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Florida editorial roundup

May 1, 2019

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:


May 1

The Tampa Bay Times on school voucher legislation:

They approved the death sentence for public education in Florida at 1:20 p.m. Tuesday. Then they cheered and hugged each other. The legislation approved by the Florida House and sent to the governor will steal $130 million in tax money that could be spent improving public schools next year and spend it on tuition vouchers at private schools. Never mind the Florida Constitution. Never mind the 2.8 million students left in under-funded, overwhelmed public schools.

The outcome of this year’s voucher debate in the decades-long dismantlement of traditional public education was never in doubt. It was sealed when Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis was narrowly elected governor in November and quickly appointed three conservatives to the Florida Supreme Court. The overhaul of the court emboldened the Republican-led Legislature to approve the creation of vouchers that clearly are unconstitutional, confident that an expected legal challenge will be rejected. Elections have consequences, and this is a devastating one.

Don’t be fooled. This legislation is not just about helping children from the state’s poorest families attend private schools. It does more than take care of 13,000 kids who are on a waiting list for the existing voucher program that is paid for with tax credits. It raises the annual income limit for eligibility from $66,950 for a family of four for the current voucher program to $77,250 for the “Family Empowerment Scholarship Program.” That income limit will rise in future years, and so will the state’s investment in vouchers. Welcome to a new middle class entitlement.

Florida cannot afford this free market fantasy. The state ranks near the bottom in spending per student and in average pay for teachers. Hillsborough County has hundreds of teacher vacancies, broken air conditioning systems in dozens of schools will take years to repair and voters just approved a half-cent sales tax to help make ends meet. Pinellas County would need $1,200 more per student in state funding just to cover inflation over the last decade. Yet Florida will send $130 million to private schools next year for tuition for 18,000 students.

Legislators who voted for SB 7070 talked about empowering families and school choice. Parents in most communities already have plenty of choices. Nearly 300,000 students attend more than 600 publicly funded charter schools, and more than 225,000 students attend choice or magnet schools in their districts.

Voucher supporters also talked about the benefits of forcing school districts to compete with private schools for students, but it’s not a fair fight. Private schools aren’t bound by the same accountability standards and countless other requirements that public schools must meet. Private schools aren’t assigned letter grades by the state. Private schools aren’t required to accept every student who comes in the door, and they can much more easily move out kids who are low performers or disruptive in the classroom.

In 2006, the Florida Supreme Court ruled in Bush vs. Holmes that a similar voucher program that directly used tax dollars and was championed by Gov. Jeb Bush violated the state Constitution. The court found that spending tax money on private school tuition vouchers violates the constitutional requirement for a “uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools that allows students to obtain a high quality education...” The court didn’t even get to another section of the state Constitution that says no state revenue shall be spent “directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect or religious denomination...” The state Constitution hasn’t changed, yet Republicans brushed off repeated questions from Democrats about whether the vouchers approved Tuesday are constitutional.

What has changed is the Florida Supreme Court is now solidly conservative, and Republicans are confident the court will ignore precedent and reach a different opinion than it did in 2006. The House’s 76-39 vote for SB 7070, which followed last week’s 23-17 vote in the Senate, was a foregone conclusion. State Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, the former House speaker who considered the teachers’ union the enemy, was in the chamber for the vote. So was Bush, the father of Florida’s school accountability system and the architect of diverting public money from public education to private schools.

For the voucher supporters who imagine a day when any family can take tax dollars and send their child to any private school, it is time to celebrate. For Florida teachers and countless families who still believe in the value of a quality public education system, there is no reason to cheer.




May 1

The Florida-Times Union of Jacksonville on Gov. Ron DeSantis and the price of prescription drugs:

Gov. Ron DeSantis continues to act like a Teddy Roosevelt Republican.

Having taken forceful moves to protect Florida’s environment, DeSantis now is acting to protect Florida consumers against the outrageous prices of prescription drugs.

No reasonable person can defend the prices that gouge many Florida consumers. Instead defenders of the status quo set up straw men and use extreme examples.

DeSantis is acting to obtain approval for Floridians to obtain prescription drugs from Canada; this would require permission from the federal government.

AARP, the group that advocates for seniors, praised DeSantis at a recent press event in Tallahassee.

Al Salvi, a 57-year-old paraplegic and cancer survivor, said he pays $13.50 for a pill that costs $1.67 in Canada.

Desperate consumers must go to ridiculous lengths to obtain their prescriptions. Phillip Combs of Madison said he obtains samples from his physician because he can’t afford the $400 a month copay for medication to lower his cholesterol.

AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins said, “We as a country are better than this. We shouldn’t have our seniors struggling every day to meet their basic needs.”

DeSantis said Florida is about to enact a bill that would create state programs to import prescription drugs from Canada and other countries.

State Sen. Aaron Bean, who represents Nassau County and parts of Duval, submitted the measure in the Senate; Vermont was the first state to create such a program.

The Wall Street Journal Editorial Board ridiculed the plan by pointing out that Canada’s 37 million residents couldn’t possibly provide the needs for Florida’s 21 million residents even on a limited scale — but nobody is suggesting a Canadian takeover of Florida’s prescription drugs.

The Florida plan is narrow and wouldn’t include importation of controlled substances. In fact, DeSantis is looking for drugs for serious illnesses like hepatitis C, multiple sclerosis and HIV that cost far less in Canada.

Such a plan could directly save the state money to provide drugs for prisoners.

Certainly there are plenty of prescription drugs in the U.S. that are as economical as Canada’s. But there are too many cases of prices that simply look like gouging.

Another concern is safety, which is real but can be addressed.

