- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

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March 15

The Palm Beach Post on government transparency in Florida:

There are somewhere close to 1,120 exemptions to Florida’s Open Records laws, according to the First Amendment Foundation (FAF). And each year, the Florida Legislature seeks to add more.



On March 6, the day before the formal opening of this year’s legislative session, the Senate Community Affairs Committee approved CS/SB 80, giving judges some discretion over whether to award attorney fees in public records lawsuits.

The idea is to shut down what the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, calls a “cottage industry” of folks abusing current law by bombarding local governments with records requests as a strategy to file lawsuits and receive attorney fees or settlements.

Nice try. But thanks to the FAF, the Tallahassee watchdog on Sunshine Law issues, the bill got some much-needed tweaking before Tuesday’s hearing before Steube’s Senate Judiciary Committee.

We agree that there are problems with predatory or excessive public records requests. We understand the urge to put a stop to them. But there can’t be financial barriers to citizens pursuing legitimate public records cases. And many would be reluctant to file lawsuits if they are not assured of recouping legal fees when they win.

How is this better for taxpaying citizens who want more accountability from their local governments and officials?

That question is especially important this week. This is Sunshine Week, a nationwide initiative to raise awareness of the importance of transparency in government, which originated with the FAF and the Florida Society of News Editors.

Florida’s landmark open-government law is one of the nation’s most extensive. But, as mentioned above, the state Legislature has weakened it with hundreds of exemptions. The attorney fee bill is only one of several measures this year threatening to make government more closed.

There is House Bill 351, sponsored by state Rep. Bob Rommel, R-Naples, that would keep secret information about applicants vying to become presidents, provosts or deans at Florida universities or state colleges unless they become finalists for the job. The bill’s supporters allege that the pool of applicants for these high-paying jobs isn’t the best due to Florida’s open government laws, and thus the state isn’t attracting top candidates.

Really? That would be news to Ava Parker, newly installed president of Palm Beach State College; and John Kelly, president of Florida Atlantic University, both of whom were chosen in the sunshine.

And there is House Bill 843, sponsored by state Rep. Byron Reynolds, R-Naples that would create an exemption allowing members of state and local boards and commissions to hold one-on-one meetings in private. “Exempting such one-on-one meetings from public meetings and records requirements will allow such members to better serve the interests of the public which they have been elected or appointed to represent,” the bill says. “Therefore, the Legislature finds that this exemption from public meetings and public records requirements is a public necessity.”

No, it’s not. Freedom of information laws that force public officials to operate in the sunshine are an important way of keeping officials accountable to the people.

For media, this is how we investigate and ferret out corruption and misuse of our tax dollars by city and county officials. It’s how we take editorial stances that not only support but question and advocate for the betterment of our communities. It’s how we make sure the public knows enough to make informed decisions about who should lead us, which policies are broken, and which need to be improved.

All citizens have a stake in keeping Florida government records and meetings open. Because if Florida’s Sunshine laws aren’t constantly defended by the public, government will all too quickly retreat to the shadows.

Online:

https://www.mypalmbeachpost.com

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March 15

The Ledger of Lakeland on Florida’s higher education system:

A state with 20 million people is bound to have problems: traffic congestion, public safety, health care, environmental matters. With just 60 official days to meet the needs of all those people, or at least a significant number of them, you think the Legislature would prioritize.

But, courtesy of Polk State College President Eileen Holden, we were recently presented evidence that our lawmakers want to fix something that isn’t broken, and shackle some college students from achieving academic and economic progress.

For background, Florida’s higher education system is broken down into two broad markets. The first is the 12-member public State University System anchored by the University of Florida. Those institutions are accompanied by a slew of private, four-year-degree-granting schools like Florida Southern College.

The second is the Florida College System, known to many of us as community colleges. Unlike the aforementioned schools, these 28 state colleges perform a very specific function: They graduate students with two-year degrees as footing for matriculating into schools like UF or Florida Southern, or they prepare them to work.

Back in 2001, the Legislature had the grand idea to let Polk State and the others combine those missions. Lawmakers permitted them to offer select four-year degrees within narrowly focused criteria - primarily in programs that the university system could not fully serve or didn’t offer. These FCS pupils focus mostly on teaching, nursing, public safety and business management.

For 16 years, the concept has worked wonderfully. Many state universities bulge at the seams. Five of them - UF, Florida State, the universities of Central Florida and South Florida and Florida International University - are among the 15 biggest universities in the country.

Meanwhile, folks who seek educational and financial improvement through the limited menu of four-year degrees at state colleges - among them many “nontraditional” students, tending to be older and more established, with full-time jobs and families - have found a collegiate home. A state Senate report notes that the number of students enrolled full-time in such baccalaureate programs has doubled since 2011.

Now, enter the Legislature.

Sen. Dorothy Hukill, a Port Orange Republican, has offered a bill that would cap baccalaureate programs at state colleges at 8 percent of the student population. That could increase by 2 percentage points, but only with legislative approval.

Yet, with 14.4 percent of its students already in those programs, Polk State is already maxed out - as are five others around Florida, according to a Senate report.

