Florida editorial roundup
Posted 5:05 p.m. Wednesday
The Florida Times-Union of Jacksonville on raising the minimum age for buying tobacco products:
Given Duval County's grim rates of lung cancer and other smoking-related ailments, changing the minimum age to buy tobacco from 18 to 21 is no-brainer stuff.
Well, it should be.
So let's applaud Tobacco Free Jacksonville, a local coalition of groups and volunteers backing legislation to raise the minimum age for tobacco purchases to 21 in our city and keep advancing the momentum to push Florida lawmakers to pass a statewide law, too.
It's hardly a radical or subversive effort.
California and Hawaii already have statewide laws requiring residents to be at least 21 to buy cigarettes and other tobacco products.
It's also the law in more than 200 communities across the country — including major cities like New York City, Boston, Chicago, Kansas City, St. Louis, Columbus and Cleveland.
And it should become law in Jacksonville, too.
City Council members should enthusiastically embrace Tobacco Free Jacksonville's campaign. They should begin the process of crafting and approving legislation to raise the minimum age to 21.
STAKES ARE CLEAR
"This is about our young people in this city," said Harry Reagan, a Tobacco Free Jacksonville member and former city councilman, during a recent session with the Times-Union editorial board.
"The more we can prevent youths from becoming addicted to smoking at an early age," Reagan said, "the closer we'll come to eventually creating a tobacco-free generation."
The stakes are high for our community if we don't do more to stop kids from using tobacco at an early age.
Just reflect on these facts gathered from various sources and compiled by Tobacco Free Jacksonville:
. In Northeast Florida, one in every three youths between the ages of 11 and 17 has used tobacco.
. Nearly half of the kids in our community — 47 percent — say they have been exposed to secondhand smoke from cigarettes or vapor smoke from e-cigarettes (which haven't been irrefutably proven to be dramatically safer than cigarettes yet are attractive to young smokers because they have candy-like flavors).
. Once young smokers in Duval County are hooked on tobacco, they're likely to be in its fierce grip for years if not decades. In one survey, 62 percent of adult Duval smokers admitted that they had tried to quit smoking at least once in the past year (and had obviously failed).
. Nearly 20 percent of all adults in Duval County are smokers.
Add in the fact that Duval County has ranked in the top half of Florida's 67 counties for rates of lung cancer — a disease clearly linked to smoking — and it's vital that Tobacco Free Jacksonville's initiative to raise the minimum age deserves more than lip service from our local officials. It deserves to be supported.
Yes, the proposed legislation would also tighten the rules and responsibilities for Jacksonville retailers who hold licenses to sell tobacco products.
But it will hardly be a case of government imposing the heavy hand of "burdensome regulations" on local small businesses.
Indeed, Reagan, Tobacco Free Jacksonville chairwoman Beth Jensen and another group member, longtime area physician Larry Lisska, told the editorial board that the majority of area retailers would actually welcome raising the minimum age for tobacco sales to 21.
Why? It's because the retailers would only have one date to check when a young customer is seeking to buy both cigarettes and liquor (which is already prohibited from purchase by anyone under 21).
And, no, the proposed law wouldn't impose some Big-Brotherish restriction on an individual's right to smoke, which is absolutely still protected under Florida's Clean Indoor Air Act.
It will simply cut down on the ability of youths under 21 to enjoy the easy access they now have to harmful tobacco products.
It is an idea that screams common sense.
It is an idea that will protect young lives.
It is an idea that should be a law in Jacksonville.
The Orlando Sentinel on legal spending by the state:
The next time you hear Gov. Rick Scott or leaders in the Florida Legislature cry poor mouth as an excuse for not investing more in a chronically neglected area of the budget — say, mental-health care or raises for public employees — here's a number to remember: $253 million. That's more than a quarter of a billion dollars. It's how much the state has handed over in taxpayer dollars for private lawyers, and fees for the state's legal opponents, since Scott took office in January 2011.
The Associated Press, which dropped this bombshell this week, found that no one in state government was even keeping track of outside legal spending. The AP tallied the total by analyzing budget documents and obtaining additional information through public-records requests.
Some of Scott's fellow Republicans expressed shock at the bottom line. "We are getting gouged, and that needs to be fixed," House Speaker Richard Corcoran told the AP. Corcoran's budget chief, Miami Republican Carlos Trujillo, called the state's legal spending "insane" and a "runaway train."
Meanwhile, Corcoran and Trujillo are spearheading a budget plan for their chamber that would slash $2 billion from state spending next year. Health care, education and transportation are on the chopping block. If only their predecessors had been as tough on spending for private lawyers.
In his State of the State speech this month, Scott boasted of his success in "controlling spending to ensure we get the best return on the investment of our citizens' hard-earned tax money." Legal fees are a glaring exception.
Florida's government has forked over about $40 million a year to private lawyers under Scott, though the state has its own legal operation, led by Attorney General Pam Bondi, with a current annual budget of $309 million and 450 lawyers. The AP found that other states also pay private lawyers, but not nearly to the extent that Florida does. New York, which is closest in size to Florida's population, has been spending about $17 million a year, less than half of the Sunshine State's pace.
