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Florida editorial roundup

November 27, 2019

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

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Nov. 23

The Palm Beach Post on public-private tourism:

Visit Florida has had rough go of it the last few years.

The state’s embattled public-private tourism marketing agency, under withering attacks from self-anointed fiscal conservatives, has lost half its funding and a third of its staff. And thus, the only agency with an exclusive mission to support a key pillar of the state’s economy finds itself on the legislative chopping block — again.

How’s that for good governance?

The reasoning: With tourism from Palm Beach to Orange to Santa Rosa counties setting annual growth records over the past decade, fiscal watchdogs question Visit Florida’s effectiveness and its need to exist.

After all, who doesn’t already know that Florida is home to warm weather, miles of beaches, theme parks, outlet malls and golf courses?

“If we set another tourism record with Visit Florida’s budget cut in half, it begs the question: Is it necessary at all?” Florida House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami, told the Post’s John Kennedy in September.

That view is not only shortsighted, but premature.

Ashley Svarney, senior director of public relations and social media for Discover The Palm Beaches, put it this way: “By doing away with Visit Florida, we are genuinely biting off the hand that feeds us all.”

Ending Visit Florida’s marketing support makes about as much sense as Coca-Cola eschewing millions of dollars in advertising because “Coke” is already the best-known soft-drink brand name in the world.

Florida’s success not withstanding, we are far from the only game in town when it comes to competing for valuable tourism dollars — be it business or personal, or domestic or foreign visits. The state needs every bit of help it can get to maintain and grow its competitive advantage. And spending $50 million a year on an industry that generates well north of $100 billion in yearly taxable spending is peanuts.

Thankfully, Gov. Ron DeSantis seems to get it. Pushing back against the fiscal hawks in his own party, the Republican governor maintains that $50 million in funding for Visit Florida in his proposed $91.4 billion budget for 2020-21 fiscal year.

It was DeSantis, in fact — with help from the Senate — who kept Oliva and company from ending Visit Florida in the last session.

Oliva followed his predecessor, former Speaker Richard Corcoran, in declaring war on Visit Florida. Corcoran in 2017 railed against the agency’s free-spending ways, which included an almost $2.9 million contract with an auto racing team called Visit Florida Racing and a $1 million promotional contract with Miami rapper Pitbull.

But strangely, the biggest argument against Visit Florida appears to be the state’s own tourism success. A record 127 million tourists visited the state in 2018, another banner year in a string of record years since the Great Recession. This growth came despite last year’s red tide and blue-green algae outbreaks, plus the devastating effects of Hurricane Michael.

In the first nine months of this year, 101 million people visited the Sunshine State, a 3.7 percent increase over the first nine months of 2018 — and, yes, another record — according to estimates Visit Florida released on Wednesday.

But those figures come with a warning: That trend could be ending.

“Now we’re going to start to see this pendulum — I’m fearful — swinging in the other direction, which it already has,” Carol Dover, president of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, said.

Dover and other tourism officials worry that while a record 31.6 million people visited the Sunshine State in this year’s third quarter, that was only 1.2 percent better than the same quarter last year — the smallest increase since 2010. Moreover, ... the agency adjusted down its second-quarter numbers slightly from 33.1 million to 32.9 million.

Does this mean the sky is falling? No. But state officials would be foolish to ignore it.

To be sure, the impact of shuttering Visit Florida wouldn’t be felt evenly across the state. Markets like Central Florida — which includes Disney World and Universal Studios — the Tampa Bay region, and Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, are niche brands all their own.

But, as Svarney indicated, that doesn’t mean local businesses and governments don’t look to Visit Florida to keep our state top of mind when it comes to travel destinations.

As DeSantis released his budget proposal last week, he acknowledged that it remains a “source of some contention.”

But Oliva, in his statement after DeSantis released the spending plan, didn’t specifically address Visit Florida.

We hope that’s a good sign.

Online: https://www.palmbeachpost.com

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Nov. 22

The Orlando Sentinel on the case to end the death penalty in Florida:

Society will never completely agree on the death penalty. But we should all agree on the fundamentals of our justice system.

A major one is that people convicted of similar crimes should receive similar punishments.

“Even in simpler times uncertainty has been regarded as incompatible with the Rule of Law,” the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wrote.

This basic concept of fairness is rooted in ancient Greek philosophy, which is why Aristotle would be shaking his head over modern-day Florida, which needs to once and for all end the death penalty.

When it comes to capital punishment, our judicial system is a hopeless quagmire of inequities, demonstrated recently when the Florida Supreme Court rejected a stay of execution for James Dailey.

His 1987 conviction on charges of murdering a girl in Pinellas County was based on circumstantial evidence and dubious testimony from jailhouse snitches. A co-defendant who also was convicted received a life sentence.

Here in Central Florida, an Orange County jury recently spared remorseless career criminal Markeith Loyd from the death penalty for murdering his girlfriend and their unborn child. A few weeks later, an Osceola County jury recommended death for a mentally disturbed Marine veteran who murdered two Kissimmee police officers.

Loyd eventually will go to trial on charges he killed Orlando police Lt. Debra Clayton. Having dodged the death penalty for one killing, he might get it for the other one.

No law should stand if it consistently produces such unequal outcomes, though there are many other reasons Florida should abolish the death penalty.

It does not deter murder. It disproportionately affects the poor and minorities. It drains the state budget.

