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Florida editorial roundup

August 21, 2019

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

Aug. 21

The Gainesville Sun on Sen. Marco Rubio’s remarks about climate change:

Climate change is already causing problems for the environment, the economy and public health, which will only worsen unless aggressive measures are taken.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio is calling on Floridians to confront the challenge of climate change, but downplaying the problem as manageable.

“Americans, particularly Floridians, are right to be concerned about the changing climate,” Rubio wrote in a USA Today column published this week. “But they are also right to be concerned about a regressive overreaction.”

Rubio only needs to look around the state he represents to see how climate change is already causing problems for the environment, the economy and public health, which will only worsen unless aggressive measures are taken.

Wildlife is already on the move from its historical breeding grounds in the state due to climate change, according to a new study co-authored by a University of Florida researcher.

That doesn’t sound so bad when it causes Paynes Prairie to experience its first sighting of the endangered Everglades snail kite in 100 years, as The Sun recently reported. It’s more troubling when warmer temperatures have caused invasive green iguana to explode in numbers in South Florida neighborhoods, destroying infrastructure and yards.

Given Florida’s reliance on tourism, the effects of climate change on the state’s coasts and waterways is even more worrisome. Flesh-eating bacteria has been a growing problem, especially in the unusually warm Gulf of Mexico.

Warmer weather and increasing rainfall due to a changing climate also mean longer lasting and more widespread algae blooms. Algae blooms were recently found in 44 percent of water bodies tested by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, a problem fueled by runoff from agricultural operations and other sources of fertilizer and waste.

Agriculture is also being affected in other ways by climate change. A lack of freezes allows insect pests to flourish, while warmer waters combined with changing salinity and sea levels pose problems for oyster harvesting in areas such as Cedar Key.

Rubio acknowledged in the USA Today column that Florida is also likely to see increasing sunny-day flooding and other consequences of sea-level rise. But he suggested that “adaptive solutions” will be enough to limit the impact.

Certainly having Rubio highlight the need to address climate change represents progress, given that his fellow Republicans too often deny the problem even exists. The term “climate change” wasn’t even allowed to be used in the administration of former Gov. Rick Scott, now the state’s other U.S. senator.

Current Gov. Ron DeSantis, in contrast, recently named Julia Nesheiwat as the state’s first chief resilience officer. She told the Tampa Bay Times that climate change will likely cause the need for new restrictions on building in flood-prone areas.

While Rubio is right that innovative ideas are required to address climate change, he rejects a carbon tax or the Green New Deal as possible solutions. But climate experts have warned that significant reductions in carbon emissions are necessary to avoid the worst impacts of a warming planet.

Climate change will require Floridians to adapt, but we shouldn’t shy away from taking bold actions to reduce the impact on the economy, the environment and our health.

Online: www.gainesville.com

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Aug. 17

The Palm Beach Post on pursuing justice for women who’ve accused Jeffrey Epstein of sexual assault, even after his death:

Jeffrey Epstein’s death does not change this fact: There are still questions that need to be answered in order for his victims to obtain the justice they so rightly deserve.

Epstein lured dozens of young women — many of them teenagers — to his homes for sexual favors under the guise of giving him “massages.” No one truly knows how many girls he scarred with his depravity.

Epstein apparently committed suicide a week ago while in a federal jail cell. Jennifer Araoz told the New York Daily News that she was angry that Epstein won’t have to face the survivors of his abuse in court.

“We have to live with the scars of his actions for the rest of our lives, while he will never face the consequences of the crime he committed, the pain and trauma he caused so many people,” she said.

For Araoz and the others, the investigations must go on. U.S. Attorney General William Barr, who was appalled by Epstein’s reported suicide while jailed at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan, has promised an investigation into “serious irregularities.”

Good. Because something went terribly wrong, given that Epstein just two weeks prior reportedly tried to harm himself and yet was taken off suicide watch. The Washington Post reported that Epstein’s autopsy raised questions about his death.

But those are only the latest questions to be answered in this whole sordid tale.

For example, how did the wealthy, politically connected financier manage to perpetrate one of the most heinous sexual crimes in modern Palm Beach County history with so many people allegedly knowing about it?

How did Epstein, despite federal prosecutors recommending otherwise, manage to get his so-called “sweetheart deal” from then-U.S. Attorney Alex Acosta that allowed Epstein to plead guilty to two lesser state prostitution charges?

