The recent report by the LeRoy Collins Institute on Florida’s future minced no words: The Sunshine State is near the bottom of the barrel on a wide range of issues affecting Floridians’ daily lives. Whether it’s public transit, housing, education, the tax and pension systems, employment, access to healthcare — chances are Florida is doing badly.
A better future for Florida’s 19 million people depends on how well lawmakers, who begin their session this week, can grapple with the issues. Some issues — gambling and medical marijuana — call for a choice. With others — affordable housing, for instance — all we ask is, do no harm.
The Editorial Board will weigh in throughout the session on these and other issues, imploring lawmakers to vote with their “better angels” in mind. Barring that, they should do so with compassion and common sense.
Sadowski Trust Fund
There always seems to be a reason — and not necessarily a good one — for lawmakers to swipe funds from the Sadowski housing trust fund and add them to general revenue. These funds are supposed to be dedicated to create affordable housing throughout the state. The money rehabilitates vacant homes in disrepair, provides down-payment and closing-cost assistance and renovates existing apartments to give the elderly and people with disabilities a place to call home.
But since fiscal year 2003-2004, the Legislature has taken more than $1.5 billion out of the fund to plug holes elsewhere, a shortsighted “solution” that undercut neighborhood stability, saw fewer qualified families served, kept elderly and disabled Floridians in institutional settings when they could have been in their own homes and created fewer construction jobs for skilled, but idle, workers.
This year, there is no budget deficit and, therefore, no good reason to raid the Sadowski funds. The Sadowski Coalition estimates that, fully funded, the money can create more than 27,000 jobs and make a $3.4-billion impact statewide. Lawmakers should keep their hands out of this cookie jar and fully fund this successful initiative.
Classic Flori-duh. The state left $51 billion in federal funding on the table last year when the House refused to take part in a Medicaid expansion program because it was linked to Obamacare. That money could provide coverage for almost 1 million Floridians. The House’s irresponsible decision puts politics above the welfare of Floridians. Republican Sen. Rene Garcia, of Hialeah, has a bill to change that. If the Legislature does nothing else this year, it should pass this bill.
Lots of tough issues on higher education, but here’s one that should be easy: Some students who have lived here virtually all their lives are denied in-state tuition rates because of their uncertain immigration status. House Speaker Will Weatherford has indicated that’s not fair and wants to level the playing field for them. Make it so, Mr. Speaker.
Mr. Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz have indicated they want to pursue efforts to clean up Tallahassee. Specific proposals include residency requirements for lawmakers and disclosure for special taxing district lobbyists. Another good idea.
Taxes and revenue
Gov. Rick Scott’s budget includes includes $500 million in proposed tax cuts, including a rollback of license-tag fees. That breaks down to about $25 per driver. Given the state’s many needs, is this the best way to handle revenue? We’re not persuaded.
Among several proposals in the works is a bill that would shield nursing-home investors from lawsuits when their homes are accused of abuse and neglect. In exchange, it would give trial lawyers easier access to documents. Florida’s former elder-care ombudsman says it’s more about protecting profits than protecting elders. We’ve been here before with industry insiders calling the shots to undercut efforts to more strictly regulate assisted living facilities. Forget it.
The good news: In January, Gov. Scott said he wants to add $31 million to the Department of Children & Families’ budget. Actually, that’s great news. The money will let DCF add more than 400 new investigators. After a year of horrendous deaths of children in DCF’s care, even the governor couldn’t ignore the need.
The bad news: The governor has this annoying habit of professing his support for things that will make life better for the state’s more-vulnerable residents, then failing to get out there and push for them. After he refused to consider Medicaid expansion, he switched and said he was open to Medicaid expansion — then let the whole thing fall into a black hole, with hardly a word to the Legislature.
The other good news: It’s an election year.
Freedom of information
The names, addresses, party affiliations and birth dates of voters have been public information for decades, but a bill by Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, would keep voters’ birth dates confidential. That’s a bad idea. The information is used by election supervisors and the news media to verify identities. Let’s keep the sunshine in Sunshine State.
This is by no means a comprehensive list. Numerous education issues are on the agenda. Schools and teachers have been shortchanged for years. That needs to change. The hot topic of casino gambling is up for debate again. At this point, we’re not persuaded expansion is good for South Florida. The issue needs a thorough and fair hearing in Tallahassee.
The opening bell will ring soon. Pray for Florida.