Editorial Roundup: Florida

December 31, 2019 GMT

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:


Dec. 31

The SunSentinel on a sports betting bill:

Few Floridians find themselves far from a lottery terminal, a racetrack, a jai alai fronton, a card room or a casino crammed with electronic slot machines, of which there are now an estimated 25,000 in the state.

As if that weren’t enough, now comes a scheme that would make sports betting kiosks as commonplace as Florida’s lottery terminals and allow instantaneous wagering on smartphones. The legislation would permit online bets not only on the game’s outcome, but also on individual statistics such as whether a quarterback’s next call will be for a run or a pass. Only high school and youth sports would be exempt.

Eleven states have legalized sports betting since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a federal law against it, but Florida shouldn’t heed the siren call that “everyone’s doing it.”

Our state needs legalized sports betting about as much as we need higher tides and stronger hurricanes.

Plus, Senate Bill 968 openly defies what nearly 5.7 million voters intended when they approved Amendment 3, an anti-casino initiative, in November 2018. That was a 71 percent blowout.

The amendment bars the Legislature from authorizing new casino gambling anywhere. Any proposed expansion now requires the approval of 60 percent of voters statewide. The amendment exempts tribal governments, which operate seven Florida casinos under federal law.

Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, is an avid proponent of gambling and the money it would add to the state treasury. He called on voters last year to reject Amendment 3, saying it would be “game over for the Legislature” and that sports betting would “most likely require a referendum.”

What Galvano said then doesn’t square with what’s happening now.

SB 968 bears the signature of Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, a close ally of Galvano, who gave it a favorable committee path. It has no House sponsor yet. For the moment, it may be only a test run. Even that is too far.

What’s to be tested if Galvano thought it would be “game over” under Amendment 3?

One likely purpose would be to start a legal debate over whether Amendment 3 applies to sports betting and put the Legislature’s lawyers on the wrong side of it.

John Sowinski, president of No Casinos Florida, which originated the amendment, insists that it forecloses sports betting. He relies on a 13-page legal opinion written for No Casinos by Paul Hawkes, a former judge of the First District Court of Appeal.

Amendment 3 defines casino gambling as “any of the types of games typically found in casinos and that are within the definition of Class II gaming in the Federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.” According to Hawkes, the federal law applies to sports wagering, which was typically found in Nevada casinos, if only there, before the Supreme Court allowed it to metastasize.

Hawkes’ opinion acknowledged that the gambling industry’s lawyers might quibble over the grammar in Amendment 3 — specifically, over what the word “and” means. But he concluded that anti-casino forces would win the argument.

Regardless, Brandes’ bill is a bad bet for Florida. By vastly increasing the opportunities to gamble, especially instantaneously, it would aggravate an existing problem with compulsive gamblers, which the Legislature made worse by raiding funds earmarked to help them.

The bill would turn the Department of the Lottery into a gambling commission, charged not only with overseeing online wagering by commercial actors, but also with operating its own gambling kiosks in a manner similar to its lottery outlets. The Lottery Department has no experience with that kind of gambling and isn’t suited for it.

Brandes contends that legalized sports betting would cut into the illegal market and produce new revenue for schools and scholarships.

That’s the same rationale the Legislature used to get voters to approve the lottery. Lawmakers promised the proceeds would go to improve education. What they didn’t say was that general revenue dollars spent on education would be shifted elsewhere.

Plus, it’s morally wrong for tax-phobic politicians to resort to a vice that already does so much to bankrupt its victims and destroy their families. Such “easy money” is sleazy money.

It’s a particularly bad bet when the action is instantaneous. Problem gambling reportedly tripled in Massachusetts when sports betting went online. Instant action is what makes slot machines highly addictive, a fact that helped end an earlier legislative proposal to allow the Lottery to offer an interactive game called Keno.

SB 968 bars sports betting by persons under 21, but it would be a fool’s errand to try to enforce that.

In Great Britain, where gambling is legal at age 18, a government survey issued in November 2018 found that half of 16-year-olds had gambling apps on their smartphones. Of all children 11 to 16, 14 percent had spent money on gambling during the previous week. That was a higher rate of harmful activity than for smoking, alcohol or drugs.

Once before, the Florida Legislature turned to instant gambling to help pay for schools, and regretted it. Having legalized slots everywhere in 1937 over the objections of Representative (and future Governor) LeRoy Collins, it outlawed them two years later.

Another future governor, Reubin Askew, was a nine-year-old in Pensacola then. What he saw it do to people made him a lifelong, passionate foe of gambling and motivated his successful opposition to Florida’s first casino initiative in 1978.

The dam has been breached in many places since then. But enough is enough.

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


Dec. 31

The Lakeland Ledger on the citrus industry:

Last month Florida’s bigger citrus-growing operations repelled a bid to jack up the intra-industry tax rate that supports the state Citrus Department, and its marketing program that promotes the Sunshine State’s best known agricultural product: oranges and the juice they yield.

The major growers convinced the Citrus Commission to hold the tax rate constant - even though the proposed tax hike for each “box” of citrus would have raised the rate to just half of what growers paid as recently as 2016.

Advocates for the tax increase - a hefty 71% jump above the current levy - argued it was necessary to replenish a marketing fund sapped of resources by state lawmakers. The Citrus Department spends about a third of its $15 million annual budget marketing orange juice. But many in the industry maintain that’s insufficient to reach consumers in major media markets.

So now smaller orange growers assert they’re feeling squeezed - and may not remain in the industry much longer. Which in some cases could mean selling out to a bigger citrus operation, thus producing more consolidation while reducing the diversity within the industry, or, a worse outcome, clearing the way for new development.

We had encouraged the commission to embrace the tax. An infusion of more advertising resources was necessary to educate the American public that the rumored demise of Florida OJ was exaggerated.