And why was Epstein, an admitted sex offender, allowed to violate Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw’s own policies when it came to his work release? (Freedoms that allegedly allowed Epstein to have sex with at least one teenage girl at the West Palm Beach office of his foundation.)

Thankfully, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said it will continue its independent criminal probe into “irregularities” regarding Epstein’s 2008 plea agreement and incarceration at the Palm Beach County Stockade.

We agree with state Sen. Lauren Book, the Plantation Democrat who first called for the FDLE probe, when she said in a statement that Epstein’s death won’t allow people who enabled Epstein’s activities to “escape accountability and silence survivors.

“While some answers died with Jeffrey Epstein, there are still questions to be asked and individuals to be held accountable,” said Book, herself a survivor of childhood sexual abuses. “So for those who assisted Epstein and for those who took part in his sick criminal acts, we shall pursue justice every single day until every last criminal has been caught — justice will not be denied.”

For the sake of the true victims in this tragedy, we hope not.

Online: www.palmbeachpost.com

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Aug. 16

South Florida SunSentinel on ending hidden fees in Florida hotel bills:

It’s time to end the resort fee ripoff.

As a worldwide tourist destination, Florida should be a leader in looking out for consumers. Instead, too many hotels are looking out for themselves by gouging guests with resort fees of $25 a day or more.

It’s wrong. It may be illegal. But nobody with the power to act is doing anything about it.

A resort fee is not included as part of the room rate. That way, hotels can make their rates appear lower than they are. Nor can fees be found on third-party booking sites. They are added later to the customer’s bill as the supposed cost of using a pool, fitness center and other services. It’s known as “drip pricing” to describe a tactic in which the full cost of a room is revealed slowly, drip by drip.

As the internet emerged as a popular platform for hotel reservations, the practice has escalated in South Florida, the Keys and Orlando, in addition to Las Vegas, California, Hawaii and New York. Six years ago, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) sent warning letters to hotels, to no avail. Watchdogs say it’s out of control as an industry dependent on loyalty of returning customers feels an increasing backlash. But consumers need to make more noise because the people elected to protect us from this behavior are silent.

A leading critic of resort fees is Lauren Wolfe, a Washington, D.C. lawyer who created the website killresortfees.com after staying at hotels in Miami Beach and Key West. “It’s just a way for them to lie about the advertised room rate,” Wolfe said. “They don’t care about transparency.” Her simple advice: Guests should refuse to pay resort fees.

A native of Michigan, Wolfe said she has vacationed in Florida most of her life. Her criticism of resort fees so antagonized the industry that Visit Florida blocked her last year on Twitter. After we asked why, the taxpayer-funded agency unblocked Wolfe this week.

Florida’s tax-collection agency, the Department of Revenue, says resort fees are taxable because they are part of a room charge, which is subject to taxes. In its administrative rules, the agency offers an example that seems to encourage travelers to object:

A guest rents a room in a resort hotel that charges each guest a $5 resort fee to receive daily newspapers and use of its health club facilities. When a guest objects to the fee, the hotel will waive the fee for that individual guest. All guests receive the newspaper and may use health club facilities, whether or not the guest pays the fee. The $5 resort fee charged by the resort hotel to its guests is included in the room rates subject to tax.

Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody should follow the lead of colleagues in Nebraska and Washington, D.C. who have filed lawsuits against the Hilton and Marriott chains to outlaw resort fees. “Bait-and-switch advertising and deceptive pricing practices are illegal,” the D.C. attorney general, Karl Racine, said in July.

The Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act exists to protect consumers. That law gives Moody enforcement power, but she has been quiet on this issue. Moody’s office said she is working with other attorneys general on a multi-state approach to resort fees, and how they are disclosed to consumers.

Don’t let the term “resort fee” mislead you. The charges aren’t exclusive to high-end resorts. They are also found among modest hotels in Kissimmee, where budget-minded families stay when they go to Walt Disney World.

See for yourself. If you want to avoid resort fees, use the handy web site resortfeechecker.com, which tracks them nationwide.

The hotel industry is a political player, with $2.3 million in contributions since the early 2000s, mostly to Republicans. Carol Dover, president and CEO of the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association, a trade group, said resort fees must be disclosed: “They have to be transparent,” Dover told the Sun Sentinel, but she did not convincingly defend them.

Tourism is a pillar of Florida’s economy. We call on pro-consumer legislators in both parties to act in the 2020 session to end this practice. Hold hotels accountable. Tell customers the whole story. End the resort fee ripoff, once and for all.

Online: www.sun-sentinel.com

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