Three key issues as the Florida Legislature convenes | Editorial
Lawmakers cannot allow the budget or redistricting to push other critical concerns under the radar
Manatees in the central Brevard County area of the Indian River will be fed this winter as part of an emergency response.
Manatees in the central Brevard County area of the Indian River will be fed this winter as part of an emergency response.
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Jan. 9, 2022

The Florida Legislature opens its 2022 session Tuesday, and the usual issues — the budget, taxes, education — will be front and center. Redistricting will also consume a lot of the oxygen in Tallahassee, as Republicans look to maintain their political dominance in Florida, and Democrats angle to regain a competitive edge. But Floridians have a host of other concerns, from the quality of the natural environment in their communities to holding their governments and leaders accountable. Here are just three issues that lawmakers have sidelined for years that need to become priorities.

Criminal justice reform. Florida’s prison system is too big, too old, too expensive and too focused on punishment at the expense of reintegrating some inmates into society, and it serves neither prisoners nor taxpayers. The causes are many and have been building for years, from the wars on drugs and violent crime to the use of mandatory minimum sentences. And not only outsiders have called for reform; before retiring last year, then-Florida Corrections Secretary Mark Inch repeatedly described a prison system “in crisis,” with high officer turnover, low morale, crumbling infrastructure and living environments that posed dangers to both inmates and correctional officers.

Florida operates the third-largest prison system in the country, and the state’s incarceration rate is 10th highest in America. While the inmate population dropped during COVID-19 as criminal prosecutions were postponed, the pipeline is expected to ramp up again as busier court dockets return. And Florida’s inmate population is getting older; about 27 percent of inmates are 50 years or older, a demographic that is expected to increase (and with it, costly public outlays for medical treatment).

Those imprisoned are not preparing themselves for a brighter future; a DOC report last year noted that only 20 percent of those requiring substance abuse treatment had access to substantive programs, with huge numbers of inmates idling away their time instead of participating in education or job training. One bill filed this year would allow an inmate’s prison time to be reduced to 65 percent of their sentence instead of the mandatory 85 percent. That would be especially helpful at giving nonviolent offenders another chance and whittling the prison population. Though a similar bill failed last year, it’s worth another effort. Lawmakers should also revisit mandatory minimums, and consider reevaluating the public safety threat of older inmates. This is as much about practicality as mercy.

Indian River Lagoon. The record die-off of manatees last year was only the latest sign of the troubled state of Florida’s Indian River Lagoon. While deaths statewide topped 1,000, more than 750 manatees died around the lagoon, on Florida’s east coast, and most from starvation. Years of polluted runoff from farms, lawns and septic tanks have fueled deadly algae blooms, shading out seagrass and destroying about 46,000 acres of feeding grounds for manatees between 2009 and 2019. The runoff reaches the lagoon, turning the water murky, blocking out sunlight the seagrass needs to survive.

While farm waste and lawn clippings contribute to the problem, researchers from Florida Atlantic University concluded in a recently-published study that human waste leaking from septic tanks was a major driver in polluting the lagoon. With more than 300,000 septic systems permitted across several counties adjacent to the 156-mile-long lagoon, researchers found, even “properly functioning” septic systems were contributing nitrogen to the groundwater. “Humans are increasing nitrogen loading at unprecedented rates that now exceed sustainability,” said Brian Lapointe, a lead researcher, whose team pointed to advanced wastewater treatment as one solution for decreasing the nutrient load.

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In September, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced the lagoon would receive $53 million in state clean water grants, which officials said would help connect an estimated 3,000 septic tanks to central sewers and upgrade three wastewater treatment facilities. Lawmakers have also proposed several small-scale projects for consideration in the upcoming legislative session. But that’s a drop in the bucket for a restoration effort that could cost $5 billion or more. Florida needs to get serious about restoring the lagoon’s health before the impacts to the fisheries and ecosystem only worsen. And more broadly, the state needs to see the lagoon as emblematic of what happens when it fails to protect its waterways as they are increasingly impacted by a growing population.

Open government. Florida’s long, groundbreaking tradition of open government is under assault, and it’s time the Legislature reaffirmed the public’s entitlement to this constitutional right. The Florida Supreme Court later this month will take up the legal battle over Marsy’s Law, a 2018 state constitutional amendment aimed at extending some privacy protections to crime victims. But law enforcement agencies across Florida have abused the law, using it to shield key details in police reports and to mask the identifies of law officers involved in using force.

Marsy’s Law, though, is only one example of how openness in Florida has eroded. According to the First Amendment Foundation, Florida has 1,159 exemptions to the state’s open government laws currently on the books. While Florida’s constitution contains a standard for closing some records or meetings, lawmakers have made a mockery of overcoming that hurdle, concocting flimsy and overly broad justifications for keeping the public in the dark. Among the worst abuses: Protecting so-called “trade secrets” of government vendors that deny taxpayers a full accounting of how their money is spent.

The point of the Sunshine Laws is to ensure the mayor is not enriching his family, that public boards are not colluding with the industries they regulate, and that state employees and agencies are qualified and performing their jobs, to name a few. Still, advocates routinely track more than 100 bills each session that would further restrict access, and even basic information is targeted, from the names of winners of the state-sanctioned lottery to those applying to become university presidents. If lawmakers want to help — do no harm. Oppose new exemptions. Better yet, increase penalties for public employees who defy timely compliance with the law. As media outlets in Florida struggle financially, it will be increasingly important for average Floridians to enforce their right to open government.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.