- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

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May 7

Miami Herald says Florida isn’t getting its money’s worth when it comes to flood insurance:

If Congress doesn’t step up with comprehensive and effective legislation to confront sea-level rise and its already-evident effects, we’re sunk, South Florida.



Sunk, literally, as the ocean encroaches upon our shores in the decades ahead. Besides the emotional upheaval, the financial toll is going to be staggering.

At the moment, the federal government tries to protect many Americans from the financial shock of flood damage through the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). But the program is in the crosshairs of a Congress that has temporarily extended the program six times, most recently until July 31. Facing a $25 billion deficit in the program, members say they’re tired of subsidizing coastal communities with cheap insurance and want big change.

What they don’t say is that Florida is a donor state in the flood insurance program. Last year, Florida made up about 35 percent of NFIP policies. But we’ve received just over 7 percent of its payouts during the past 40 years.

Truth is, Floridians are subsidizing repairs in states that suffer from river flooding - states that don’t participate in the program, yet regularly get emergency disaster funding.

But that part of the story doesn’t get told. Instead, we hear that NFIP is going broke and people need to pay actuarially sound rates. Well, we got a glimpse of what actuarially sound rates look like in 2012 when Congress passed the Biggert-Waters Act to “fix” the flood insurance program. In the Keys, some property owners saw their premiums increase tenfold.

The outcry led Congress in 2014 to lessen the hit to primary-residence owners, though second homes and rental units remain a different story. And the program’s premiums are still set to increase 8 to 10 percent a year. How long can we afford that?

“NFIP has dramatic implications for our community,” said Jennifer Jurado, Broward’s chief resiliency officer, during a meeting with South Florida’s three editorial boards. “If insurance and flood insurance accounts for 10 percent of a mortgage today - but will account for 50 percent in 20 years because of what’s happening with escalating rates - it changes . what an individual can afford. It affects who can afford to live here, the ability to attract a workforce and sustain a workforce. We’re concerned about that.”

There is a solution that makes much more sense for Floridians and all Americans - a national disaster fund, which would spread the risk and force private insurers to participate in this vital effort to protect all Americans from the huge cost of natural disasters.

The flood insurance program served its purpose, but after 50 years, it hasn’t aged well.

Congress created the program in 1968 to give property owners in flood-prone locations government-subsidized protection after private insurers left the market. The expectation was that premiums would pay for the program’s operating expenses and claims.

But lawmakers didn’t anticipate the increase and severity of flooding disasters and the aggressive development along coastlines and in areas that flood repeatedly.

To cover its liabilities, NFIP borrows money from the U.S. Treasury. Storms such as Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy cost the program far more than it had in reserves. In 2017, Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria added to the financial crisis.

Besides the rash of costly storms, NFIP is plagued by what are called “repetitive flood loss properties.” According to FEMA, 1 percent of insured properties account for about 25 percent of the money paid out in claims. Clearly, we can no longer afford to insure properties that repeatedly flood.

Last year, Rep. Sean Duffy sponsored the 21st Century Flood Reform Act to stabilize NFIP’s finances and increase the role of private insurers in the program. However, it also would have raised costs for homeowners whose homes were not in FEMA-designated flood zones when they bought them, but were “grandfathered” into the program. Duffy wants to phase out grandfathering by 2021.

The entire South Florida House delegation voted against the bill.

“It’s got to be fair for everybody,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, whose district takes in Miami Beach and other coastal areas in central Miami-Dade County. “To have a home that you can’t find anybody to insure, that doesn’t do anyone any good.”

Still, the proposed overhaul passed in the House 237-189. The Senate has yet to act.

Old technology and flawed flood-zone mapping also hamper NFIP. Those FEMA maps that tell homeowners, homebuyers and insurers where flooding is most likely to occur are unreliable, says a review conducted by the Nature Conservancy, which partnered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom.

The study says that the FEMA maps don’t come close to capturing the true amount of flood risk across the nation. More than 40 million Americans could face 100-year flooding and the amount of property at risk is more than double current estimates, according to the study.

FEMA acknowledges the difficulty of presenting a clear picture of flood risk and wants to do better. After hurricanes Harvey and Irma, FEMA has been cautioning homeowners not to use its maps as reliable blueprints for risk.

