- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

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April 4

The Miami Herald on the state’s unemployment website:

Florida’s miserly unemployment compensation benefits, served up on a website that doesn’t work, have been a huge boil on our body politic for far too long. The coronovirus has at last made it impossible to ignore.



For the poorly compensated people who perform the myriad mundane chores that make life possible for the rest of us, the damage inflicted by the coronavirus cataclysm is - literally - incalculable.

We can’t calculate the exact numbers of workers affected - thanks to the absurdly named Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) and its absurdly named website, CONNECT. Tens of thousands of laid-off Floridians have tried, for hours at a time and days on end, to CONNECT to this low-rent website. It’s gotten so bad that the department has posted paper applications on its website for people to print and mail in. That oughta be fun!

CONNECT, in its defective form, was foisted upon us by then-Gov. Rick Scott. It came at a cost of $77 million, including a $14 million cost overrun. A spokesman for now-Sen. Scott says that, “The statute mandating a new system was passed in 2009.” He says the Charlie Crist administration chose Deloitte Consulting as the contractor and that the contract was signed early in Scott’s first term as governor.

The company’s star lobbyist was Brian Ballard, the co-chair of Scott’s inaugural finance committee.

STATS SUPPRESSED

From the beginning, ghosts in the machine locked thousands of unemployed workers out of the system and delayed desperately needed payments - for weeks. An unnamed adviser to Gov. DeSantis, interviewed by Politico, alleges that Scott deliberately sought to install a system so cumbersome that it would discourage unemployed Floridians from seeking funds.

It was a great way to keep Florida’s unemployment stats down, the adviser said. The system also would have been an effective way to save businesses millions in unemployment taxes. If that was Scott’s intent, then it was a reprehensible way for the state’s top public servant to treat people who had a right to the funds in order to feed their families and keep a roof over their heads.

Harder to dispute are U.S. Department of Labor statistics that show that in the year before CONNECT launched, Florida paid 78 percent of initial claims within two to three weeks. By 2014, however, the claims that Florida paid on time had fallen to 48 percent, last in the nation in terms of timeliness. Little, if anything, had improved by the time Scott left the Governor’s Mansion.

State auditors repeatedly have documented the disconnects - pun definitely intended - in the CONNECT website. The audits gathered dust on the desks of a succession of DEO agency heads, including Jesse Pannucio and Cissy Proctor, who have gone on to bigger and better-paying things, leaving this creaky, constipated mess behind for DeSantis, Scott’s successor and sparring partner in the daily battle for President Trump’s favor.

DeSantis did nothing to address the collapsing computers at DEO, and why would he? Florida’s dishwashers, dog walkers, day laborers and Disney cast members are too strapped to pay for lobbyists.

BENEFITS TOO LOW

Then, too, there’s the matter of HB 7005, an odious piece of legislation that Scott enthusiastically signed into law in 2011. The bill capped unemployment benefits at $275 a week and reduced the duration of benefits from 26 weeks to a maximum of 12. According to FileUnemployment.org, Florida is almost at the bottom nationally in what it pays for unemployment insurance compensation. Only Alabama, Louisiana, Arizona and Mississippi pay less.

HB 7005 also imposed new and humiliating state scrutiny on an applicant’s efforts to find employment. Under Scott’s scheme, unemployed Floridians seeking benefits are required to prove that they are looking for a job to the satisfaction of a DEO equivalent of probation officers and helicopter parents.

It was, and remains, a high-handed, mean-spirited insult to working adults who need a job, not a job-search nanny. And Scott was still at it late last month. Florida’s junior U.S. senator balked at the stimulus bill’s $600 per week increase in unemployment benefits, on top of state benefits. He actually, and arrogantly, believes that so much largess would tempt low-wage earners not to hunt for jobs after the COVID-19 crisis ends. Scott, who has flaunted his poverty-stricken upbringing in public housing, has resolutely eliminated empathy from his vocabulary.

Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nunez, who was serving in the House in 2011, voted for the bill that capped benefits. Ebenezer Scrooge would have liked it, too.

JUST FIX IT

There’s a push for DEO Secretary Ken Lawson to resign, but that would be too easy. Plus, doesn’t the buck stop a little higher up the ladder? Lawson is on an “I accept responsibility” tour, putting in long hours making excuses, making apologies, pleading for patience and soliciting online applications for additional workers to help out at the CONNECT helpline.

On Thursday, DeSantis issued an order suspending rent evictions and foreclosures for 45 days, a move we can applaud. We’ve also noted here that DeSantis made a decent start by eliminating the requirement that people seeking unemployment benefits must actively be looking for a job. But that won’t buy groceries or pay rent for Florida’s newly unemployed. Since then, he also has temporarily suspended a requirement that workers wait a week before they can collect their first unemployment check, which will be of great help.

