- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

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Nov. 30

The Palm Beach Post on reforming Florida’s unemployment benefits distribution system:

Reform? What reform?



Back in the spring, Gov. Ron DeSantis promised that Florida’s miserable system for distributing unemployment benefits would be overhauled. In the summer, he vowed to “investigate.”

But try as they might, reporters can’t find any evidence that an investigation is underway. Although a spokesman for the governor’s office assures that an investigation indeed exists, The Post’s Wendy Rhodes was unable to elicit a single document confirming such a probe. The Orlando Sentinel made the same inquiries. Again, the administration had nothing to show.

“This is outrageous, it’s cold and it’s cruel,” said Nikki Fried, the agriculture commissioner who is the highest-ranking Democrat in the state. Speaking of DeSantis, she added: “I have never seen an elected official of this caliber completely drop the ball to the detriment of so many of our Floridians.”

When lawmakers did get together on Nov. 17 for their annual planning meetings ahead of the 2021 regular session, which begins March 2, the Republicans in charge of both chambers had a whole lot of concerns on their agenda, led by the $5.4-billion hole in the state budget created by the coronavirus pandemic. But not a word about unemployment.

Lori Berman, a newly re-elected state senator from Palm Beach County, has it right: “It was such an abject failure under Republican leadership,” the Democrat says of the unemployment debacle, “and they don’t want to highlight that.”

Not highlight? That’s being polite. It looks more like they want to erase it out of the public’s mind altogether.

SYSTEM SET UP TO FAIL JOBLESS FLORIDIANS

So, let’s remember. This was a system set up almost a decade ago by then-Gov. Rick Scott. It was bent on being sweet to business by making life tough for workers. Scott and a compliant Legislature created one of the chintziest unemployment programs in the nation. Unemployed workers get a max of $275 per week for only 13 weeks - one of the nation’s skimpiest payouts. It’s far too little to meet basic expenses. And for these crumbs, they have to navigate a balky, frustrating website, misleadingly called CONNECT, for which the Scott administration paid the consultant firm Deloitte an inflated $77.9 million.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis says the performance of Florida’s CONNECT system for jobless claims has been “totally unacceptable.”

When the pandemic hit this year, putting millions of Floridians suddenly out of work, the shortcomings of the system became unignorable. Increasingly desperate people spent hours – days – trying to submit their claims. Even DeSantis had to admit this was bad. “A jalopy and they put you in the Daytona 500,” he called the system’s ineptitude in the crisis, blaming Scott.

Luckily, applicants didn’t have to depend entirely on the state’s Scrooge-like payouts, for the federal government stepped up in March with $600 per week unemployment cash through the CARES act, since expired and still awaiting a sequel.

Since the pandemic began, more than 4.5 million people have filed for Florida unemployment, the state Department of Economic Opportunity website indicates, a number that is still rising, though more slowly than earlier in the year.

Since mid-March, the jalopy of a system has managed to make payouts of state and federal money to 2.1 million people. But the DEO website also indicates that 2.4 million claims were “ineligible.” It doesn’t explain its standards for eligibility. And we are left to wonder how those people - family, friends and neighbors - their claims denied, are getting by.

Berman said Democrats are proposing to increase the amount of money that jobless people can receive to a range of $100 to $500 per week, depending on the pay of the last job; extend the payments for a maximum of 26 weeks, and appoint an ombudsman to monitor problems.. Reasonable reforms, but she expects stiff Republican opposition; business groups are sure to object to putting more money into the system.

A BADLY BROKEN COMPUTER SYSTEM

But that’s not even talking about overhauling the computer system, which frustrated so many people that, in June, the Post Opinion-Editorial page easily filled up with letters from readers worn out from their experiences with it.

“The form is extremely convoluted, almost as if it wants you to fail,” wrote Lydia Courtemanche, of Palm Beach Gardens. “It is discouraging to me to have paid into a system my entire working life that has failed its citizens during these unprecedented times.”

If DeSantis indeed has some kind of investigation underway, now is the time to reveal it. And it had better do more than to cast blame on Scott; it had better offer solutions and find the money to actually fix things.

The millions of working people in this state need to know that in hard times, there’s timely help to keep them from going completely under.

