Editorial: Hits, errors and misses by the Florida Legislature

SCOTT KEELER   |   Times
The Florida Legislature dealt with hundreds of other issues before it adjourned a week ago. Here's a scorecard on some of the hits, errors and misses.
SCOTT KEELER | Times The Florida Legislature dealt with hundreds of other issues before it adjourned a week ago. Here's a scorecard on some of the hits, errors and misses.
Published March 16
Updated March 16

They named roads, replaced a state statue in the U.S. Capitol and demanded every school display "In God We Trust.’’ They embraced daylight saving time year-round and considered creating license plates for schools in Georgia and Alabama. They crafted and passed a $400 million school safety package in three weeks following the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. But the Florida Legislature dealt with hundreds of other issues before it adjourned a week ago. Here’s a scorecard on some of the hits, errors and misses.

Good ideas that passed

Prison visits. Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, made it his one-man mission to improve conditions in Florida prisons, utilizing a state law that allows legislators to make unannounced visits to prisons, juvenile lockups and residential programs and talk to prisoners. Now leaving office to run for Congress, Richardson co-sponsored a bill that expands the right to conduct surprise inspections to judges, prosecutors and public defenders. The law is an important tool, as Richardson proved. His more than 100 inspections exposed grievous conditions and prompted quick action.

Diversion programs. Alternative arrest programs for low-level juvenile and adult offenders are effective at keeping people from cycling through the justice system, but the programs haven’t been utilized consistently throughout the state. Now Florida will have uniform guidelines for counties to enact their own programs, such as civil citations for certain minor offenses or diversion programs that can include community service, restitution and addiction treatment. Minors who complete the program will have no criminal record. The effort, which took a couple years to pass, will help would-be criminals instead become productive citizens.

Safety net hospitals. It stands to reason that Tampa General and other safety net hospitals carrying the heaviest loads of Medicaid patients should get more of the Medicaid money. Yet the Senate wanted to redirect $318 million from those hospitals to for-profit hospitals with a fraction of the Medicaid caseloads. Fortunately, the House rejected that idea and in the trading nursing homes also got more Medicaid money. Win-win.

Bright Futures. The increase in Bright Futures scholarships to pay for 100 percent of tuition is too expensive and an unwarranted expansion of a middle class entitlement. But allowing Bright Futures to pay for summer semesters makes sense. It’s not fair to penalize kids who are taking summer classes and are hustling to graduate.

Voter rolls. This little three-page bill could make the biggest difference in reducing voter fraud. After years of discussion, lawmakers finally passed legislation that would allow Florida to join a nonprofit consortium of 20 states that share voter information. It’s a good-faith effort to identify voters who are registered to vote in two states and weed them out.

Bad ideas that passed

Public schools. Can it get any worse? Lawmakers demanded school districts place armed officers in every school but did not give them enough money to pay for it. There’s another voucher program for students claiming they were bullied, another source of tax credits to pay for private school tuition vouchers and another shot at teachers’ unions.

Environment. Growth management is gutted, water management districts are neutered and the Department of Environmental Protection isn’t about protection at all under Gov. Rick Scott. Yet lawmakers passed legislation that would let DEP take over issuing federal wetlands destruction permits from the federal Army Corps of Engineers. At this rate, why have any permits at all?

Payday loans. Payday lenders already take enough money from low-income Floridians, and this bill creates a new short-term loan for up to $1,000 that carries triple-digit interest. It was sought by payday lenders including Tampa-based Amscot in order to circumvent a new federal rule. But what’s good for the industry can be harmful to the borrowers who can least afford to pay higher interest and fees. Scott should protect consumers and veto the bill.

Taxes. Last year, lawmakers put on November’s ballot a constitutional amendment to increase the homestead exemption from $50,000 to $75,000. This spring, they added another amendment to the ballot that would require the Legislature to approve any tax increases by a two-thirds vote instead of a majority vote. Florida, already a low-tax state, would strangle itself.

Pregnancy centers. This bill cements a contract between the state Department of Health and the Florida Pregnancy Care Network, which runs more than 100 pregnancy centers that provide counseling and some medical services such as STD testing and ultrasounds. They are largely unregulated, but the bigger concern is that the religiously affiliated centers have a clear anti-abortion mission and do not always provide accurate medical information. Public funding should not be used to push an anti-abortion agenda on women dealing with unplanned pregnancies, and Scott should veto this.

Good ideas that failed

Sexual harassment crackdown. Before the session, the focus centered on the sexual harassment allegations against Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater, who resigned. Lawmakers promised reforms, but they didn’t deliver. The House used the issue as political leverage against the Senate, and the Senate refused to go along with the House’s vindictive legislation. The rhetoric from many lawmakers about changing a toxic work environment in the state Capitol appears to have been cover for ousting a moderate Republican who made too many enemies.

Texting while driving. Thousands of people are injured every year in crashes involving drivers texting behind the wheel, and there is widespread support for tougher penalties. The House passed the ban, but one influential senator blocked the legislation from coming up in the Senate. Lawmakers failed again to make texting while driving a primary offense and squandered an opportunity to save lives.

Human trafficking. If there’s a group most lacking in political access with the greatest need for protection, it’s victims of human trafficking. Often, they are women and girls forced into sex work, and Sen. Lauren Book’s bill would have put hotel operators on the hook for turning a blind eye when it happens on their property. But Book’s curious late-session maneuvering failed, and lawmakers again failed to protect a vulnerable, voiceless population.

Sentencing reform. Soaring prison costs and evolving attitudes about incarcerating drug addicts provided renewed hope for updating Florida’s archaic sentencing laws. But a package of smart reforms that included opportunities for driver’s license reinstatement, sentencing discretion in nonviolent drug cases and raising the monetary threshold for felony thefts fizzled. It’s another lost opportunity to ease pressure on the prison system and embrace a more bipartisan, pragmatic approach to criminal justice.

Financial literacy. This looked to be the year to finally require a high school class in financial literacy. The Senate passed the legislation early, but it died in the House. So don’t expect many high school students to know how to balance a checkbook, negotiate a car loan or avoid running up credit card debt. As your parents used to say, lawmakers remain penny wise and pound foolish.

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