The other obstacle in the bill for state colleges is a change in the vetting process for their new four-year degrees.

Obtaining approval for that now takes up to eight months, if the four-year schools do not object. Hukill’s bill would force state colleges to wait at least a year between announcing a new program and submitting a proposal for it, and then allow the four-year schools another year to comment on it.

Proponents of Hukill’s measure contend these changes are needed to stop “mission creep” at the state colleges, and to prevent “wasteful duplication” in doling out four-year-degrees.

This is, of course, nonsense. Two statistics illustrate that such concerns are drastically overstated.

Twenty-seven of the 28 FCS colleges offer a combined total of 179 baccalaureate degrees - an average of about seven per school. In its catalog, UF alone offers 18 four-year degrees - just under the letter A.

We noted earlier that full-time enrollment in four-year programs by state colleges had doubled since 2011. Still, in raw numbers that equates to only about 15,300 students, or less than 5 percent of the entire full-time enrollment at those schools.

Clearly, the overwhelming number of students at state colleges do not seek four-year degrees from them. Even at Polk State, a magnet for baccalaureate-degree seekers, 86 percent do not fall into this category.

The narrow, tailored emphasis of the four-year programs at our state colleges neither interferes with nor threatens our state universities or other schools like Florida Southern. The suggestion that they do is absurd and should cease.

The FCS colleges’ purpose, students and outcomes reside on an entirely different plane from those of the university system. President Holden describes the recipients of these “workforce” baccalaureate degrees as “place-bound,” meaning they are pursuing this option to improve their station in life and their community, and don’t seek the university experience. To support that she points out that three of every four attend part-time, and one-third are over age 35.

We agree wholeheartedly with Holden, who rightfully complains that the enrollment ceiling and the elongated vetting period would knee-cap Polk State’s ability and flexibility to meet changing needs in a fluid job market.

“This is about access … within a very specific structure,” Holden told us. Now, can someone explain that to our lawmakers, so they can scuttle this awful bill.

Online:

https://www.theledger.com

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March 13

Orlando Sentinel on Florida’s heroin crisis:

In 2011, Gov. Rick Scott declared a statewide public health emergency to combat the pill-mill crisis that was killing seven people a day.

Six years later, Florida faces an even deadlier killer. This time it’s heroin, which is killing 10 people a day.

As he did with Zika last summer, we urge the governor to recognize the heroin epidemic for what it is - a public health emergency in urgent need of greater funding, increased awareness and wider distribution of naloxone, a drug used to treat overdoses.

“There is no family, no race, no ethnicity, no income level this epidemic cannot touch - and no effective state bulwark in place to stop it,” Senate Democratic Leader Oscar Braynon of Miami Gardens wrote in a letter to the governor.

Indeed, Marion County Commissioner Kathy Bryant - this year’s president of the Florida Association of Counties - lost her brother, Daniel, to an overdose last July. She’s not the only county commissioner who’s lost someone to heroin, either.

The association is seeking more money for mental health care and substance abuse, knowing addicts don’t generally have insurance for treatment and families can afford only so much. They also want to ensure ambulances are stocked with naloxone, noting some Florida fire departments can’t afford it. And they seek tougher penalties for people who sell heroin.

Sadly, the rise in heroin abuse is associated with the closure of the pain-pill clinics. Plus, heroin is increasingly compounded with fentanyl, a synthetic drug that can be lethal at low doses. Bad batches and uncertainty about potency are part of what’s causing so many deaths.

Between 2013 and 2014, the Florida Medical Examiners Commission says deaths from heroin increased 124 percent. The next year, heroin deaths rose 80 percent. The trend shows no sign of ebbing.

Beyond the human toll, the costs are staggering. The Palm Beach Post investigated the crisis and reports some stunning numbers:

In the first nine months of 2015, Florida hospitals charged $1.1 billion for heroin-related visits, with many of those bills going unpaid.

From 2010 to 2015, Florida hospitals charged $5.7 billion for heroin-related visits, including $2.1 billion to the state Medicaid program.

In those same five years, hospitals charged $967 million for babies born addicted to heroin. Medicaid was the primary payer in almost all of those cases - $826 million.

Scott spokeswoman Lauren Schenone noted that Scott’s proposed budget includes $4 million for the Florida Violent Crime and Drug Control Council, of which $2 million will “be provided for financial assistance to local law enforcement to conduct investigations related to heroin abuse.” That’s not nearly enough money. It’s expensive to treat addiction, wage public education campaigns and stock ambulances with emergency drugs.

These last few months, the governor has been waging the fight of his political life to secure $85 million in economic incentives to lure businesses to Florida. Let us see equal tenacity in fighting for Florida families facing the consequences of addiction.

Let us see Attorney General Pam Bondi show the same muscle she used in fighting pill mills to fight the heroin epidemic.

Let the governor call the heroin epidemic what it is: a public health emergency.

And let Daniel’s family - his sister and brothers, his three children, his parents, everyone - be the last to face the despair of this epidemic on their own.

Online:

https://www.orlandosentinel.com

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