Editorials

Education, healthcare, water are big issues in Fla. Legislature. Can lawmakers get it done?

Three days after the Feb. 14, 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, people gather on the steps of the Broward County Federal Courthouse to protest against guns.
Three days after the Feb. 14, 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, people gather on the steps of the Broward County Federal Courthouse to protest against guns. Getty Images

The business of running the state of Florida begins in earnest on Tuesday, when Gov. Ron DeSantis gives his first State of the State address to mark the start of the 2019 legislative session, which will run for two months.

This session, Miami-Dade will have a leg up, we hope. The House Speaker is a local, José Oliva, R-Miami Lakes. We have not had such an inside track since 2007, when Marco Rubio held the post for two years. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton will lead the Senate.

As always, Florida lawmakers’ main job will be to pass a balanced budget. No doubt, there be mischief-making and rancor along the way. We hope, however, that the spirit of compromise rules at the end of the day.

DeSantis has proposed a $91.3 billion budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1. An unexpected rise in sales-tax and corporate-income-tax collections has led analysts to predict a boost to state revenue over the next two years, which could help ease budgetary pressures.

Here are some of the high-priority issues Florida legislators will tackle:

EDUCATION

School safety

A year after the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, school safety remains paramount in the state. Lawmakers will look again at revamping laws to boost security. The most controversial issue is a proposal to expand the school “guardian” program to arm trained classroom teachers. This is a recommendation of the Parkland state commission created to take an in-depth look at why and how the massacre occurred. It recommended allowing teachers at public schools to have guns. We still think it’s a dangerous idea for teachers to be armed with guns. The chances of a mass shooting occurring remain small. The chances of a weapon being stolen, or fired in anger or by accident are too big a risk.

School choice

DeSantis has already ordered an audit of Florida’s public education system and tasked Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran with making changes. DeSantis has also reduced testing. More is to come, for sure. Some educators fear Corcoran will further undercut traditional public schools. If he does — and he shouldn’t — he will be undercutting Florida’s future.

Meanwhile, Senate leaders have outlined proposals that could lead to a major expansion of school choice, including the creation of a voucher-type program that would be directly funded with tax dollars. That’s bad news for public schools, which continue to have their budgets gutted in favor of for-profit charter schools. The House has long supported such programs. Democrats and teachers unions will fight the expansion, but Republicans control both legislative chambers and the governor’s office.

HEALTHCARE

House Speaker Oliva intends to make healthcare a key battleground this legislative session. We urge legislators to ensure that the battle is to truly help Florida’s uninsured access quality care — though we’re sure initiatives won’t include expanding Medicaid, to Florida’s shame. Oliva and other House Republican leaders want to reduce regulations in the healthcare industry. They believe a free-market approach will hold down costs. We think this approach alone ultimately will come at a cost of access and quality.

Already, DeSantis has proposed allowing lower-cost prescription drugs to be imported from Canada, an idea worth exploring.

Traditional hospitals may be targeted by Oliva, who considers hospitals as government-subsidized “monopolies.” Expect the Miami Republican to revive attempts to remove certificates of need and push for more competition among providers.

On another healthcare issue, in recent days, Oliva’s view on abortion landed him in hot water when he referred to women as “host bodies” of embryos during a CBS4 interview. At least he didn’t say pod people. Oliva said he used the term to keep discussion of this hot-button issue “dispassionate.”

We commend him for his straightforward apology, with no weasel words.

However, Republicans have filed several restrictive abortion bills. Among them is a proposal from Rep. Mike Hill, of Pensacola, to make it a third-degree felony to perform abortions “when a fetal heartbeat is detected.” The bill also redefines a fetus as an “unborn human being.” It happens every session. Abortion-rights advocates will have to fight hard, again, beat back these backdoor attempts to stifle a woman’s reproductive choices.

WATER

After blue-green algae and red tide fouled waterways and coastal areas last year, DeSantis rightly has made water quality a priority. On this issue, he is a refreshing improvement over former Gov. Rick Scott and his neglectful approach. DeSantis has proposed a $625 million package for Everglades restoration and other water-related issues, including:

“$360 million: Everglades restoration projects, including funding for Lake Okeechobee, the EAA reservoir south of the lake and the C-43 and C-44 reservoirs. All aim to reduce discharges from the lake.

“$100 million: Water projects across the state that reduce nutrient pollution.

“$50 million: Springs restoration projects.

“$50 million: Projects to reduce the total maximum daily loads and “green infrastructure investments” or land conservation projects.

“$25 million: Projects to combat algal blooms and improve quality.

“$10 million: Funding for short-term treatment projects and technologies.

To all of which we say, Amen.

MEDICAL MARIJUANA

With support from the governor, lawmakers appear likely to end a ban on smoking medical marijuana. The ban, included in a 2017 medical-marijuana law, was found unconstitutional by a circuit judge, and DeSantis has threatened to drop an appeal if the Legislature does not eliminate the ban.

It is less clear, however, whether lawmakers will address other medical-marijuana regulatory issues that have led to lawsuits. Florida’s voters approved medical marijuana in 2016. It’s time for lawmakers to dismantle the roadblocks, make tough decisions and move on.

ELECTION REFORM

After the missed deadlines, faulty machinery, claims of fraud and many, many questions surrounding the midterms and resulting recounts, lawmakers have said they are considering changes to the way Floridians vote. But how substantial the fixes will be remains to be seen. Some prominent Republican leaders have said the issues last year had more to do with poor organization in Palm Beach and Broward counties, where the election supervisors were both removed, than with statewide problems.

It could get nasty, after all the 2020 presidential election is just around the corner. But there will be no need for fireworks as long as the Republican-controlled Legislature acts to keep voting secure and accessible for the greatest number of eligible Floridians. No fix should include measures that suppress voting.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE

Voting rights

Amendment 4 passed with 64 percent of the vote in November, which means the majority of Florida voters want former felons to be able to automatically have their voting rights restored. This influx of as many as 1.2 million new voters is a potential game-changer for Florida elections. But DeSantis says the amendment shouldn’t go into effect until after the Legislature passes and sends him a bill that outlines how it will be implemented. Proponents of the measure said it was designed to implement itself without any delay or interference. Amendment 4 is the result of a decades-long fight to restore not just ex-felons’ voting rights, but to also to give them a firmer grip on full-fledged citizenship. They should not be denied. The Legislature should not interfere.

Mandatory minimums

It’s past time to take the handcuffs off — judges, that is. Since 1979, Florida’s extremely punitive drug-trafficking sentencing laws have given judges no choice but to put people caught with even small amounts of drugs in their possession behind bars for decades. The laws were briefly loosened in 1993, but lawmakers foolishly clamped down again. This has meant almost four decades of broken families, permanent arrest records — leading to ex-felons’ inability to easily find employment or vote — and, generally, their remaining caged even while free. Keeping small-time felons locked up has cost Florida taxpayer billions.

This session, lawmakers will consider sweeping criminal-justice reforms that will end mandatory minimum sentencing, allowing judges to take the circumstances of a felon’s case into consideration, among other smart initiatives.

We know what almost 40 years of failure look like. Lawmakers should take the more progressive approach and approve the aptly named Florida First Step Act.

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