- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

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Nov. 28

The Ledger of Lakeland on an act passed by the U.S. House of Representatives designed to update and upgrade the flood insurance program:

Hurricane season ends on Thursday, and we say good riddance. The misery visited upon Florida by Hurricane Irma - as well as that wrought in Texas by Hurricane Harvey - made us even more appreciative of our state’s decade-long lull between major storm events.

But the storms of ‘17 may lead Congress to support an important and much-needed change in responding to these events, and the effects of other severe weather episodes, if the Senate can be convinced to go along.

Two weeks ago the U.S. House of Representatives passed the 21st Century Flood Reform Act, which was designed to update and upgrade the nation’s flood insurance program - and which included provisions championed by Republican Congressman Dennis Ross of Lakeland.

Specifically, Ross’ contribution to the final package would grant latitude for private insurers to enter the flood insurance market. It’s a much-needed reform to a beleaguered program. The Senate should retain Ross’ idea as it debates the House measure.

Flood insurance has been a government monopoly since the program was created in 1968. While the government mandates coverage for landowners in flood-prone areas, mortgage companies may also require landowners outside such zones to purchase insurance.

Though handled by private companies - about 85 firms issue policies - the federal government is the primary underwriter for the 5 million policies now issued across the United States. About 1.8 million policies were issued in Florida, the most of any state.

The problem is that Hurricanes Katrina (2005) and Sandy (2012) plunged the program deep into debt. Today, the program is more than $30 billion in the red, and operates at an annual loss of $1.4 billion, according to the House Financial Services Committee.

Trying to cover that shortfall necessitated more government borrowing and, as of earlier this year, rate increases.

Yet, additionally, the government artificially suppressed the cost of insurance by surveying the market through the broader lens of average loss within the flood zone rather than analyzing each individual property, as a private insurer would do. The insurance industry estimated a few years ago that premiums were about half of what they would be in a privatized market.

Ross’ language, which was co-drafted by Rep. Kathy Castor, a Tampa Democrat, broadens the private market. It allows companies to write policies if they can meet the government’s coverage criteria.

Critics assert introducing profit-seeking private firms into this program would jack up rates, particularly for middle- and low-income homeowners who can least afford it.

But they don’t account for the pressure of increased competition that would accompany the opening of the market, and industry analysts suggest insurers eagerly eye entry to an underserved, overpriced and inefficient market with, according to CNBC, some $3 billion in revenue.

We can understand the reluctance of some to get the government out of this effort. Washington’s role as the source of relief and rebuilding funds is seen clearly against the devastating backdrop of the losses generated by Harvey and Irma.

We agree the government should be there for such unique and widespread disasters - but not routine flooding issues that create most of the claims. Nor should taxpayers be on the hook to rebuild homes lost repeatedly to flooding - such as one federally insured home in Houston that has been flooded 19 times - or homes that are not the policyholder’s primary residence.

Moreover, allowing private companies to access these customers would save taxpayers middle-man costs already flowing to private companies. By one estimate, roughly one-third of premiums cover administrative costs for insurance companies that assume no risk, and the Government Accountability Office estimates those firms have pocketed $10 billion for that over the past three decades.

Ross’ reform is long overdue, and the Senate should support that. We shouldn’t need once-in-a-century storms to remind us that this 50-year-old money pit, as Ross put it, is “both too big to fail and yet absolutely bound to fail.”

Online: http://www.theledger.com/

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Nov. 25

The Miami Herald on how traffic could deter Amazon from locating its second headquarters in the area:

Miami-Dade County Commissioner Esteban Bovo Jr. could be wrong. He resolutely predicted that Amazon, hunting for a city in which to locate its second headquarters, won’t come to the Miami area because of its horrendous traffic, undercut by a public transportation system as inadequate as it is disjointed.

Several cities are vying for Amazon’s favor, for with it comes the potential for 50,000 jobs.

In a smart display of regional thinking, Miami-Dade joined with Broward and Palm Beach counties to make a pitch. And the region is still in their pitching, despite what polls and prognosticators have indicated. However, Bovo wasn’t gazing into a crystal ball when he spoke so resolutely at a County Commission meeting on transportation. Moody’s ranked Miami No. 7 among the areas vying to be Amazon’s second home. It rightly got high marks for its business climate and the quality of life it could offer newcomers with well-paying jobs.

