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Florida editorial roundup

July 24, 2019

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

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July 24

The Florida Times-Union on new details about the opioid epidemic in Florida:

Fifty opioid pills.

Per person.

Per year.

That was the average for Duval County from 2006 to 2012.

Fifty!

That’s one of the shocking conclusions from a new report published in The Washington Post, which went to court to force the government to release data on 380 million transactions of oxycodone and hydrocodone pills — transactions that arguably served as the foundation of America’s opioid epidemic.

It has hit our poor and rural counties the worst: there is an “opioid belt” that runs through the Appalachians where the most lives have been lost. Roughly speaking this opioid belt includes 90 counties that span West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky.

In some of these counties the average person has been popping over 300 pills per year.

Thirteen of the 90 counties in the opioid belt had death rates more than eight times the national rate, according to government data.

“What they did to my state was criminal,” West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin told the Post. “The companies, the distributors, were unconscionable. ... I cannot believe that we have not gone after them with criminal charges.”

But while the companies and distributors were the main culprits, the federal government failed on a massive scale to quickly regulate the tsunami of pills that were flooding America.

And once the government did begin tightening the supply of opioids, the next phase of the crisis turned to the streets, where addicted people turned to heroin and its far more dangerous version — fentanyl.

Fentanyl, which can be cheaply produced in labs and easily transported, has been showing up in cocaine and other drugs.

A CLEAR LINK

There is clear link between affluence, education and the rate of opioid use — and Northeast Florida is a perfect illustration of that.

Here are the annual opioid pill per person averages for counties in this region:

—St. Johns: 34

—Duval: 50

—Clay: 53

—Nassau: 60

—Putnam: 69

—Baker: 78

MAKING THE COMPANIES PAY

Jacksonville is one of nearly 2,000 local governments suing the drug companies to help pay for treatments.

There are hopes for a nationwide settlement along the lines of the massive payout made by tobacco companies. One problem, however, is that the opioid manufacturers do not have the same financial resources as the tobacco companies.

POSITIVE TRENDS

Not all the news is bad: Duval County has seen a reduction in opioid deaths — and fewer rescue calls — since a pilot program was introduced to connect addicts with peer recovery specialists.

There have been reductions nationally as well: fatal drug overdoses fell in 2018 for the first time in decades, reported the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Heroin overdoses have been flat largely because of the expanded availability of naloxone, which can save an addict’s life.

A TURNING POINT

Clearly one reason why opioid overdoses have slightly declined is because physicians stopped writing as many prescriptions for opioid medications; for too long, too many physicians mistakenly believed that opioids were not seriously addictive.

But more education is still needed: instead of making opioids available to many patients as initial forms of pain relief, physicians need to plot out stages of pain relief — with opioids saved for possible use only after other options have failed.

“If you don’t start millions of opioid-naive people on opioids they don’t need, it translates ... in the longer term into fewer overdoses,” Stanford professor Keith Humphreys told The Washington Post.

Nevertheless, nearly 70,000 Americans per year are still dying from drug overdoses, which is why Jim Hall, an epidemiologist based in South Florida, told The Wall Street Journal that the “opioid crisis is in early remission, yet at high risk of relapse.”

The grim fact remains that the United States is the only developed country in which average life expectancy has been declining — and our opioid epidemic is a huge reason for that.

That’s why we need to stay vigilant in fighting the plague of opioid abuse both in our region and across our country.

Online: https://www.jacksonville.com

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July 21

The Lakeland Ledger on split views regarding school choice during a visit by state education officials:

Florida Education Secretary Richard Corcoran and the state Board of Education visited Polk County ... to conduct the board’s regular monthly meeting. The officials were greeted by competing groups of protesters who used the session as an opportunity to argue over school choice, an expanding phenomenon across the state’s educational landscape.

On one hand, as The Ledger reported, were anti-choice advocates such as Karen Welzel, the Democratic Party’s state committeewoman for Polk County. Her side was there to protest Florida distributing more taxpayer money to charter schools and state-sponsored programs that allow students to attend private schools. Welzel said her study of the Board of Education’s activities led her to conclude that its “goal is to destroy public schools.”

On the other hand were organizations like Winter Haven 912, a conservative advocacy group, and Florida Voices for Choices, which supports school choice. William Judd, a retired computer engineer who was among them, articulated their outlook. He told The Ledger they stand for allowing parents “the choice to send their children to charter schools or private schools — any school they want to.”

It is a shame that when it comes to educating our youngsters, here in Polk County and throughout Florida, that the grown-ups must be embroiled in this us-against-them, either-or argument. We can achieve a sound education system that benefits all of us by adapting to changing circumstances and empowering parents, as Judd indicated.

To Democratic politicians, the teachers’ union and their allies within the school districts and the media, however, the simplest — and often only — answer is spend more money. Yet K-12 public education is already the second-largest expense in Florida’s state budget, trailing only Medicaid. Locally, Polk County’s school district this year will spend $1.4 billion, second only to the County Commission’s $1.6 billion. The distinction is that the school district serves 105,000 students, while the County Commission must see to the needs of 650,000 Polk residents.

In March Florida TaxWatch, the Tallahassee-based watchdog group, released a report arguing that the public often does not get the complete picture of what we spend on education. Using the 2017-18 state budget, the group noted that the most widely reported per-student spending figure was $7,307. TaxWatch said that figure excluded spending for items such as school construction and other capital projects, preschool programs, paying down debt and so on.