It isn’t just the newly jobless who must navigate CONNECT; recent federal legislation will help gig workers - euphemistically referred to as independent contractors - also get benefits. But they will run into the same defective website if it’s not overhauled.

“We’re all in this together” rings hollow from the lips of lawmakers with a well-documented history of abuse, neglect and disrespect for the millions of low-wage workers upon whose backs Florida’s economy is built. The vast majority of men and women trying to CONNECT have worked hard, holding their heads high - but barely above water. They have earned the dignity of a simple and respectful unemployment claims system.

Florida’s public schools have produced tech wizards like Jeff Bezos and Sheryl Sandberg. Surely the governor can insist that the DEO find someone, somewhere, to design a website that works. But given DeSantis’ sluggish handling of the coronavirius crisis so far, the question remains: Will he?

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

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April 3

The Palm Beach Post on the state budget not being enough for progressive items, such as teacher pay raises:

The Florida Legislature ended its annual session approving a record $93.2 billion state budget, and hardly anyone noticed. But given the devastating financial impact and rising death toll from coronavirus pandemic, Floridians can be forgiven if they missed the 200-plus bills and budget items that passed.

That’s unfortunate because this year was a big year for progressive items long fought over — like teacher pay raises, and more money for affordable housing, Everglades restoration and land preservation, and even reform to the state’s guardianship programs.

That’s not say that conservatives didn’t get their way in the Republican-controlled legislature. They pushed through bills banning abortions if fetal heartbeats can be detected, requiring parental consent before minors can have abortions, expanding school voucher scholarship programs, making it more difficult to get future citizens initiatives on the Florida ballot and mandating government – not private businesses – to use E-Verify to weed out undocumented immigrants.

Several clunkers also failed — including bills imposing term limits on local school boards, and one that exempts names and other key information from public records of applicants for college and university presidents.

Regardless, much of it may be for naught as passage of an unrealistic state budget will soon have to be revised to account for a pandemic crippling the state’s economy and taxing our healthcare system.

The budget lawmakers approved in March goes into effect on July 1, but they have been put on notice about a return to the state capitol for a special session. “Based on our initial analysis of the (federal) CARES Act, we may need to return to Tallahassee, at the appropriate time in fiscal year 2020-21, to formally appropriate available federal funding,” Senate President Bill Galvano wrote in a memo sent senators on Thursday.

The federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act is the $2.2 trillion stimulus bill that is expected to give Florida $12 billion for state and local government services, according to a preliminary analysis by the state. Add that to what Florida will get to pay for small business loans, subsidies to key industries — like hotels and airlines — money for badly needed equipment at hospitals and those $1,200 “stimulus” checks to individuals, along with the state’s $2 billion in reserves, and it sounds like a lot of money.

It’s not, not even close, which is why Floridians should expect belt-tightening by the Legislature sooner rather than later.

Following are some of the measures that made it though a 65-day legislative session that attracted even less notice than usual. What will survive a special session is anyone’s guess?

- Coronavirus — It may have been a “Democratic hoax” when lawmakers convened in January, but by the end of the session, COVID-19 became a public-health threat the Legislature couldn’t ignore. Right now, there’s $300 million in reserves to cope with the virus. This might be one part of the next budget that’s likely to grow.

- Affordable Housing — For the first time in 12 years, state lawmakers decided to use all of the Sadowski Affordable Housing Trust Funds for affordable and workforce housing initiatives. As lawmakers begin grappling with a tight budget, expect them to divert much, if not all of the fund’s $370 million to other expenses.

- Environmental Protection – When the dust settled, the Legislature set aside $100 million to help restore beaches and springs, $690 million for Everglades restoration and other water-related projects, and $100 million to preserve natural land and waterways. These initiatives are welcomed, but will they survive a special session?

- Individuals with Disabilities – Kudos to Galvano, for pushing changes to a Medicaid funded program that helps 35,000 persons with developmental disabilities live at home or in their communities and spends $241 million to wipe out past program deficits. His challenge now is to maintain the funding and keep the reform going.

- Raises — Rarely has the Legislature approved pay raises to state government employees, but this year they appropriated $500 million to raise minimum teacher salaries to $47,500 and boost salaries for other instructional personnel. They also gave state employees a 3 percent pay raise and provided bonuses for correctional officers. Maintaining this long-awaited largess will be a challenge.

- VISIT Florida — Lawmakers resisted the urge to shut down the state’s tourism marketing agency, essential for the state’s largest industry. A plan to heal Florida’s wounded tourism industry will be key to the agency keeping its $50 million appropriation.

Online: https://www.palmbeachpost.com/

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April 2

The SunSentinel on enhancing early voting and mail-in voting procedures:

Governments are exploiting the coronavirus crisis to curtail democracy. Ethiopia, for one, has postponed what would have been its first fair election. Hungary has banned voting altogether.