But transportation? Only Atlanta kept Miami from coming in dead last in Moody’s rankings. In other words, greater Miami’s transportation challenges are no longer the area’s dirty little secret. Word is out, and it stands to stunt the economic growth of smart, clean, large-scale industry.

That’s a huge heads-up. But transit leaders continue to dither.

The encouraging news in all this is that greater Miami’s leaders finally have put this issue front and center. In addition, this new focus brings with it the realization that the car no longer is king; that new generations, younger generations want to hop on a train, a bus, a trolley, and be there, unburdened by the costly question of what to do with the car.

More discouraging, however, is for all the talk of getting Miami moving on effective public transportation; for all the plans with clever names; and with all the cranes hovering in the air downtown, promising housing for thousands more residents - whether full- or part-time - there is hardly anything on wheels to show for it, much less to hitch a ride on.

Official indecision and the lack of funding continue to cost us. Then there’s the trust issue. At that meeting, commissioners approved cutting bus routes. The sales tax that voters approved is not generating the funds required. By the way, those funds, which elected leaders 15 years ago promised would be used for big-ticket transit projects, instead were squandered on the small stuff. County taxpayers have every reason to look askance at any future entreaties for more transit funds.

In 2016, the Metropolitan Planning Organization, (recently renamed the Transportation Planning Organization), unveiled the SMART Plan. This initiative lays out six major corridors in the county slated for major public-transit enhancements.

At the time, the Editorial Board called it a “doozy.” More than a year later, there’s been no major announcement telling residents that they have something - anything - to which to look forward. There’s been no consensus at the highest levels. How much longer will sticking points impede progress? County Mayor Carlos Gimenez wants high-tech buses, not rail expansion. Bovo, who deserves credit for focusing a stronger light on the the county’s transportation challenges, is sticking with rail expansion, which is costlier. And the one quickly viable project to the north, incorporating existing rail lines, hasn’t seemed to have gotten any traction, which is a shame.

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, chair of the powerful Transportation Committee in the House, waits, and waits, for the county to hand him a cohesive plan that would help him secure federal funding for the county’s transit dreams. “Come on, man,” he told the Editorial Board in August, “Use me!”

This remains an offer that the county simply can’t continue to refuse.

Online: http://www.miamiherald.com/

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Nov. 24

Sun Sentinel of Fort Lauderdale on a proposal to prohibit greyhound racing and betting on dogs in Florida:

It’s time to ban dog racing in Florida.

Why? Consider this.

You’re running a foot race at 40 mph when your feet tangle with a competitor’s. The emergency room awaits you both, then a long convalescence.

No human runs nearly that fast, of course. Not even Usain Bolt.

But greyhounds do. Only cheetahs run faster. Fortunately for the cats, they’re of no use at racetracks. The dogs, however, are the stock in trade of an industry that would face heavy fines or be shut down if workplace regulations applied to animals.

Since 2013, when Florida began requiring the state’s 12 dog tracks to report mortality data, 438 greyhounds have been reported dead - or one every three racing days.

They are put down for injuries such as broken legs or lacerations from which human athletes would expect to recover. Some die of heat stroke and exhaustion. Others have been electrocuted after being pushed into the wires that run around the track.

“First turn… fell resulting in a compound fracture of front leg. Track vet euthanized,” said the death report on a dog named Atascocita Laken at the Orange Park track on May 11.

“Fracture of right rear leg, bone skin thru/ Vet said severe break,” said the death report on a dog named Multipurpose at the track at Ebro on May 8.

“Ran into the rail and suffered a severe laceration to his left shoulder.expired immediately on the track,” said the death report on Rans Frankie Dee at Palm Beach Kennel Club on May 8, 2014.

No one knows how many other dogs are injured. The state doesn’t collect information on injuries, only deaths. After Seminole County voters began requiring injury reports because of a local citizen’s initiative, 26 injuries and three deaths were reported in the first few months.

