- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:


Dec. 4

The Miami Herald on President Donald Trump’s school lunch plan:

Freeze out thousands of needy Florida students from the national free-lunch program? It’s a terrible idea.

But the Trump administration is pushing this heartless measure. Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis, members of its congressional delegation and, especially, Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott have the president’s ear. They need to speak into it loud and clear in defense of our kids.

A proposal by the U.S. Department of Agriculture would restrict the number of Americans who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits - formerly food stamps - by taking away the states’ ability to tweak income and asset limits for households that receive both food stamps and other welfare benefits. It’s an unnecessary federal intrusion into how states serve their residents.

In Florida, such flexibility has allowed the Department of Children & Families to raise the threshold for SNAP qualification. Children from households with incomes up to 200% of the poverty level receive food stamps.

That same SNAP participation also grants those children automatic access to free school lunches, a provision that’s part of the USDA’s National School Lunch Program.

In Florida, almost 200,000 children could lose both their food stamps and also their automatic eligibility for free lunches at school. That means food instability both at home and at school, where the lunch could be the one nutritious and reliable meal students get during the day.

But if approved, the stricter eligibility criteria imposed would affect 328,000 Floridians - and 3 million people nationwide - who would see their SNAP benefits end.

In Miami-Dade, with its staggering amount of income inequality, that would hit students and their families hard - 71% of the student body is enrolled in the National School Lunch Program. According to Feeding South Florida, Miami-Dade has the highest percentage of “food insecure” children in South Florida, with 19.4 percent of the county’s children going to bed hungry.

Yes, according to the Food and Nutrition Service, of the 982,000 children whose households would lose food stamps, almost half of them would still qualify for free lunch. But eligible families can’t have a household income that surpasses 130% of the poverty line, or $33,475 for a family of four.

The majority of affected households would still be eligible for free- and reduced-price meals for their kids - if they file an application specifically for the National School Lunch Program. They would not get automatic approval.

Having to fill out another government form likely will thin the overall number of applicants, experts say. Will parents burdened by poverty, unemployment, minimum-wage jobs or illiteracy consistently fill out these new government forms? If not, fewer children will get free lunch and SNAP benefits. The government predicts the SNAP changes could reduce federal school-meal program expenses by roughly $90 million a year that way. Mission accomplished.

This proposal packs a potent double whammy: State and municipalities know best the particular needs of their residents. The federal government should not tie their hands as they seek to serve their constituents. Second, saving taxpayer money in such an underhanded way that leaves more families struggling for food is, simply, cruel. And Florida’s Republican governor and senators should say so.

Online: https://www.miamiherald.com/


Dec. 4

The St. Augustine Record on adding 330 miles of toll roads:

One of the least discussed but more expensive legislative initiatives coming out of last year’s session was a plan/scheme to add 330 miles of toll roads to the state transportation system.

So do we need them? That depends upon what you believe Florida needs. Backers of the plan tell us this is the first real expansion of the state’s highway network system since the 1950s. That’s a fact.

And on one side of the coin, we have to wonder where we’d be without the Turnpike or other major arteries. These do not include interstates such as I-95 and I-4, which were federal projects from the same timeframe.

Florida’s growth seems unstoppable, whether it’s the tax benefits or the weather. Proponents of the new road building plan say our roads are already crowded and we must look far ahead to see the benefits. They’ll tell us the new roads will make for safer hurricane evacuations, and certainly that will be a benefit. They say these roads through predominately rural areas of the state will ignite rapid growth and tax benefits for these smaller, poorer counties. Check.

But some of the counties through which possible routes will run are skeptical. Most of the commissions and Chambers are on board, but residents wonder what will become of their rural lifestyles. Many hold fast to the lessons learned elsewhere in the state - especially that growth never really pays for itself.

For their part, environmentalists are solidly against the roads, citing conservation issues and urban sprawl - for which this project would be a poster child. They’re also fretting about the proximity of the Suncoast project to the Suwannee, Santa Fe and Ichetucknee rivers and the myriad springs feeding them. Development needs land, but demand water more so. These still lovely rivers are already threatened by fast-paced growth demanding water supplies. It is a thirst that can’t be slaked.

And then there’s the nickname given the plan, the “Roads to Nowhere.”