“These maps are intended to inform flood insurance requirements and regulate development standards in high-risk areas,” said Eileen Lainez, FEMA’s deputy director of public affairs. “They are not intended to show absolute lines where flooding will and will not occur.”

Now they tell us.

Ros-Lehtinen is right: The system must be fair. Right now, it’s not.

Duffy is right, too: Private insurers must play a bigger role in providing flood-insurance coverage. Right now, they’re not. A national disaster fund would help address both concerns.

First, NFIP would cease to exist. The new fund would require private insurers to participate in the calamity market, making them cover all disasters, including floods. The goal is to remove the federal government as the flood-insurer of first resort.

As envisioned by insurance regulators, the fund would offer “reinsurance,” which is insurance for insurance companies because a catastrophic natural disaster could bankrupt an insurer.

Florida has a working model, the Hurricane Catastrophe Fund that provides reinsurance to private insurers, who are required use it. The fund gets its money from a surcharge on property and casualty insurance policies in the state, not from the state’s treasury.

At the moment, it has $17 billion in assets. Should it run out of money, however, there is an assessment against all other insurance policies that would cover any deficit.

With a national fund, states would be required to create or maintain a similar layer of coverage for homeowners. The federal government would provide the final layer of coverage if any area were hit with a Katrina-like disaster.

In addition, this fail-safe would allow private insurers to diversify and invest their money elsewhere, boosting their bottom lines and lowering policyholders’ premiums.

There are pitfalls. For example, if a national fund is not based on actuarially sound costs of losses, it won’t work. The flawed FEMA maps make that clear. And local communities are going to have to be accountable, pushing back against development in vulnerable areas and hardening their building codes.

Although Harvey, Irma, Maria and the California wildfires captured most of the nation’s attention last year, there were more than 1,200 tornadoes in the United States in 2017. Montana saw a 5.8 magnitude earthquake in July, and the Earth is trembling in Hawaii. Last year, the Ohio River overran its banks and flooded Cincinnati.

Natural disasters affect most the nation at one time or another. A national disaster fund is the fairest way to spread the risk among insurers, the government and property owners, who would be required to participate.

Taxpayers already are providing disaster-recovery funds through FEMA. This has become a costly and inefficient model, as the agency’s debt shows.

Hurricane Irma wasn’t just another wake-up call warning that South Florida and other parts of the state remain vulnerable to sea-level rise. Hurricane Irma was yet another call to action - one that Congress should heed this time.

Online: http://www.miamiherald.com

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May 5

Pensacola News Journal on the for-profit education industry in Florida:

The upcoming sentencing in the Newpoint Charter Schools fraud case is yet another reminder of a private school culture that the Florida Legislature created with its policies by dumping millions of dollars away from public schools and into the pockets of a poorly regulated for-profit school industry.

What Florida politicians have done through lawmaking should be as much of a crime as the fraud and racketeering that was taking place at Newpoint Charter Schools. In a series of reporting called “Schools Without Rules,” the Orlando Sentinel exposed the results of a system that dumped nearly $1 billion into private schools last year with very little oversight. The Sentinel’s important work found teachers at private schools who did not have degrees, schools that were falsifying safety reports, and even a Kissimmee school owned by a 20-year-old who was arrested on charges of sexual battery against a 12-year-old.

And just several weeks ago, the Sentinel’s reporting team found that some charter schools were hiring convicted felons to work with children, despite state law that prohibits it in public schools.

Why the different standards? Ask state legislators who have been laser focused for years on dumping more taxpayer money toward the private school industry.

As Sentinel reporters Annie Martin and Leslie Postal noted, under Florida law, it is the job of school principals to certify that their staffs are free of criminal records. But when it comes to private schools, there is no automatic protection.

“The Florida Department of Education doesn’t check private school teachers’ backgrounds unless prompted to do so by a complaint or if the school is one of the tiny number the department visits each year,” read the report. “In the fall, it visited 23 of out the roughly 2,000 that take vouchers.”

When problems are revealed, the state responds retroactively by revoking public funding. But when state officials are only auditing 23 out of 2,000 schools, what sort of supervision is that? The Sentinel found at least three cases where private schools were hiring felons in the Central Florida area through its reporting. The lack of oversight statewide virtually guarantees a system that’s infested with violations.

