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A Times Editorial

Memo to Washington: We need help

Looking to Washington for help is not popular. The federal government doesn't have all the answers, and red tape and raw politics can tie it up in knots. But Florida is foundering. Staggered by an anemic economy and plagued by short-term thinking, this state lacks the vision and the will to responsibly address its biggest challenges. Its elected leaders are too cheap to protect the environment or provide quality health care. They are too willing to erode the constitutional rights of Floridians, and they are headed in the wrong direction on issues such as immigration and energy. There is nowhere else to turn. Florida needs Washington to save it from itself.

Elections The right to vote is central to democracy. Yet since the Republican-led Legislature made it harder to register and to cast ballots, Floridians must depend on the U.S. Justice Department to protect their rights.

The 1965 Voting Rights Act requires five Florida counties that had discriminatory voting practices in the past — including Hillsborough — to obtain clearance from the federal agency before implementing new voting procedures. Justice officials should refuse to endorse the new state law that makes it harder for Floridians to vote. The law reduces the number of early voting days; prohibits some voters from casting a regular ballot on Election Day if they have an old address on the voter roll; and creates such punitive restrictions for voter registration drives that the Florida League of Women Voters has halted its longtime efforts. This is not about voter fraud; it is about suppressing the vote.

The Justice Department also will preclear new congressional and legislative districts the Legislature will draw next year. It must ensure opportunities for minorities to elect candidates of their choice are not eroded.

Environment Florida has refused for more than a decade to aggressively clean up the sewage, farm runoff and other pollution that has fouled 2,000 miles of the state's rivers and streams. The federal government finally stepped in to enforce the Clean Water Act, but Gov. Rick Scott and Republican leaders insisted they need more time. Stalling allows utilities, corporate farms and other heavy polluters to keep dumping their waste in the state's lakes, rivers and bays. The federal government should not sit still for such disregard for clean water. Washington has given the state more time to develop new water quality standards, but it should not accept lax limits that don't protect state waters.

Washington also should ensure Florida doesn't sink restoration of the Everglades by pulling back from the 50-50 cost-sharing agreement. State funding has declined, and federal officials say they can step up in the interim. A contract for another major project was announced Friday. The Everglades is a national treasure, and clean water is essential for smart growth, tourism and fisheries. If the state's leaders can't see that, the federal government should.

Health care Florida's leaders value saving money and playing politics over providing health care for residents. The state wants to jam Medicaid recipients into managed care that has no proven track record here, and it shamefully refuses to implement national health care reforms even though more than 4 million Floridians are uninsured. Only Washington can insist on better.

The Obama administration has to approve Medicaid's complete shift to managed care, which favors providers over patients to control costs. It should insist that health plans spend a specific portion of their revenues on care. It should demand that counseling be offered to patients as they choose their HMO or other managed care plan. It also should be skeptical about forcing the elderly and disabled into managed care plans first when existing Medicaid long-term care programs for those residents are cost-efficient and effective.

Even more outrageous is the refusal of Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature to accept federal money to start implementing federal health care reforms. They are sacrificing health care for Floridians to wage a political fight and a legal battle with President Barack Obama. It is unconscionable, and it's up to Washington to ensure health care is affordable and accessible.

Immigration Florida's failure to join the stampede toward harsh anti-immigrant laws like Arizona's is not for lack of effort. Only an impassioned speech by a powerful state senator about the difficulties of hiring farmworkers to work the fields prevented punitive measures from passing the Legislature this spring — and the governor and his allies will be back at it next year. Immigration reform remains a national issue, and Congress and the president should solve it.

This state needs a steady supply of workers for difficult-to- fill jobs in agriculture and tourism, and a rational national immigration policy can create a legal avenue to meet those demands. Florida should celebrate its diversity, and the last thing this state should do is adopt discriminatory practices enabling local police to target people of color and non-English speakers. Illegal immigration is not the state's most pressing problem, but it is easily embraced by pandering lawmakers.

A balanced national immigration policy offering a fair path to citizenship, a strong guest worker system and streamlined, readily available visas for agricultural work and high-tech jobs would stimulate Florida's economy and create more stable communities. That can only be accomplished by Washington.

Energy The Republicans calling for a state energy policy include a governor who doesn't believe in man-made global warming and a Senate president who wants to keep the door open to offshore drilling. The federal government should establish a nationwide energy policy before Florida heads off in the wrong direction.

Gov. Rick Scott wants to expand renewable energy; that could be good or just a windfall for utilities, depending on the details. He also wants to cut energy conservation efforts by utilities. That rewards power hogs and encourages utilities to build power plants the state might not need and may not be able to afford. Also shortsighted is the governor's apparent interest in building more coal plants. Even the utilities see the folly in that as the nation comes to grips with climate change.

Scott should focus on recovering damages for last year's gulf oil spill, and the Legislature should forget about allowing offshore drilling in state waters that would put Florida's beaches and economy at risk. Energy policy should be national in scope, long-term and rooted in science — not state politics.

Insurance Since the hurricanes of 2004 and 2005, Florida has failed to create a property insurance market that offers affordable, accessible coverage. It has tried regulation and incentives to insurers, and it has pushed the free market. Nothing works, and Floridians cannot pay enough in premiums and taxes to cover billions in damages after the next Big One.

Residents in Alabama, Missouri and elsewhere whose communities have been devastated by tornadoes and floods are learning the same lesson. Congress should create a national catastrophe fund that would spread the risk. It could create a voluntary consortium of states that would combine resources to provide inexpensive reinsurance to private insurers. The fund could build cash reserves and issue bonds to cover damages after major storms.

One way or another, the federal government winds up providing financial aid and assistance after big hurricanes, tornadoes and floods. A national catastrophe fund would recognize that obligation and acknowledge that some storms are too big and expensive for taxpayers and policyholders in one state to handle.

Memo to Washington: We need help 07/16/11 [Last modified: Saturday, July 16, 2011 4:48pm]
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