Florida has spent more than $41 million on private lawyers over the past 18 months alone in a long legal dispute with Georgia over regional water use. While this is a worthy fight — Georgia's water use has caused a shortage that has devastated Florida's Apalachicola Bay and its oyster industry — Bondi's office outsourced the legal work to a Los Angeles-based private firm whose lawyers charge up to $825 an hour.
Florida handed over another $20 million to private lawyers to defend the Legislature for its spending on public schools and the districts it drew for members of Congress and state senators. The Legislature won the education case but lost the redistricting case.
And Florida has paid almost $16 million to opposing lawyers after losing battles in court over voting rights, gay rights, drug testing and health coverage, among other issues. The biggest chunk, $12 million, was paid to lawyers who argued that the state had failed to provide critical health care to 2 million children on Medicaid.
A spokeswoman for Scott said it's necessary sometimes for the state to hire private lawyers on "complex legal matters." A spokesman for Bondi said outside counsel is justified when cases are out-of-state, or her office has a conflict, or "lacks specialized expertise." None of these reasons justifies a blank check for spending on premium-priced private lawyers — any more than a need for transportation would automatically justify buying a Ferrari.
And if Scott and legislators hadn't stubbornly pursued a slew of legally and constitutionally dubious policies that were challenged and overturned by opponents, they could have saved taxpayers millions more.
All those millions would come in handy right now, as lawmakers cobble together the next state budget. They, and Scott, owe it to Floridians to be much more sparing in how many dollars get stuffed in private lawyers' pockets.
The Palm Beach Post on the "Stand Your Ground" law:
Less than a year after the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando, you'd think that the Florida Legislature would be striving to clamp down on the easy access to guns that allowed an unbalanced 29-year-old who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State to effortlessly acquire the armaments to kill 49 people.
That's not happening. Gun control is nowhere on the agenda. But neither is the Legislature as eager as in past years to wildly expand the rights of gun owners.
"I think the members — not just myself, but some others — we're a little gun-bill fatigued," says Sen. Anitere Flores, a Republican from Miami who deserves credit for helping cool the usual "Gunshine State" fervor.
Florida already has the largest number of concealed-weapon permit holders at 1.7 million, roughly one for every 10 adult residents. It was the first state in the union to pass a "Stand Your Ground" law. It is also a state where, with 2,559 firearm deaths in 2015, homicide is the most distinctive cause of death, according to an analysis of 2014 data from the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.
On April 5, the state House passed a bill intended to shift a key burden of proof in Stand Your Ground cases from defendants to prosecutors in pre-trial hearings. The Senate approved the bill on March 15, but with a difference over how convincing the prosecution's case must be.
It's one of the few pro-gun rights bills likely to pass this year.
The proposal is in reaction to a Florida Supreme Court ruling in 2015 that said it's up to defendants to prove they should be shielded from prosecution under Stand Your Ground. Critics including the National Rifle Association complain the court undercut the purpose of the law, which says people can use deadly force, with no duty to retreat, if they think it is necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm.
Stand Your Ground is billed as a measure to empower people who feel under threat, but it seems more like a license to kill. Since it was enacted in Florida in 2005, Florida's monthly homicide rate has increased 24.4 percent and the homicide by firearm rate jumped 31.6 percent, according to a study published in January in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Even more disturbing, a new report showing the number of road rage incidents involving guns is on the rise highlighted Florida as having the most in the country over a two-year period, with 146 incidents. The report released April 11 by The Trace, an independent nonprofit news organization that covers gun issues, said there were at least 620 gun-involved road rage incidents in 2016 — more than double from two years earlier.
Those findings are bolstered by another study, released in 2013 by a Texas A&M University researcher, which found an average 8 percent increase in homicides in states that passed Stand Your Ground laws, with "no evidence of any deterrence effect" that the laws prevent crime.
"These laws lower the cost of using lethal force," said the researcher, economist Mark Hoekstra. "Our study finds that, as a result, you get more of it."
Facts like these, unfortunately, seem to have no deterrent effect on legislators who are hell-bent on loosening gun restrictions. Again, on April 5, the House approved a measure that would allow people with concealed-weapons licenses to bring guns to churches and other religious institutions.
Thankfully, however, an array of other bad ideas is going nowhere. That includes a bill allowing concealed weapons on college campuses. And another letting people openly carry guns in public.
Many of the pro-gun bills are sponsored by state Sen. Greg Steube, a Sarasota Republican, who argues that places such as airports and schools would be safer if people carried guns around them.
The inanity of that argument was encapsulated by Mark Barden, the father of 7-year-old Daniel Barden, one of the 20 children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. The still-grieving father said it perfectly last week on a visit to Sarasota.
"If more guns made us safer," he said, "we should be the safest country in the world."
Thankfully, it is one of the few pro-gun rights bills likely to pass this year.