Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Editorial: Legislature fails to tackle Florida's biggest issues

For the Florida Legislature, this is the spring of playing it safe. When lawmakers adjourn the annual legislative session Friday, they will brag about tax cuts, new projects and other short-term accomplishments. But they will leave Tallahassee having ignored the biggest challenges facing the Sunshine State or providing token solutions that lack vision and ambition. Floridians deserve leaders who look further ahead than the next election.

Among the big half-dozen issues on which lawmakers failed to deliver:


Florida's gambling regulations are a mess, with horse and dog tracks struggling, a gambling deal with the Seminole Indians in flux and powerful forces still pushing for destination casinos. Yet legislators failed to agree on doing anything at all. House Speaker Will Weatherford proposed allowing some destination casinos if lawmakers would let voters decide in the future on any gambling changes. But even that flawed plan went nowhere.

Lawmakers are expected to leave without addressing the state's outdated greyhound racing requirements that require tracks to run a certain number of races just so they can keep their card rooms open. The requirement has passed its usefulness and appears to be contributing to dogs' deaths. Lawmakers may expand disclosure requirements to require dog injuries to be reported, but that is not nearly enough.


Once again, lawmakers squandered an opportunity to shore up Florida's precious water supply. The Senate started with a springs protection bill that would have provided $380 million a year to restore these polluted, vital natural resources. That dream is dead.

With no interest from the House and no leadership from the governor, the springs bill emerging from the Senate is a shadow of its former self and reflects the power of home builders and utilities. The latest version of SB 1576 sets the stage for only about $45 million in funding next year, a pittance for those counties whose springs are choking with farm, sewage and other runoff. It would further extend deadlines for cleaning up this pollution. And there was no progress at all on broader water issues that will be left to next year's Legislature.


Legislators continue to pander to power companies so Floridians will continue to pay more for electricity. The indifference to alternative energy means Florida is still not addressing climate change despite its vulnerable coastline.

Duke Energy customers, whose typical bills are the highest among the state's three largest investor-owned utilities, face the double whammy of paying for nuclear plants that will never be built or have been shut down. Lawmakers have refused to repeal the 2006 law that let Duke Energy charge taxpayers in advance for a Levy County nuclear project that will never produce electricity.

But even with plants shuttered, nuclear still gets more legislative interest than other, cleaner energy sources. Once again the Legislature has refused to set new alternative energy standards, meaning Florida will likely continue to lag behind even Delaware for the amount of solar power produced.


After the Miami Herald reported at least 477 children died after their families had prior contact with the Department of Children and Families, it looked as if Tallahassee might get serious about investing in child protection. Gov. Rick Scott called for $40 million more for child welfare investigators, who the Herald's investigation revealed were often overwhelmed by their caseloads. And there were calls for more investment in mental health and substance abuse programs for parents and other caregivers.

The sense of urgency faded. The Legislature, still finalizing the state budget, has only set aside $21 million for new investigators but has included some additional money for mental health and substance abuse programs. It's not nearly enough.


Last year, House Republicans refused to approve a Senate plan to accept $51 billion in federal Medicaid expansion money to help cover private insurance costs for 1.3 million uninsured Floridians. This year, a similar bill failed to even get a hearing as Republican lawmakers continue to ignore the plight of the poor and uninsured. That leaves some 800,000 Floridians in a particularly cruel box: They earn too much money to qualify for Medicaid now, but they earn too little to qualify for subsidies to help pay for private insurance on the federal exchange.

Republican legislators continue to criticize the Affordable Care Act even as 8 million Americans have signed up for private coverage through the exchanges, exceeding projections. They complain the Obama administration is inflexible on the Medicaid expansion, ignoring that other states such as Arkansas and Michigan have been granted flexibility to design their own plans for using the money. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson even offered another alternative involving hospitals covering the state's share of expansion costs in future years and another letter from the administration offering flexibility. Yet Republican legislators refuse to budge and continue to ignore the fundamental need for access to health care among their constituents who are struggling to make ends meet.


Starting Thursday, Amazon.com will collect sales tax in Florida as it begins operations at new warehouses in Hillsborough and Polk counties. Finally the Internet giant will be doing its part to contribute to the communities and the infrastructure that have enabled it to thrive. But lawmakers are still giving every other out-of-state Internet merchant a pass on collecting sales taxes. That puts Florida retailers at a competitive disadvantage, unfairly shifting the tax burden on those who shop locally and ultimately undermining the state's future.

It's estimated the lost sales tax revenue in Florida is at least $454 million annually -- money state and local governments could use to invest in everything from higher teacher salaries to paying police. Yet the Legislature will not stand for tax fairness. It has refused to join a state consortium pressing Congress for action or take more aggressive legal steps as New York, Texas and California have done in requiring out-of-state Internet merchants to collect sales taxes and remit them.

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