And its haphazard application has resulted in 29 condemned inmates having their death sentences overturned. Those are 29 wrongly convicted men who might have died in a state-sanctioned killing. Only Illinois, with 21 exonerations, comes close to Florida’s total. The next closest is Texas, with 13.

But what if guilt is inarguable?

There’s no question whether Nikolas Cruz gunned down 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. Cruz’s trial is set for next year.

Death penalty proponents say such heinous acts deserve the ultimate punishment. Execution provides closure to victims’ families.

The morality of the death penalty is a personal call. It’s not our place to tell Parkland families what to think or how to feel.

The reality, however, is there are no judicial carve-outs for the most clear-cut or horrific murders. And for every Cruz in our prison system, there might be a Clemente Aguirre-Jarquin or Clifford Williams, two of Florida’s most recent death-row exonerations.

The fates of the condemned are decided by a roulette of timing, luck, legislative posturing and judicial whim. And no state spins the wheel of haphazard justice quite like the Sunshine State.

When the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, Florida was one of the few states that required only a majority vote by a jury to recommend a sentence of death to a judge, who made the final decision. Even if the jury recommended a life sentence, the judge could override that and impose death.

Compelled by the courts, Florida lawmakers eventually, and reluctantly, passed a law requiring a unanimous vote to recommend death. That’s already had the effect of lowering the number of death sentences.

Even still, as of Friday Florida had 340 prisoners on death row. That’s more than all states except California. Many of them were condemned by juries whose members were divided on whether to recommend a penalty of death. In some instances, death-row inmates have been condemned by a judge who overrode a jury’s recommendation for mercy (that’s no longer legal).

We realize there’s little appetite in the Legislature or the governor’s mansion to abolish the death penalty. But national polls show support for capital punishment is eroding. And a 2016 poll of Floridians found a clear majority favoring life sentences over death.

We also take little pride in the company the United States keeps by putting people to death — China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, etc.

This editorial represents a departure from our previous position, though the editorial board over time has become increasingly concerned about the death penalty’s inequities and, in particular, what the rate of exonerations suggests about how often the justice system gets it wrong.

Too many questions cannot be adequately answered for us to continue supporting the death penalty, and for Florida to continue administering it.

If two people are tried for murder, and the circumstances are the same, will the outcome be the same?

Is there fairness when it comes to the most profound act a government can impose on its citizens?

Can we always be completely sure of someone’s guilt before putting them to death?

The verdict is no. That’s why it’s time to do away with the death penalty in Florida.

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

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Nov. 21

The Lakeland Ledger on how the May shooting at a Virginia government office motivated a Florida official to advocate for building safety measures:

The timing seems so distant. But we still have not reached the six-month anniversary of one of the deadliest workplace shootings in U.S. history.

Late in the afternoon of May 31, a disgruntled city employee in Virginia Beach, Virginia, murdered two people on the grounds of his office building, and then proceeded inside and killed another 10.

The Virginia Beach massacre was unusual in that government buildings remain relatively rare sites for workplace shootings.

But as Polk County Commissioner John Hall explained on Nov. 19, that shooting motivated him to advocate for stronger security measures at county offices, which has won the support of the entire board.

On Nov. 19, commissioners unanimously approved a “marshal” plan that allows volunteers among the county staff to bring weapons to work after undergoing specialized firearms and security training from the Sheriff’s Office. This is similar to the guardian plan that state lawmakers approved for public schools, and which is in place at Southeastern University.

Sheriff Grady Judd has been one of the leading voices in Florida for such security measures throughout the state. ... Prior to the commissioners’ decision, Judd explained why he believed this move was necessary.

“I wished we still lived in an environment where we didn’t need guns in the workplace to keep employees and visitors safe,” Judd added. “But this is a new world.”

Today, the sheriff said, we face a “normal that goes on among people who are not normal” — wherein angry people harboring a “deranged, demented” mental state who decide they are “ready to die” opt to murder innocents they hold responsible for their situation.

Explaining why he advocates for the guardian strategy, Judd noted, “When the active shooter shows up, and you’re dialing 911, it’s too late. We’ve got to have somebody at the front end of this event. ... The way we used to do things will not protect people.”

Indeed.

That is a lesson we can draw from Virginia Beach.

According to local police, the gunman, DeWayne Antonio Craddock, stalked the building for seven minutes before cops arrived. In that time he murdered nine people, in addition to the two outside. He killed one more during the six minutes that elapsed before officers were able to locate, engage and fatally wound him in a shootout.

A few days after the shooting a lawyer representing the family of a victim, Kate Nixon, told the local media that the night before Craddock’s rampage Nixon and her husband had discussed her taking a gun to work. She knew another employee was due to be fired and feared he might have a volatile reaction. But Nixon opted to not bring the weapon, even though she had been trained to use it, because she didn’t want to violate the city’s ban on employees carrying guns in the workplace.

Nixon’s story is terribly sad. And if the choice before us is to face reality and allow select staffers who are sufficiently trained to carry guns in gun-free zones, or confiscate more than 300 million guns and yank a constitutional right for millions of law-abiding Americans out by the roots, we’ll take the former - and applaud the County Commission for also thinking this.

Judd explained it well. “It’ a game-changer when the ducks shoot back,” he told the board. “When we find a better way to do it, we’ll do it that way.”

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