not synched with state standards, or doesn’t abide by standards established by a school district that opts for materials not on the state-approved list. That remains quite a gauntlet to navigate to get something removed, even with a favorable recommendation from the hearing officer.

A second point to keep in mind reinforces the first. For example, The Ledger recently reported that the Florida Citizens Alliance, which supports the new law, had collected 31 affidavits from people in 10 counties who complained about school boards ignoring their objections - and that’s out of nearly 3 million public school students spread across 67 counties. And half of those 31 complaints arose from one county: Collier.

Meantime, The Ledger’s report noted that Polk County’s school district did not receive any complaints last school year, and typically gets one per year, if any. In other words, either out of taxpayers’ ignorance or satisfaction, school districts are free to teach the materials approved by the state and locally - and that is unlikely to change.

A third point is that some opponents of the new law are often the first ones to lecture the rest of us about the need for a pricey, well-resourced public education system, funded in large part by those with no skin in the game, such as transplanted retirees, people without children and parents with children in private schools. It’s perplexing - and wrong - that they seek to deprive those who pay for public schools, whether or not they use them, the right to scrutinize how their investment in our education system is being managed.

Finally, much of the criticism of the new law has focused on its potential to wreck the science curriculum. But its provisions will also apply to other “softer” areas, such as history and literature. Whatever the topic, however, opponents of the new law should keep one thing in mind: that it grants them the same platform to challenge materials they find objectionable, should the pendulum swing too far in the direction they disapprove of.

The potential for mischief accompanies any policy change, yet as we now see it, this new law’s effects will be minimal, and the hysteria surrounding it is overblown. Let’s try to keep some perspective instead of immediately surrendering to the worst-case scenario.

Online: https://www.theledger.com/

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July 26

The Palm Beach Post of West Palm Beach on alleged voter fraud:

“The criminal activity generally surrounded the absentee ballot request forms. There was not enough evidence to name a suspect and sustain a lawful arrest and criminal prosecution.”

That was the conclusion of a 10-month investigation by the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office into alleged voter fraud involving absentee ballots during last year’s August primary. An unsatisfying end to arguably the biggest election probe in the county in years.

But it shouldn’t end there. The investigation into what Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher alleges was “a group of subjects that were working for certain political campaigns that were involved in voter fraud,” should prompt her to ask county officials to plug gaping holes in state laws governing absentee, or vote-by-mail ballots.

After all, they’re unlikely to find any better reason than this one.

County Commissioner Mack Bernard and state Rep. Al Jacquet went door-to-door through Haitian-American neighborhoods in their respective districts, allegedly stepping into people’s homes and helping them fill out their absentee ballot request forms or ballots. The candidates’ tactics helped them generate incredible turnout in votes by mail.

In March, the Post Editorial Board said Bernard, Jacquet and state Sen. Bobby Powell - who used a similar strategy - should all welcome the inquiry to remove whatever cloud hangs over their respective victories.

They continue to deny any wrongdoing, and there is no proof they broke any election laws. Yet, for some, State Attorney Dave Aronberg’s investigation raises as many questions as it answers.

As The Palm Beach Post reported on July 23, the 24-page memo detailing the investigation involving the election campaigns of Bernard, Jacquet and Powell laid out what appeared to be a coordinated effort “by someone” to fraudulently manipulate absentee ballot requests that worked to the three elected officials’ advantage.

Due to Bucher’s suspicion that as many as 2,000 absentee ballots and ballot requests could be fraudulent, some 14 Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office detectives were brought in on the case. What they found would lead you to believe they were thorough. For example:

-numerous voters in the lawmaker’s districts were sent absentee ballots that they never requested;

-25 voters’ signatures were possibly forged on absentee ballot request forms;

-a man deemed to be a “person of interest” was seen on security video dropping off “large quantities of absentee ballot request forms” to the Elections Supervisor’s Office.

But detectives didn’t talk to some voters who complained until as much as eight months after the August primary election. And curiously, detectives never interviewed the man in the security video who just happened to be Powell’s legislative aide, Delano Allen.

Powell, who himself was not mentioned in the memo, told the Post Editorial Board on Tuesday that neither he nor his campaign “had done anything wrong, or illegal. Period.”

“Encouraging voters to request and mail-in absentee ballots is a strategy that all (political) parties engage in as a way to increase voter turnout,” he said. “Anything implying that I would risk my own credibility by engaging in some type of voter fraud is simply not true.”

Bernard echoed those sentiments to the Post Editorial Board on July 25: “There was no voter fraud. That’s something I’d never do.”

Fine. But the fact that detectives closed their investigation without interviewing Allen is disturbing. They went to his home in August, before the election. He wasn’t there, but told them over the phone he would be willing to sit down for a sworn statement. But that didn’t happen. They tried a couple more times before dropping it.

Detectives also didn’t interview Bernard, Jacquet or Powell. Why not? Wouldn’t that help close a huge hole in our understanding of what happened?

Yes, it would. The candidates deserve better than the taint of “we know something was wrong, we just don’t know who did it.” And voters deserve a conclusion that doesn’t further undermine confidence in the electoral system.

Hopefully, the unsatisfying finish of this investigation will spur efforts to draw up clearer rules for a absurdly lax laws governing absentee ballots.

Online: https://www.mypalmbeachpost.com/

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