The plan would extend the Suncoast Parkway clear to the Georgia line (why?). It would build a new section of the Turnpike to link with the Suncoast. And it will build a new toll road from Polk to Collier County.

State taxpayer cost are $90 million next year, $135 million the next and recurring costs of $140 million thereafter - and that’s not construction costs.

From where we sit, the state put an artificial giddy-up on this. It put together three “task forces” to review the plans and come up solutions.

It is important to understand, there was no check box for “no plan.” In other words, no matter how the dice rolled, they’d come up road expansion.

And many of the smaller cities and the residents of the possible routes have never been brought into this “discussion.”

Here are a few of the major supporters of the push at the hearings: The Florida Trucking Association, the Ports Council, the Asphalt Contractors Association and the Florida Chamber.

Estimates are the construction costs will be $10 million per-mile.

Florida Trend reports that Billionaire Republican donor Thomas Peterffy (and member of Mar-a-Largo Club) owns 561,000 acres of timberland stretching across much of the possible corridor in North Florida.

The Parkway plan’s supporters include agricultural giants Alico Inc., Duda & Sons, Lykes Brothers; and Mosaic, a phosphate heavyweight - all with lands or other interests along the proposed corridors.

From where we sit, for the legislature to seat task forces for the three routes and, at the same time, fund the plan years in advance, tells us there was never any intention for due diligence or to even blink at the efficacy of the project.

It may or may not pay off for Florida, but lawmakers, landowners and developers? That will be another story altogether.

Online: https://www.staugustine.com/


Dec. 3

The Tampa Bay Times on Florida’s prison system:

Florida’s prison system is a ticking time bomb, and “the status quo is not sustainable.” That dire warning is not from some outside reformer but the state official who runs Florida’s correctional system. Lawmakers need to heed these alarms and invest more heavily for the sake of public safety.

Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch is making his case to every prison warden and legislator he can reach. As Mary Ellen Klas of the Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau reports, Inch has been distributing a book that chronicles one of the deadliest prison riots in American history. The lessons he draws from the New Mexico State Penitentiary riot in 1980 — where prisoners tortured and slaughtered 33 inmates and took 12 corrections officers hostage, seriously injuring several of them — are the latest clarion call for improving conditions for inmates and officers alike before a similar tragedy could happen here.

Florida’s crisis didn’t happen by accident or overnight, and it festered for years as lawmakers rejected repeated pleas to invest in safer facilities, better pay and conditions for corrections officers and educational and social services to prepare inmates to re-enter society.

As Klas details, years of budget cuts and legislative indifference have led to an understaffed, inexperienced crew of corrections officers in command of a penal system stripped of educational programs. They operate out of aging facilities with an increasingly hostile inmate population — one sagging with substance abuse problems and increasingly entangled in gang hierarchy. Only 18 of the state’s 50 largest facilities have air conditioning. Brutality is on the rise. And thanks to funding shortfalls, nearly half the officers protecting America’s third-largest prison system have been there two years or less — one predictable result of changing from 8-hour to 12-hour minimum shifts.

Lawmakers have ignored pleas for years to address officer turnover, reports of inmate abuse and other consequences of short-changing the system. In the last year, as Klas notes, expenses attributed to the 36 percent turnover rate cost $36,226 for each officer who started with the agency, more than the $30,050 starting salary for most newly hired guards. There are now more than 3,000 vacant positions in Florida prisons, and the overtime costs $77 million.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has acted, in part, on Inch’s appeal. The budget he proposed last month includes $96.4 million to improve prison operations, including $61 million for retention pay and $29 million to shift one-third of Florida prisons to an 8.5-hour workday. Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who heads the Senate Criminal Justice Appropriations subcommittee, has a better idea; he wants to end long shifts for all officers now. And the governor’s proposed spending on facility improvements ($9 million) and expanded educational programs ($5.4 million) comes nowhere close to meeting the actual needs.

Lawmakers have a choice. Florida can invest now in a prison environment that’s safer for inmates and guards alike and that prepares felons for productive lives once they are released, or it can pay later — in officer overtime and attrition, in higher crime and felon recidivism rates and in outlays for abuse cases related to poor funding and staffing.

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