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Florida editorial roundup

May 22, 2019

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

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May 21

The Sun Sentinel on drilling for oil in the Everglades:

Florida failed in its first effort to stop Everglades oil drilling. Others, however, still could succeed.

Ideally, Kanter Real Estate never would have advanced this far in its plan to drill in far southwest Broward County. But the Florida Department of Environmental Protection — under former Gov. Rick Scott — gave Kanter an advantage at the start that opponents couldn’t overcome.

Matthew Schwartz is executive director of the South Florida Wildlands Association, which filed a brief in support of the legal challenge to the well. He told the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board that while DEP refused to give Kanter a drilling permit, the agency did issue an environmental use permit. By doing so, Schwartz said, DEP made the argument about only “a hole in the ground,” and not potential damage to the Everglades.

That’s the main reason why Broward County and the city of Miramar this month declined to take their case to the Florida Supreme Court.

In February, a panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal overruled the state’s denial of the drilling permit and refused to give opponents — including the county and the city — a rehearing before the entire court. Even if the county and city had persuaded the Florida Supreme Court to take the case, the chances of stopping the well were slim.

Fortunately, Kanter won’t be drilling soon. The company must obtain other approvals from several agencies, which presents new opportunities for lawsuits.

From Broward County, Kanter needs a land-use change and permits for, among other things, vegetation removal. If the county blocks the company, Kanter might argue that the state court ruling overrules any local opposition. Still, the county should exercise as much oversight as possible.

The South Florida Water Management District must grant Kanter a consumptive use permit. The drill would require large amounts of water. Under the Scott-appointed district board and administration, approval probably would have been assured. The new board, which Gov. Ron DeSantis chose, may — and should — respond differently.

But the best option for stopping the well could be the approval Kanter needs from the Army Corps of Engineers. Kanter requires a dredge-and-fill permit because the company intends to destroy wetlands. Kanter must create enough space for the well itself and all support operations.

Schwartz points out that the 20,000-acre site is between two canals in a strategic part of the Everglades. Under the federal-state Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), water managers want to connect two conservation areas that are part of southern Florida’s hydrological system.

A lawsuit in federal court could argue that the drilling violates CERP and that the Army Corps should deny the permit. The Corps must allow public comment on the permit application, which takes a long time, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also would weigh in.

An oil well presents an unacceptable risk to the Everglades. A spill could contaminate the Biscayne Aquifer, a vital source of drinking water for South Florida.

Yet at one hearing, Carol Wehle made the preposterous argument that oil could not permeate the aquifer. Wehle is a former executive director of the South Florida Water Management District. She now works as a consultant. The hearing officer believed her.

This would be an exploratory well, with what geologists estimate is a 23 percent chance of striking oil. Those aren’t good odds. But Kanter would get a 100 percent tax write-off on the well. If the company hit oil, it surely would drill more wells. Kanter owns about 31 square miles in the Everglades. How would a drilling area that size be compatible with restoring the “River of Grass?”

At one point, John Kanter said his company would “conduct this project in a manner that would be highly protective of the environment.” We heard similar sentiment from BP just before the company’s Deepwater Horizon rig blew up in 2010 and caused the nation’s worst oil spill.

Florida already faces enough threats from the fossil fuel industry. The Trump administration may allow drilling off the Atlantic coast — for the first time — and nearer to the Gulf coast. The administration also proposes to relax drilling safety rules and to allow seismic testing in the Atlantic that could harm marine life.

Everglades drilling, however, could be the most dangerous and senseless threat. The federal and state governments may spend as much as $20 billion to save what remains of this unique system. Whatever it takes, we must keep drilling out of the Everglades.

Online:

https://www.sun-sentinel.com

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May 20

The Tampa Bay Times on state lawmakers and affordable housing:

While the lack of affordable housing is a top issue in urban areas from South Florida to Tampa Bay, the Florida Legislature is trying to make it harder for local governments to meet the demand. They have once again sided with well-heeled developers, making it more expensive for counties and cities to add affordable housing and for citizens who want to challenge a development decision in court. This double whammy would curtail innovation and muzzle residents, and Gov. Ron DeSantis should veto it.

The legislation, HB 7103, was once even worse until Senate leaders stepped in. Originally, House leaders wanted to ban local governments from creating zoning that required developers to set aside units for low-income residents. The revised bill that passed allows the zoning, but it requires local governments to cover developers’ associated costs. In other words, cities and counties would be forced to pay up, likely by waiving fees or offering bonuses or other financial incentives.

The requirement makes little sense other than to pad developers’ bottom lines. No one forces them to build in areas where they don’t like the zoning requirements. If they don’t think they can make enough money in areas that require affordable units, they can build elsewhere.