We like to think that can’t happen in the United States because our Constitution and institutions are strong. After all, the 1864 election went on despite the Civil War, until now our greatest national crisis.

“We cannot have free government without elections,” Abraham Lincoln said afterward, “and if the rebellion could force us to forego or postpone a national election, it might fairly have claimed to have already conquered and ruined us.”

An election in which people are afraid to vote would be almost as ruinous as one that’s cancelled.

Already, 14 states and one territory have postponed their primaries on account of Covid-19. Only 30 percent of those eligible voted in Florida’s presidential primary, the lowest turnout since 2004.

Postponements can buy only so much time and there’s no telling when the epidemic will abate. Social distancing may remain necessary not only for Florida’s August primary, but for the November election, too. Even with that precaution, many people may be fearful of voting in person. And most poll workers are elderly.

Everything possible must be done to enable Americans to vote by mail and guarantee their votes will be counted.

Early voting, when queues are often shorter than on Election Day, should be enhanced as well. Florida needs to do more on both counts.

The state’s mail voting law sets traps for the unwary. As for early voting, some election supervisors - including those in Broward and Palm Beach Counties - provided only the minimum of eight days in last month’s presidential primary, rather than the 14 that state law allows. They also opened the polls for only eight hours a day, rather than the maximum 12.

If the Legislature reconvenes to cope with the epidemic’s financial impact, safeguarding the election should also be on the agenda. It will cost more than normal election budgets provide.

Floridians can also look to Congress and encourage our representatives to support two critically important measures:

- The $2 billion that Congressional Democrats are seeking to assist state and local election offices. The $400 million voted so far will help, but not by enough to cope with an increased demand for absentee ballots. Congress could easily address that by requiring the Postal Service to deliver election mail free and draw the cost from the Treasury.

- Legislation proposed by Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, the “National Disaster Emergency Ballot Act,’ to bolster mail and early voting opportunities in federal elections.

Although Wyden’s state and four others now vote almost entirely by mail, it’s too soon, in our view, for Florida to adopt that as a permanent replacement for going to the polls on Election Day or to an early voting site.

Poll workers can fix problems, such as unregistered address changes, that can’t be corrected on mail ballots.

But key deadlines in Florida are unrealistically tight. We give voters only 48 hours - too short for fair notice - to fix, in person, issues such as absent or mismatched signatures, for which election officials have set their ballots aside.

Also, ballots that arrive after 7 p.m. on Election Day also cannot be counted. Nearly 3,400 late-arriving ballots went to waste in Broward during the 2018 general election, 4,472 in November 2016, and 863 in the recent presidential primary.

“There is no cure for an absentee ballot that comes in late even though it was mailed well before Election Day,” explains Daniel A. Smith, a University of Florida political science professor who is an authority on Florida voting laws.

Contrary to assumptions, it’s not older people whose signatures cause the most mail ballots to be rejected. In the 2018 general election, rates were vastly higher, Smith says, for younger people, and for minorities.

Statewide, 1.2 percent of mail ballots, some 32,400, were rejected in 2018. But there was a dramatic variation among counties - more than 2.5 percent in Broward, less than 1.5 in Palm Beach and only a tenth of one percent in Pinellas, which also has the highest ratio of mail to in-person voting. Says Smith, “They know what they’re doing” in PInellas.

The biggest problems in Broward, according to Steve Vancore, a spokesman for Broward’s election supervisor, Peter Antonacci, are late-arriving ballot envelopes and those that voters forgot to sign or marked only with an “x.” Of the relatively few mismatches, “it appears that it is usually a spouse signing for a spouse and the wrong name is on the signature line.”

The Wyden-Klobuchar legislation would fix the late-arriving problem, among others. States would be required to accept ballots postmarked before the polls close, so long as they arrive within the next 10 days. And officials who question a voter’s signature would have to notify the voter by at least two methods - phone, e-mail, text or regular mail - and let the voter cure the problem by mail or electronic signature, up to the day the results are certified.

It also would require at least 20 days of early in-person voting, including at least one weekend.

The senators also would require each state to provide a self-sealing, postage-paid return envelope to every voter who seeks a voter registration application, absentee ballot application or absentee ballot.

These essential reforms face a hard slog against the prevailing Republican opposition to broadening the vote. President Trump let slip the partisan argument the other day in a Fox and Friends interview, in which he denounced Democratic efforts to influence the emergency spending legislation.

“They had things, levels of voting that if you’d ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again,” he said. (Emphasis added.)

That’s not how the first and greatest Republican president saw his duty.

Lincoln encouraged voting in an election he expected to lose. Then, the threat to our democracy was a civil war. Today, it is an epidemic. The stakes are the same.

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

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