Online: https://www.palmbeachpost.com

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Nov. 29

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel on an environmentalist’s appeal of a lawsuit over water storage and sales:

The constitutional right of Americans to sound off to their governments is a fundamental issue that ought to unite everyone in its defense, and often does.

So it does again in an appeal that deserves to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, given the Florida Supreme Court’s deplorable decision to duck the case.

The issue is whether a citizen can speak her mind without being SLAPPed with a ruinous lawsuit.

That’s what happened to Maggie Hurchalla, a Martin County environmentalist, for trying to oppose a billionaire’s deal to store water in his rock mine and sell it to Martin County. He sued her and won a $4.4 million judgment she is unable to pay.

SLAPP is the acronym for Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, an all-too-common lethal weapon in the arsenal of corporate America in recent years.

Some states have laws that forbid using the courts to intimidate citizens into shutting up and minding their own business.

Florida doesn’t. It should.

In that yawning void, Hurchalla has found significant allies from across the political spectrum.

One of the friend-of-the-court briefs supporting her appeal represents the Cato Institute, the Institute for Justice and the “Protect the Protest” Task Force.

Cato is an influential libertarian public policy shop devoted, according to the brief, “to advancing the principles of individual liberty, free markets and limited government.” It was co-founded by Charles Koch, the petrochemical billionaire who has spent a good deal of his fortune pushing a right-wing agenda.

The Institute for Justice is a nonprofit public interest law firm often associated with conservative positions on school choice and government regulation. The “Protect the Protest” Task Force represents an array of mostly liberal organizations, including the ACLU.

Another brief has been filed on behalf of six environmental organizations, including the Florida Wildlife Federation, Friends of the Everglades, and Bullsugar, as well as a Colorado kayaking company and a Massachusetts nonprofit devoted to animal welfare. They share an interest in free speech. So do we all.

Along with Hurchalla, these disparate organizations challenge the use of business law to get around the court’s disapproval of libel and slander lawsuits over public policy issues.

Essentially, the court long ago held that public figures must prove “actual malice” to collect damages. “Actual malice” means that not only what was said was harmful, but that it was said with reckless disregard for the truth.

Lake Point Restoration, owned by developer George Lindemann Jr., sued Hurchalla over what the company claimed were falsehoods in her complaints to Martin County commissioners that the project would harm wetlands and that no scientific study had been done. Lake Point contended that her claims had cost the mine customers. A trial judge and a panel of the Fourth District Court of Appeal agreed.

The outcome might have been different had Lindemann sued for defamation, instead of for “tortious interference” with his business. Among other differences, a defamation suit would have exposed his pre-existing reputation, which included prison time for paying someone to kill his horse for a $250,000 insurance payment.

Aside from First Amendment issues, the $4.4 million judgment seems exorbitant given that Martin County and the South Florida Water Management District ultimately settled with Lindemann and allowed the project to proceed. It was delayed, not denied.

But it’s the constitutional issues that should compel the Supreme Court to make Hurchalla’s appeal one of the relatively few cases it will accept this term.

As the brief for Cato and the others explains, if the constitutional issues aren’t resolved, it will “result in significant chilling of First Amendment freedoms.”

What’s equally chilling in the lower court record is prejudice against Hurchalla, a former Martin County commissioner, for having used her personal e-mail to contact present commissioners who were friends of hers. So what if she did? When the commission officially found faults with the project, Lake Point was able to rebut them. Moreover, most Americans these days use email as a convenient form of expression. Objection to public policy should not be restricted to formal proceedings.

“If damages can be levied without regard to actual harm shown, such retaliatory lawsuits will eviscerate the right to petition the government afforded by the First Amendment,” argues the brief from Cato et al.

The environmental organizations’ brief makes a similar - and urgent - point:

“Their communications with public officials would all but cease if they face legal liability for good faith statements made to government decision-makers about scientific matters. The precedent … will effectively silence the voices of citizens who are exercising their fundamental rights to speak on behalf of a clean, health environment.”

Corporations have rights, to be sure. But when they are making deals with the government - as in the Lake Point project - the public interest must be paramount and the public must be heard. The Florida court rulings constitute a dire warning to the public to be very, very careful in what you say.

Hurchalla, 79, gained national attention for her case in a New York Times article that noted she would never be able to pay such a judgment, and that Lake Point had returned the old pickup truck and two kayaks it had seized from her.

“What I worry about now,” she said, “is dying before we win.”