Locally elected officials should set the community’s development priorities, not state legislators too often influenced more by strict ideology and campaign contributions than by common sense. If local residents don’t like the results, they can vote for someone else in the next election. But many residents understand that local officials need to try different ways to promote construction of affordable housing. What works in one city might not in another, but they should be left to figure out their own best path. That’s how innovation works. Instead, this law would handcuff local leaders.

To make matters worse, the bill also requires the loser in any challenge to a development decision to pay the other side’s legal fees, a provision added at the last minute by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R.-St. Petersburg. On the surface, that might seem fair. But what it really does is make it perilous for a citizen or grassroots group to dare push back when a local government adjusts its development plans to accommodate a project. Court cases always hold some risk, and legal fees can add up quickly, so even someone with a strong legal argument will think twice. Who would take on a deep-pocketed government when it might mean personal financial ruin?

The result will be more parking lots, strip malls and condo towers where they don’t belong, as residents shy away from using the publicly funded court system to remedy government mistakes. Left unchecked, poor development decisions will scrub away what makes neighborhoods distinctive. It could mean more density where less is needed and vice versa. Bully for developers. Terrible for participatory democracy.

In vetoing a stated ban on local bans of plastic straws, DeSantis demonstrated a willingness recently to buck Republican legislative leaders when it comes to their relentless gutting of home rule. He should do the same with HB 7103. Limiting the ability of cities and counties to tackle the affordable housing crisis and curtailing access to the courts benefits only developers. Floridians deserve better.

Online:

https://www.tampabay.com

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May 20

The Daytona Beach News-Journal on mental and behavioral health funding:

Florida’s need for mental-health and addiction treatment has always outstripped its resources; it’s among the worst-funded in the nation for behavioral health. And lawmakers’ funding priorities keep lurching as public attention shifts, making it tough to translate public dollars into stable help for those who are desperate to shake their addictions, fight off depression or thoughts of suicide, or obtain medication for serious conditions like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

The budget on its way to Gov. Ron DeSantis for the fiscal year that starts July 1 focuses money in two areas: treatment of opioid addiction and mental-health counseling focused on school safety, which was awarded a sizable $75 million appropriation from the education budget.

These are important priorities, particularly opioids, which cause more deaths every year. But other worthy programs have seen severe cuts in recent years, including millions of dollars in cuts to the state’s transition programs for inmates leaving prison. Meanwhile, Florida’s struggling community-based providers battle for resources to serve a never-ending stream of people who desperately need help, but can only be handed a spot on a waiting list.

That makes the recent announcement of Florida’s “Hope for Healing” initiative by Florida’s first lady, Casey DeSantis, cause for optimism. As announced last week, the plan is to take a “long look” at what she described as $2 billion in behavioral-health spending in Florida.

“We owe it to the taxpayers, to the people who are suffering and to the people who are looking for hope,” DeSantis said. The plan is to bring together officials from the Department of Children and Families, The Department of Juvenile Justice, and the Department of Education together to talk about how state funds are being spent and whether they are being used most effectively.

We offer two suggestions. First, whenever the state looks at a large area of funding, it should also examine the bureaucracy it flows through, and ask whether some of that can be redirected to actual services.

Second, the state Department of Corrections, Department of Health and Agency for Health Care Administration should also be called to the table. Florida’s jails and prisons are by far its biggest behavioral-health agencies, with hospitals running second.

They’re also the most expensive options, and among the least effective. Bolstering Florida’s community mental health system, and giving it more stability in funding, could save the state billions while making all Floridians safer and giving those who are struggling a better chance at happy, productive lives.

As it stands, however, local providers like SMA Behavioral Health play a guessing game — trying to predict where funding is most likely to flow and positioning their programs to bring as much treatment here as possible. Sometimes, that pushes agencies toward innovative, effective new options, such as an increased emphasis on drug therapies that help fight deep-seated addiction. But cuts can also create cruel dilemmas such as the one recently described by Healthy Start of Flagler/Volusia Director Dixie Morgese, who can’t find stable housing for homeless pregnant women (many of whom struggle with addiction or mental illness).

It’s understandable for lawmakers to respond to devastating tragedies like the massacre at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School with increased funding. But those additional expenditures should be laid atop a stable foundation that can only be built by realistically assessing day-to-day needs in Florida — allocating limited resources where they are most needed, and where they can do the most good. It almost always makes more sense to find someone help before they end up in an emergency room, a jail cell — or the morgue. That’s a goal the new initiative should embrace.

Online:

https://www.news-journalonline.com

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