Accounting for all of that, TaxWatch maintained, the “true cost” of education was then $10,856 per student for 2018, or 48% higher than the figure most often cited.

Comparatively, TaxWatch estimated that the “true cost” for each charter school student in 2018 to be $7,476. Meanwhile, the average maximum scholarship families could receive through the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, which provides funding so students from low-income and working-class families can attend private schools, was $6,447. Thus, TaxWatch concluded, “charter schools and private school scholarships provide cost-effective competitive alternatives to traditional district schools.”

The group allowed that, relative to traditional public schools, charter schools — which also are public schools — cost less because they have lower percentages of English language learners, students eligible for free and reduced-price lunches and students with disabilities.

Still, a couple of points here.

First, Welzel and those who agree with her neglect to point out that fortunate families with the means to send their children to private schools — and do so often for religious reasons — still pay significant taxes to support a public school system they don’t use. Nor, as they campaign for higher teacher salaries, do they point out that in Florida those teachers earn on average about one-third less than union-protected public school teachers.

Secondly, programs like the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship help those at the other end of the economic spectrum who, without such resources, would have no hope of finding a better education alternative for their children. According to Step Up for Students, the nonprofit that oversees the state’s scholarship programs, these families aren’t exactly Gateses, Bezoses or Zuckerbergs. Their average household income is $25,755, which is 9.1% above the poverty line. Additionally, roughly 70% of recipients are black, Hispanic, or mixed-race, and 54% of them come from single-parent households.

Life, the old saying goes, is about choices. That should certainly apply to educating our children. Thus, the narrative must be reframed. Anti-choicers who scold Gov. Ron de Santis, Corcoran and the education board for creating new educational pathways, as well as the families who travel them, are not defending traditional education. They are instead working to deprive people — quite frequently the poor and minorities — of one of our nation’s foundational principles: the right to pursue a better life.

Online: https://www.theledger.com

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July 18

South Florida SunSentinel on issues with the vendor hired to update the SunPass system:

Some controversies just never seem to go away in Florida. That is a sign of dysfunction in state government.

The Department of Transportation said this month it will end its failed relationship with Conduent State & Local Solutions, a Maryland vendor hired to modernize SunPass, the electronic highway tolling lifeline for residents, businesses and tourists.

“Let’s start talking about the next procurement,” DOT Secretary Kevin Thibault told the Tampa Bay Times.

For that reason alone — the next SunPass contract — it’s imperative that Florida get to the bottom of all that went wrong with the Conduent deal and enact changes to make sure this never happens again. Reform is needed all the more because Florida is determined to build even more toll roads.

DOT made the right decision, even though Conduent will be on the job for three more years (the deal was for seven years with a seven-year renewal option). DOT’s action came two days after the Times reported the latest SunPass fiasco, with serious problems at major airports, where the vendor was accused of backlogs, customer parking over-billings, failing to reimburse airports and slipshod responses to complaints. Conduent had already been slapped with $8 million in fines for deficiencies on a contract worth an estimated $600 million.

Problems with this contract took hold in the administration of former Gov. Rick Scott as questions of impropriety haunted it from the start.

Conduent, a Xerox spinoff company, won the job in 2015, but a competing vendor’s bid challenge forced delays until the state made a highly unusual payment of $3.6 million to the rival to withdraw its protest. It looked like hush money — courtesy of Florida taxpayers. When Conduent finally took charge, the company seemed overwhelmed.

The vendor’s lobbyist in Tallahassee, Brian Ballard, has been a big Scott supporter. It came to light last year that Scott had a $5 million investment in a hedge fund with a $127 million stake in Conduent, and a Texas billionaire who was a major Conduent investor co-hosted a fund-raiser for Scott’s U.S. Senate race.

Conduent’s track record speaks for itself. The firm has faced criticism in at least six other states, including California, where a class-action lawsuit claimed that 16,000 toll violation notices were sent to motorists who never got bills in the first place.

State Sen. Tom Lee, a Tampa-area Republican who oversees transportation issues, loudly questioned that $3.6 million payment to Conduent’s rival, but answers have not been forthcoming. That’s wrong.

The Legislature has a duty to shine a bright light in the darkest corners of the vast state bureaucracy. The lack of diligence by state officials in getting to the bottom of the SunPass fiasco shows a callous disregard for Florida taxpayers, not to mention millions of tourists who are the lifeblood of the Florida economy.

The Legislature should follow the advice of state Sen. Annette Taddeo, D-Miami, to hold hearings on the Conduent contract and call relevant witnesses to discuss what they knew and defend their actions. The more powerful the better, too. The DOT secretary at the time, Ananth Prasad, is now a lobbyist for a transportation builders’ group. The exercise would especially help DOT itself, which like most state agencies is beset by high turnover.

“Most people are gone,” Thibault told the Sun Sentinel. “That institutional knowledge has left.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis, who appointed Thibault, has a fresh opportunity to demand accountability and transparency in the awarding of a highly lucrative contract. At the very least, such scrutiny would reassure taxpayers that their elected leaders were doing their jobs and asking pertinent questions.

The use of electronic tolling and billing is here to stay, and the state’s population could surpass 25 million by 2030. It’s about time Florida figured out how to get this right.

Online: https://www.sun-sentinel.com

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