She feels so strongly about the principles at stake that she has refused Lake Point’s offer to drop everything in exchange for an apology.

Hurchalla is the lone surviving sibling of the late Janet Reno, the first female attorney general of the United States.

Reno, we are confident, would approve her sister’s fight.

The Supreme Court turns away the great majority of the petitions it receives. Hurchalla’s must be an exception, lest the First Amendment become a dead letter in Florida and, indeed, throughout the nation.

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

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Nov. 27

The Orlando Sentinel on expanding Florida’s broadband capacity:

Legislators say they have Florida’s future in mind when they tout a plan to build three new toll roads through the state.

If they genuinely want to help, they would abandon that pie-in-the-sky project and build a digital highway that will really bring Florida into the 21st century.

We’re talking about expanding broadband capacity to the neediest parts of the state. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how a reliable internet system is no longer a luxury.

Education, business, healthcare and economic development are increasingly dependent on broadband. But in rural Florida communities, too many students can’t go online to learn. Too many doctors can’t take advantage of the tele-health revolution.

Too many people have trouble simply getting food delivered during a pandemic because their Lyft or Uber apps don’t work.

Studies show at least 10% of Florida’s population - roughly 2 million people - don’t have sufficient broadband capacity. They aren’t in Orlando or Miami. They’re in rural counties that typically have the state’s highest poverty rates.

These people need a broadband upgrade much more than a new slab of asphalt running through a nearby pasture. But that’s the 330-mile remedy being cooked up by legislators with the M-CORES project.

They rushed through a bill in 2019 approving construction of three toll roads through remote stretches of the western peninsula by 2030. It would be the state’s largest infrastructure project in a half-century.

Details were sketchy then, and they’re not much clearer after months under the magnifying glass.

Task forces were formed to study each of the proposed segments. The reports they submitted last week said toll roads aren’t needed right now, but studies will continue as the state develops specific construction plans.

There’s no doubt Florida needs a long-term growth management plan. But M-CORES has too many unresolved environmental, demographic and other concerns to fit that bill.

Proponents like former Senate President Bill Galvano are still pushing M-CORES as the foundation of the state’s growth plan. One of their biggest talking point is how it would bring “broadband expansion.”

It’s sort of like a car salesman saying buy a $4 billion car and we’ll throw in broadband floor mats.

Don’t be fooled.

“The Task Force recognized that a new transportation corridor is not a prerequisite for broadband deployment,” the Northern Turnpike Task Force reported.

In simple terms, if a community can get electricity, it can get broadband. Fiber optic cables, utility poles, cell towers and other equipment still must be put in place.

That would be easier with a massive road-building project. But building a reliable internet system does not depend on building a turnpike. And broadband expansion would be a lot cheaper than that turnpike.

It’s impossible to say exactly how much cheaper because nobody knows how much M-CORES will ultimately cost. Estimates range from $4 billion to $24 billion.

It’s also hard to say how much broadband expansion in Florida would cost. But one study showed the entire U.S. (not counting Alaska) could be adequately wired for $19 billion.

The main thing keeping internet service providers from expanding is it’s not a good business decision. There’s simply not enough return on investment in areas that don’t have many customers.

The only way to change that is through public-private partnerships where costs are shared. That’s the approach other states are taking, and most are doing it with far more urgency than Florida.

South Carolina just designated $50 million in CARES Act funding to broadband expansion. Illinois is spending $420 million over the next four years to upgrade its system.

Florida passed a bill creating an “Office of Broadband” this year. The measure threw in $5 million to the M-CORES project for broadband expansion.

Again, there’s no telling what the final M-CORES price tag will be. But the 2019 bill allocates about $135 million a year for the next decade. Most people in rural Florida would rather that money be spent of fiber optic wire.

The task forces sought public input, and a study of 10,000 responses showed 93% of the people opposed the M-CORES plan. They care far more about dependable internet service, so much so that one task force recommended the state consider making that an entirely separate project.

Legislators shouldn’t just study that idea. They should run with it.

Broadband is quickly becoming almost as vital as electricity and running water. Its expansion shouldn’t be tied to a potential boondoggle that won’t be completed for at least 10 years.

Legislators need to realize Florida’s digital future has already arrived. And right now they are leaving the state’s most needy citizens stranded by the side of a very long road.

Online: https://www.orlandosentinel.com

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