Evidence for the issue can be found in a special report produced for the 9th Congressional District in the Orlando area.

The staff of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform looked into the prices of diabetes drugs for seniors and the uninsured.

“Over the past two decades, manufacturers have systematically and dramatically raised the prices of their insulin products by more than tenfold, often in lockstep,” the report stated.

This forces people to ration their lifesaving insulin.

Diabetes is associated with heart disease, stroke, kidney failure and blindness.

Diabetes affects more than 30 million people in the U.S. and 1 in 4 seniors. In addition there are about 120,000 uninsured residents in Florida’s 9th Congressional District.

Of the 50 most popular diabetes drugs for Medicare in the district, U.S. prices are five times more expensive than Australia’s, four times more expensive than in the United Kingdom and three times more expensive than in Canada.

For Novolog Flexpen, a popular brand of insulin, uninsured diabetes patients pay an average of $630 a month compared to $28 in Australia, $42 in the United Kingdom and $47 in Canada.

Do manufacturers need to charge so much? One study noted that they could charge as little as $11 a month for insulin and still make a profit.

Because federal law prohibits Medicare from negotiating directly with drug makers, seniors pay much more than those abroad. Since the United States does not have universal health insurance like other industrial countries, the uninsured are faced with sky-high drug prices.

A free market ostensibly would deal with price-gouging. Clearly the health care market is far from free.




April 30

The SunSentinel on Parkland shooting suspect Nikolas Cruz and his finances:

No matter the recent discovery that he and his younger brother, Zachary, are entitled to split a nearly $865,000 life insurance policy that apparently belonged to his deceased mother, in every practical sense, Nikolas Cruz is bankrupt. It remains only for a court to declare him so.

The newly discovered windfall presumably makes Cruz ineligible for the services of his public defenders, who have filed a motion to withdraw. The law allows public defenders to represent only indigents.

The court should deny the public defenders’ motion, declare Cruz to still be indigent and let the trial begin as planned in January, nearly two years after the Valentine’s Day tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

Otherwise, the surviving victims and the families of the slain will have to wait even longer for justice than a presumed January start date of the trial. There’s no telling how much longer. The delay will be agonizing, as will the parade of delays in what could become a decades-long march to put him to death.

If the court grants the motion, the search would be on for private attorneys — there must be at least two when a death sentence is possible — willing to work for perhaps years for practically nothing.

Even if private lawyers could lay claim to half that money, it wouldn’t begin to pay the enormous costs of a capital defense, which necessarily includes expert medical testimony, jury selection expertise and possibly 10 to 15 years of appeals. New attorneys would have the benefits of the public defenders’ files, but they would be obliged to retrace every step taken so far.

There’s a good chance the lawyers would see none of that money. A surviving victim, Anthony Borges, and the family of slain student Meadow Pollack have already won default judgments in civil suits against Cruz, who did not contest them. One of the plaintiff attorneys has announced plans to go after the money and expects that “a bunch of families” will follow suit.

There are two certainties that bear consideration about the future of Cruz, who in return for life without parole, is willing to confess to killing 17 students and adults, and wounding 17 others.

One is that he’ll never get one cent of that insurance money. It won’t be available to him to pay any lawyers. His victims have better claims to it.

The other is that he will spend every day of the rest of his life, whether it be long or short, in prison. Even if he were to be spared the death sentence, conviction of first-degree murder requires a life sentence without eligibility for parole. That’s 17 potential consecutive life sentences for the killings, plus 17 more for the victims who survived.

It wouldn’t be comfortable incarceration, either. Far from it. Among prisoners, those who kill children are the lowest of the low. Cruz’s notoriety would make him an especially obvious target for some inmate with an attitude and a shiv. The Department of Corrections would be compelled to keep him in administrative segregation under conditions approximating those on death row. To be blunt about it, his life expectancy in the general inmate population could be shorter than if he were on death row.

The offer he made through his public defenders to plead guilty in exchange for life sentences — rather than death — remains on the table. State Attorney Mike Satz and the Parkland parents should weigh it against the consequences of a possible indeterminate delay and the not-inconsiderable chance that a jury would spare his life.

Florida law now requires the unanimous vote of 12 jurors to impose death. The misgivings of just one would mean life in prison.

The calculated, methodical massacre at Parkland is what Satz described it just days after the shooting: “The type of case the death penalty was designed for.”

But that was before he and the public learned of the steps not taken in response to multiple omens of what Cruz had become and what he might do. The FBI brushed off an explicit warning that he could be a school shooter. Fellow students took their fears to an administrator — in vain.

Plaintiff attorneys also allege that as an outlet for Cruz’s well-known aggression, his therapists at Henderson Behavioral Health encouraged his use of violent video games and supported him getting a punching bag and an airsoft gun. The community mental health provider denies the allegations. CEO Steven Ronick said no such encouragement or support was ever given.

None of what anyone else did or didn’t do excuses the murders. But the litany of failures by multiple agencies might easily persuade at least one juror to vote against death.

In the recent case of a St. Petersburg father who dropped his five-year-old daughter from a bridge into the frigid waters of Tampa Bay, in full view of a police officer, the prosecution took the death penalty off the table. The question wasn’t whether the man was mentally ill, but whether he was so far from reality as to be innocent by reason of insanity.

Legal insanity is extraordinarily hard to prove. The jury found him guilty instead and he is serving life.

Weighing all the odds, State Attorney Bernie McCabe of the Sixth Circuit chose a certain outcome that protects society from any future crimes by John Jonchuck, as surely as a death sentence would have.

Perhaps Mike Satz should have a talk with McCabe.