State legislators could have imposed the same public level of regulation on private schools who accept public money. But they haven’t. Because the industry as a whole - one with the economic mission of maximizing profit - has resisted the same level of standards that apply to public schools.

And if politicians refuse to see an ethical problem with that, they should have a financial one. Because we taxpayers are shipping roughly $1 billion a year into a private school industry that is held to lower standards than our public schools are. It’s not free market capitalism unless the rules are same for all the competitors. Besides, taking that kind of risk with that much money is just bad business.

Too many state lawmakers have turned private school fervor into a cult-like belief in a system that should be exposed to more rigorous inspection, oversight and standards and results. Politicians invest blind faith along with your money in a for-profit industry where your children’s safety and education is at stake.

The Sentinel’s reporting is just a glimpse into what is an unknown world to the vast majority of Florida’s students, parents and taxpayers. Lawmakers, too, do not have a clear and accurate view of the industry that they prop up with a billion dollars annually.

Florida’s public schools certainly aren’t free from problems. And there are plenty of good and successful private schools. We’re sure those institutions would be first in line to hold themselves to the same standards and laws that govern public education.

But whether it’s felons at voucher schools in Orlando or fraud at Newpoint schools in Escambia County, the revelations are troubling indicators that the larger for-profit education system in Florida has serious problems. Politicians should take those troubling signs more seriously before so eagerly shoveling our money and children into the for-profit school industry.

Online: https://www.pnj.com

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May 6

The Daytona Beach News-Journal says the state needs to rescind or phase in its mandated school resource officer increase:

Credit Volusia County Schools with searching for creative ways to comply with a state mandate regarding safety officers. But the solution ultimately lies in Tallahassee, where legislators should undo a well-meaning but hastily crafted and flawed law.

After the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland that killed 17, the Legislature rushed to enact a number of measures to improve school safety. Included is a requirement that every K-12 school in the state have at least one armed security officer on campus - in effect, more than doubling the current number serving.

That has created a logistical and financial nightmare for local districts.

It starts with the state appropriating $97.5 million to help districts hire more school resource officers, a woefully inadequate amount that is akin to using a Dustbuster to do the job of a Shop-Vac. From Volusia County’s perspective, it currently has SROs in 26 schools, but to meet the state mandate it must place officers in 45 more schools at a cost of $6.4 million. The state has provided $2 million toward that goal, leaving the district $4 million short - money it says it doesn’t have.

District officials have approached the county about contributing $2 million of the funding deficit. However, Sheriff Mike Chitwood says that even if the county coughs up the cash, his agency doesn’t have the manpower to supply the officers - he already has more than 40 vacant positions for regular law enforcement duties. Flagler County is facing a similar funding squeeze.

(READ: Volusia superintendent eyes hiring retired deputies for school safety)

One alternative is to participate in the state’s contested new guardian program, which was part of the school safety package passed in March. The Legislature earmarked $67 million for districts to spend training and certifying eligible school employees (although not full-time classroom teachers) to be armed on campus. That would be cheaper than hiring more deputies. However, few districts have chosen to accept the funding, and although Volusia County Schools has yet to officially make a decision, there has been no groundswell of support for the program from the public or School Board members. That should count for more than any financial reasons.

So Superintendent Tom Russell has ventured outside the box, recently proposing that the district hire retired law enforcement, beach safety and correctional officers to work on campuses. They would have the professional training for the job (although some might have to become re-certified on firearms) and likely would be more affordable. Chitwood supports the idea and said he is willing to work with the district to make it happen.

While it’s good to see such innovative thinking, there’s still a question of whether there would be sufficient numbers to comply with the state law in time. Complicating matters is that almost every other district in the state is facing the same problem, competing against each other to draw from the same limited resource. Even if money was not a factor, there simply aren’t enough current or former law enforcement personnel to fill all the openings quickly.

This was all foreseeable; indeed, school officials across Florida warned the Legislature this would happen. Lawmakers, under pressure to “do something” in the wake of Parkland, went ahead with it anyway.

It’s not too late to fix this mess. Gov. Rick Scott should call for a special session of the Legislature, whereby legislators can choose to rescind the mandate on SROs or phase in the mandate over several years. It’s not that local districts don’t want to increase security in their schools. They just need the time and resources to do it.

Online: http://www.news-journalonline.com

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