Fortunately, state Sen. Ben Albritton has offered a way forward from this vote.

This month the Wauchula Republican, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, introduced legislation that would create the Friends of Florida Citrus Advisory Council.

The proposed five-person board would include three reps from the citrus industry, including growers and processors, and two at-large members. Perhaps its most vital function, according to Albritton’s bill, would be to “identify and pursue methods to provide resources and materials for the programs” that would protect and promote “the quality and reputation of Florida citrus fruit” and related products.

The council could accomplish that by accepting private donations - a practice that is not expressly written into current law, according to Albritton.

A couple of points as to why this is a good idea.

First, regardless of the size of their operation, those involved in growing oranges or making OJ face enough hurdles without including among them a paucity of marketing resources.

One impediment is the continuing campaign to paint OJ as a health risk - because of its inherent sugar content - rather than a health benefit.

As The Ledger reported last week, Gail Rampersaud, a retired University of Florida dietitian and Citrus Department adviser, briefed commissioners on research that rebuts the idea that OJ contributes to the world’s obesity problem. She noted that some findings maintain that moderate OJ consumption does not increase blood sugar or insulin levels, or the risk of Type 2 diabetes. In fact, Rampersaud added, drinking OJ may reduce factors contributing to heart disease.

Yet as Commissioner Marty McKenna observed at the session, “These facts are not going to get out and help the Florida grower,” unless there is money for marketing.

He’s right. Thus, the benefit of Albritton’s plan, if enacted, is that the advisory council can solicit funding, including from major growers who might have supported the tax hike.

The other positive aspect of a new advisory council is that its two at-large members could be people outside the industry who are health experts, advertising gurus, or business leaders. Citrus growers may profit from advice offered by those friendly to, but with distance from, the industry itself.

If lawmakers are unwilling to adequately fund the marketing effort for Florida OJ, they should do the next best thing, and let the industry and other private donors do so.

Online: https://www.theledger.com/


Dec. 26

The Orlando Sentinel on the Sunshine Law and whether access to public records is eroding:

2019 was a dark year for sunshine in Florida government:

- The voter-approved Marsy’s Law amendment to protect victims showed us the true meaning of unintended consequences. In some places, police are now refusing to identify murder victims.

- The Legislature passed a law to seal an untold number of criminal arrest records that don’t lead to a conviction (good luck with that background check on your new babysitter).

- State Sen. Kelli Stargel has given a whole new meaning to entitlement, introducing a bill that would make secret the home addresses and phone numbers of state legislators.

- The Florida Cabinet held a meeting, which was supposed to be open to the public, literally on another continent.

- Barbara Petersen, the First Amendment Foundation’s longtime champion of government-in-the-sunshine, retired from her job.

- And the Florida Department of Law Enforcement demonstrated its contempt for enforcing open government laws by rejecting, with the flick of a wrist, an investigation into possible Sunshine Law violations at the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority.

Fortunately, Gov. Ron DeSantis isn’t so eager to put to rest the last item on that list.

In October, the governor issued a welcome executive order assigning the airport authority issue to Seminole-Brevard State Attorney Phil Archer.

Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala — whose office has a conflict of interest — had asked DeSantis to reassign the case, and the governor complied.

The allegations center on events earlier this year, where the airport authority attempted out of the blue to hire new attorneys who just happened to be sitting in the audience for that particular meeting. The only two elected officials on the authority — Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings — smelled a rat and said so.

That prompted Petersen of the First Amendment Foundation to ask for an FDLE investigation. The agency quickly replied that the case was circumstantial and that no witnesses had come forward to give evidence. As we noted in September, we’ve always been under the impression that investigators were paid to go find witnesses, not sit around waiting for them to appear in a doorway.

The Sentinel reported last week that the FDLE is now investigating the case, and will turn its finding over to Archer’s office.

That’s more like it.

But that was just a successful skirmish in a war for information and transparency that the public is losing.

For years, public officials have gotten more comfortable with the idea that open government in Florida is more a set of suggestions than a system of laws rooted in the state constitution.

That attitude can be found from low-level city functionaries to the highest reaches of state government, where long delays, exorbitant fees and even lawsuits against the public are the latest methods of bureaucratic evasion to requests for information.

Sunshine investigations are rare and unwelcome (as the FDLE demonstrated), and prosecutions even rarer. No wonder government feels so emboldened to defy the spirit of the Sunshine Law.

As much as we applaud DeSantis for referring the airport authority case to another state attorney, this may be a case of physician heal thyself.

The governor’s office throws up numerous obstacles to public records requests, taking months to fulfill even simple requests from the public and from reporters.

The governor needs to set a better example, unlike the Cabinet meeting he led earlier this month to consider three finalists for the job of state banking regulator.

Considering the controversy surrounding the last regulator, Ronald Rubin, it was curious that DeSantis, Attorney General Ashley Moody and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis saw no need to talk about Rubin’s replacement. DeSantis moved to make the appointment, Patronis seconded the motion and — voila! — it was a done deal by telephone in a meeting that lasted just 77 seconds.

Not that the selection required hours of debate, but how is it possible for the Cabinet to make a pick without uttering a single word about why they thought this person was the best candidate?

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried later said she had reservations but didn’t speak up during the meeting, voting instead to abstain (which itself might not have been legal).

We continue to search for an open government champion, whether it’s someone from the Legislature or the Cabinet. Whether it’s a Republican or a Democrat. Party doesn’t matter; passion does.

What Florida needs is someone willing to use their platform and speak out loudly, consistently and insistently to uphold the state’s traditional belief that good government is transparent government.

Isn’t anyone up for the job?

Online: https://www.orlandosentinel.com/