Florida editorial roundup
Posted August 9
Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:
The Tampa Bay Times on Sen. Marco Rubio's faith:
For more than two months, Sen. Marco Rubio has been intermittently sharing Bible verses with his more than 3 million followers on Twitter. Some might see this as purely spiritual, while others might find it inspirational. Still others might make the case that the senator is being hypocritical. On July 19, for instance, Rubio tweeted: "Whoever cares for the poor lends to the LORD, who will pay back the sum in full." Exactly one week later, Rubio voted to strip millions of working-class and poor families of health insurance through a reckless attempt to repeal Obamacare.
Rubio continues to turn his back on those who cannot afford health insurance and refuses to meet with voters in Florida who want to speak to one of their senators but can't find him. He whines that activists will yell at him, but that's a weak excuse. Hiding behind closed doors is beneath a U.S. senator and an unseemly strategy for someone who seeks to spread the word of God through Bible verses, most of which seem to be coming from Proverbs. In case he's not as familiar with the Book of James, here's another quote Rubio might consider: "What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?"
The Orlando Sentinel on the state agency that regulates utilities:
Many Floridians might not be familiar with the state's Public Service Commission, the agency responsible for regulating the utilities that provide electric, natural gas, telephone, water and wastewater service to the state's residents. But chances are the PSC's notoriety is up lately among tens of thousands of people in Seminole, Lake and Orange counties — or it will be when sharply higher water and wastewater bills start kicking in for them.
Last week the PSC's four current commissioners unanimously approved a request from Utilities Inc. of Florida that could more than double water and wastewater rates for its customers in Central Florida, including about 10,000 in west Seminole County. The hikes are part of a plan by the Northbrook, Ill. company to consolidate its rates across Florida after merging a dozen subsidiaries into a single entity. One commissioner, Donald Polman, acknowledged there would be a significant "rate shock" for some customers but voted for the request anyway, contending its benefits would outweigh its costs.
The state official appointed to represent consumers' interests before the commission, Public Counsel J.R. Kelly, argued in vain against it. Afterward, he said the utility "got rewarded for filing a poor case."
It was a painful reminder for Floridians of how decisions from the gubernatorial appointees on the PSC can take a bite out of their household budgets. And it highlighted the importance of the process now underway to fill a vacancy on the five-member commission after Gov. Rick Scott named one of his PSC appointees, Jimmy Patronis, to be Florida's new chief financial officer.
According to the PSC's website, "The Commission must balance the needs of a utility and its shareholders with the needs of consumers." For years, however, that balance has tilted heavily in favor of utilities. Commissioners have routinely approved rate hikes and other financial requests from utilities over objections from Kelly as well as from other groups representing their residential and business customers.
In one of the most egregious examples, the PSC in 2015 unanimously approved a request from Florida Power & Light, the state's largest electric utility, to charge its customers up to $500 million a year to invest in fracking for natural gas. Advocates for business and residential customers opposed to the decision went to court to contest it. The Florida Supreme Court eventually overturned it in a 6-1 ruling, concluding that the utility's shareholders, not its customers, should bear the risk and the cost of such high-risk drilling ventures. Had the high court not acted, other utilities might have followed FP&L's lead, also at the expense of their customers.The tab easily could have run into the billions.
Posting Sunday in the Sentinel's Central Florida 100, Seminole County Commissioner Lee Constantine wrote that his county is "considering our legal options" now that the PSC has given Utilities Inc. a green light to hike its rates. He called on Orange and Lake counties to consider the same. At this point, the PSC's decision has left the counties few alternatives. But Floridians shouldn't have to count on judicial intervention to ensure that the interests of the state's utility customers are protected.
The state council responsible for vetting candidates for vacancies on the PSC is scheduled to meet Wednesday. Chaired by state Rep. Mike LaRosa, a Republican from St. Cloud, the council will have 23 applications to consider before it forwards a list of nominees to Scott. The governor will appoint a new commissioner from the nominees, who will then be subject to confirmation by the state Senate.