Dog racing is a declining industry, far less of a tourist attraction and revenue source than it once was. Florida is one of only six states where dogs are still raced. Forty states have banned it, although 17 permit simulcast betting on dogs.

Still, the betting on live racing at Florida dog tracks has fallen from $87 million in 2006 to barely half that in 2016, a sharper drop than in horse racing. In 1969, the state treasury netted $25 million from dog racing; last year, it yielded $2.8 million.

Florida can and should do without that money, considering the inhumane suffering at its source.

State Sen. Tom Lee, R-Tampa, acting as a member of the Florida Constitution Revision Commission, is offering the public an opportunity to make that decision in next year’s general election. His effort deserves your support.

Lee’s proposal, number 67 on the commission’s list, would amend the Constitution to prohibit greyhound racing at pari-mutuel establishments and betting on dogs anywhere in the state. The bans would be phased in over three years and be absolute on July 1, 2021.

There’s already a fierce pushback from the industry, whose objections include the familiar argument that such a policy should be enacted as a law by the Legislature, not chiseled into constitutional stone.

There are two rebuttals to that. One is that when Florida’s Constitution was originally amended in the 1930s to allow racetrack gambling and entitle every county to share in the taxes, it made passing reference to “the types of pari-mutuel pools” the Legislature had already authorized. Those included dog tracks. Although that language is long gone, industry lawyers might use it to argue that legislative action against dog racing would be unconstitutional.

As for the Legislature, it has had numerous chances to protect greyhounds. But lawmakers cannot pass even the narrowest of bills - injury reporting, for example - because of the many competing interests in gambling.

“Trying to pass a pari-mutuel bill in Florida is like throwing a side of beef into a shark tank,” says Lee. “The safest course is to write them out.”

The issue is impossibly complicated by the long-term ambitions of the state’s horse and dog tracks, and jai alai frontons, to turn themselves into full-scale gambling casinos, with poker rooms and slots along the way. So far, they’ve been required to keep their unprofitable racing events if they want to continue gambling.

The issue also is complicated by the competition between horse and dog tracks, including the two racinos located a mile apart in Hallandale Beach: Gulfstream Park and Mardi Gras.

Gulfstream wants to continue as a premiere horse track, but Mardi Gras wants to end its money-losing dog races. But if Mardi Gras stopped losing money on races, its casino might gain a competitive edge. Should it be forced to offset those gains by contributing to horse race purses? Such are the industry conflicts that keep legislation from passing and dogs dying.

Another measure of the industry’s influence in Tallahassee is that Jack Cory, one of its top lobbyists, is circulating a bill that would protect the use of steroids on racing dogs and allow “environmental levels” of prohibited substances such as cocaine. It would also eliminate Seminole County’s ordinance and prohibit any community from passing an ordinance to protect greyhounds. The bill offers a sop to critics by calling for improved track safety and better nutrition for dogs, though the dangers of high-speed racing would remain.

Consider that human athletes are suspended for using steroids, yet dog handlers use them as a form of birth control. Even still, a bill to ban steroids at tracks failed in this year’s legislative session.

It’s folk wisdom in Florida that you can get traces of cocaine just from touching $20 bills, but greyhounds don’t handle cash. It doesn’t explain why 12 dogs tested positive for cocaine at a track last year, prompting regulators to suspend their handler’s license.

Florida needs a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to helpless animals and gambling. But the state capital is the sort of place where Cory’s bill is more likely to pass than a law to shut down dog racing.

You’ll hear it from the racing lobby - because we’ve heard it before - that dog tracks euthanize far fewer animals than shelters do. That’s beside the point. Dog racing is a high-hazard enterprise for the animals. Its public benefits, such as they are, fall far short of justifying it.

Proposal 67 is on the Nov. 30 agenda of the Constitution Revision Commission’s committee on general provisions and the executive branch.

The committee will meet at 8 a.m. at the Senate Office Building in Tallahassee. Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch of Martin County is the chair. She can receive e-mail through the commission’s website, www.flcrc.gov.

It’s time to write. Encourage commissioners to put the amendment that would ban dog racing on next November’s ballot.

Let the people be heard on the sport of dying dogs.

Online: http://www.sun-sentinel.com/

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