Thursday, April 26, 2018
Politics

Florida task forces improve public relations, rarely public policy

TALLAHASSEE — As a state hearing to outlaw local "sick-time" ordinances grew heated recently, Sen. David Simmons offered an olive branch to dozens of pro-worker protesters: After banning counties from mandating employer-sponsored sick-time benefits this year, the Legislature would create a task force to study the issue and propose a "statewide solution."

"Once we have the (ban), we can make a considered and studied determination as to whether or not Florida should adopt" a statewide policy, he told the audience.

Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, is especially familiar with task forces in Florida. He sat on one launched by Gov. Rick Scott last year to review Florida's most controversial gun law in the wake of a national uproar over the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager in Sanford. He also sponsored a bill that included "stand your ground" task force recommendations, offering minor tweaks to the self-defense law.

The bill has gone nowhere. The task force has dissolved. And, for now, public furor has subsided.

So goes the task force two-step in Tallahassee, where politicians increasingly turn to study groups rather than legislative action to respond to crises. They seem more effective at improving public relations rather than public policy.

In a number of cases, the Legislature has received task force recommendations long after public outrage over an issue has died down, and then quietly ignored them.

"I've seen task forces and blue ribbon committees and (auditor) reports and grand juries," said Brian Lee, director of Families for Better Care, an advocacy group for nursing home residents. "I haven't seen much real reform."

It has happened on issues including deadly assisted living facilities, political corruption, college tuition costs, tragic child deaths and high cellphone taxes. Consider the issue of assisted living facilities.

In 2011, the Miami Herald published a series of articles highlighting neglect, abuse and tragic deaths at ALFs across the state. The stories uncovered how the state's failure to regulate or shut down some of the worst facilities led to devastating outcomes.

After news reports of dozens of elderly residents drowning or starving or being drugged to their deaths at ALFs, Gov. Rick Scott commissioned a working group in 2011. It made several recommendations for tightening regulations, though critics say its report was diluted by industry influence.

"Everybody was expecting reform to come out of this," said Lee, pointing to the task force report and a Miami-Dade grand jury's call for tighter laws. "Everybody except the (ALF) industry. They killed it through an amendment."

After reform efforts failed last year, lawmakers are again considering changes this year, but those changes don't include most of the task force's calls for more oversight.

Scott, who has commissioned several study groups over the past two years, defended the process.

"Task forces are one way to hear from Floridians in communities from all across our diverse state ­— from Pensacola to Jacksonville to Key West," said Scott spokesman John Tupps. "We value the input of all Floridians, especially on issues with statewide impacts."

Some study groups, however, have found success. On issues like human trafficking, prescription drug abuse and the high incarceration rate of black males, the Legislature passed laws in response to a study group's findings. Lawmakers passed the "Safe Harbor Act" last year to combat underage prostitution after the Statewide Human Trafficking Task Force requested the bill.

And several working groups make recommendations directly to state agencies, which can make changes without new laws from the Legislature.

Attorney General Pam Bondi led a 2012 task force charged with studying the growing problem of infants born to women addicted to prescription drugs. In February, the group issued several recommendations for treating and preventing cases of neonatal abstinence.

"This task force is a really great example of how effective a task force can be and how much can be accomplished without any new legislation," said Jenn Meale, a spokeswoman for Bondi.

But when task forces do call for new legislation, they often do so long after the political pressure has faded, leaving lawmakers — faced with entrenched interests — choosing to preserve the status quo.

Crisis-driven task forces are nothing new, and certainly not exclusive to Florida. U.S. race riots throughout history sparked special committees to study race relations and, more recently, President Barack Obama launched a commission to look into 2012 voting problems. Several states have created working groups to study gun violence in the wake of last year's mass shootings.

As data analysis has come to play a larger role in politics, the task forces have served to provide a scientific framework for issues that might otherwise be skewed by emotion or ideology.

But even when backed by solid research, some task force recommendations — be it raising a tax, curbing gun rights or increasing regulations — are deemed dead-on-arrival once they reach Florida's Republican-dominated Legislature.

Consider these recent task forces:

• Blue Ribbon Task Force on State Higher Education Reform. After Scott vetoed a 2012 bill that would have allowed top universities to increase tuition beyond the current 15 percent cap, he placated advocates by calling for further study. The task force Scott commissioned called for "differential tuition" rates based on students' field of study. Humanities students, who would pay higher tuition than engineering majors, rebuked the idea. Neither Scott nor the Legislature has embraced the proposal.

• Communications Services Working Group. Worried about Florida's relatively high tax on telephones and cable services, the Legislature passed a bill last year that would cut those taxes slightly — and create a working group to study the issue. The group's proposal: cut taxes, which vary from city to city, and create a single statewide rate. To fill the revenue gap, the group proposed increasing the state's 6 percent sales tax to 6.34 percent. Raising the sales tax was a nonstarter in the Senate's Finance and Tax Committee, and the proposal went nowhere.

• "Stand your ground" Task Force. It became the state's most closely watched deliberative group when it was launched last year, after the Trayvon Martin shooting. The reluctance of police to arrest the shooter — who initially claimed immunity under Florida's self-defense law — had led to nationwide protests and media scrutiny of the governor's office. Ten months later, when the task force released its report, it went largely unnoticed in the Legislature, which has not held a hearing on the law this year.

"The law is an excellent law. The problem is that there are a couple of little things that need to be corrected, and need to be clarified," Simmons said. "And I wanted to do that. I'll just do it next year."

Contact Toluse Olorunnipa at [email protected]erald.com or on Twitter at @ToluseO.

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