In choosing its nominees, the council must keep in mind the need for a better regulatory balance between utilities and their customers. Ditto for Scott when he makes his appointment, and the Senate when it conducts its confirmation hearings. Floridians deserve fairer treatment than they've come to expect from the PSC.
The Palm Beach Post of West Palm Beach on absentee ballots:
You know that your election laws are too hard to understand when the elections supervisor has to pore over them to figure them out.
That's what's been happening in Palm Beach County in the wake of controversies over the flurry of absentee ballots that were instrumental in the victories of three candidates last August: Sen. Bobby Powell and Rep. Al Jacquet to the state Legislature, and Mack Bernard to the County Commission.
The three politicians, all Democrats and allied with minority communities, owed their success largely to a surge of mail-in voting. Since the election, investigators for the State Attorney's Office found 25 instances of absentee-ballot request forms, and six absentee ballots themselves, that were "possibly altered, forged or obtained in a fraudulent way." Earlier, The Post reported that Bernard and Jacquet, or their campaign workers, had shown up at voters' homes soon after they received absentee ballots and sometimes stepped inside and helped fill out the ballots.
The State Attorney's Office investigated claims of fraud, but, in June, dropped the case, saying it couldn't find a suspect.
That's not so surprising when the election law itself is filled with absurd omissions and contradictions. Even the State Attorney's Office got it wrong in its report in stating: "It is a crime for non-official personnel to be in possession of any absentee ballots. There is an exception for certain family members possessing another family member's ballot."
Nope. In Florida, paid campaign workers can collect two absentee ballots (but no more), and candidates and unpaid campaign workers can haul around as many as they like. That's in addition to ordinary citizens being able to carry their own ballots and those of immediate family members to the elections office.
It was Palm Beach County Elections Supervisor Susan Bucher who, before the August election, grew alarmed over a rash of absentee ballot requests, and who alerted prosecutors to the suspicion that certain political campaigns were going door-to-door and manipulating voters. But after scouring the law, she saw little choice other than to send out the ballots because the statutes are so nebulous.
For example, the law requires you to sign the form requesting an absentee ballot — but often, the elections office had no signature on file to compare it to. You're supposed to provide a driver's license number, but only "if available."
Bucher says her office will be stricter next time. If any form is missing information, the voter will be sent a letter about it.
That's a good step, as far as it goes.
What's really needed is for the Legislature to finally take action to close the wide cracks in the security of absentee ballots that both parties have tolerated for decades. For a long time, it was Republicans who commonly relied on absentee ballots to pad their vote totals.
One quick fix: Make it mandatory to submit a driver's license number or the last four Social Security digits if someone wants an absentee ballot. That way, elections officials can retrieve copies of the voter's signature.
Other good ideas can be found in a 2012 report from a Miami-Dade County grand jury, which looked into widespread absentee ballot fraud in that year's primary election. It was a replay of 1997, when the system was so abused that a judge threw out the results of a Miami mayor's race.
Among that panel's recommendations:
—Require that a witness sign the absentee ballot, attesting to having watched the voter mark the ballot. This used to be part of Florida law. In fact, the law used to require two signatures. But in 1997, that was reduced to one witness. And in 2004, a Republican senator's bill eliminated that witness, too.
—If a voter needs assistance in filling out the absentee ballot, the helper should be required to sign a declaration which specifies, among other things, that "I am not a paid or volunteer campaign worker."
—It should be illegal for any person to possess more than two absentee ballots in an election cycle (unless the ballots are the voter's or members of the voter's immediate family). That was the law from 1998 to 2001, when a Republican lawmaker's bill killed it.
Reforms like these might not end absentee-voter fraud. But they'd make it easier to see where the lines are drawn. And make it harder to cheat.
What's needed is for the Legislature to finally take action to close the wide cracks in the security of absentee ballots that both parties have tolerated for decades