March 10, 2017
Editorial: Our legislative priorities
By The News-Press Editorial Board
As the Florida Legislative session rolls on and bills impacting the lives of residents in the Southwest Florida region are heard and vetted, The News-Press editorial board has outlined its list of priorities.
These legislative priorities fall in line with the issues of most concern to residents here and for the editorial board. They focus on public records, open meetings, water quality, mental health and hospital cuts.
Keep public records and Sunshine intact
The Florida Legislature - through aggressive public records exemption bills the last several years - seems to believe the best solutions for an open government are to close it.
We are opposed to Naples Rep. Byron Donalds' bill that would essentially break down the Sunshine Law. The bill allows two members of an elected governing body of at last five to meet in private to discuss future action. At its core, this bill closes the door on the taxpaying public, allowing elected leaders to have conversations in private and lock in a vote on how your money is spent before an opening meeting, where those matters are usually discussed and action taken.
We urge our legislators involved in the committees where this bill will be heard to strike it down quickly.
The other assault on the public's right to know is a bill that builds substantial obstacles for those who believe they have been wrongfully denied a public record. Under current law, a resident can fight for a public record, and if victorious, can collect legal fees. The bill would give the discretion to a judge on whether those legal fees are awarded . Removing the requirement and making it discretionary would prevent many from challenging for fear of not recovering the cost of their legal right to the record.
We support the current law and ask legislators to keep this bill from passing.
Keep water projects moving forward
The editorial board was against Senate President Joe Negron's plan to buy land south of Lake Okeechobee for water storage when first announced last year because his plan came with no specifics. Now, we know his plan is to buy 60,000 acres from willing land sellers at a total cost of about $2.4 billion for the storage facility. In an attempt to sweeten the package, Negron has increased the amount to $3.3 billion to include funding for other projects in Central Everglades Restoration Plan, including the Caloosahatchee Reservoir.
The University of Florida Water Institute Report - the environmental and water quality Bible for our region and the Everglades - outlined the importance of water storage to keep harmful pollutants from flowing down the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie river estuaries after Lake Okeechobee discharges.
But the same problems remain with Negron's enhanced plan.
First, Gov. Rick Scott and House Speaker Richard Corcoran have said they do not support any more bonding for large projects. Negron wants to shift the loan burden to other programs and then use Amendment 1 money to pay down the bill - $100 million annually over 20 years.
Second, agricultural land owners in the region - primarily U.S. Sugar - have no intention of selling, at least right now. U.S. Sugar officials, trying to protect its workers and production of sugar cane and other ag products, support using deep injection wells north of the lake to take the bad water and then send it out into the ocean. They believe the necessary one million acre feet of storage needed to get rid of the harmful discharges can be handled through the wells.
The environmentalists, of course, disagree, believing the 60,000 acres of storage will disperse about 45 percent of the bad water, and tied to other projects like the Caloosahatchee Reservoir, can effectively eliminate the pollutants.
But the puzzle broadens with nature as during a heavy rainy season, like last year, the Everglades can't handle the flow of water because of flooding and federal protections and during a time of drought - like now - the Everglades and Florida Bay can use the water.
Water storage and treatment areas, plus a correct disbursement of water to the areas that need it, as outlined in the water institute report, are the best solutions, and the state and federal government must be aggressive in funding.
Increase mental health funding
Increased funding for programs that help the mentally ill should be a priority for Florida but always seems to be overshadowed by other budget needs. Legislators should realize the crisis as Florida continues to rank 49th of 50 states in per capita funding - $37.28 per individual, compared to the national average of $125.
Those who suffer from mental illness are not receiving the necessary care because funding limitations persist for local help agencies, like SalusCare and Park Royal Hospital.
Governor Rick Scott has proposed a $25 million increase to the budget for mental health and substance abuse, but it is not enough. More money must be committed, especially the area of children's mental health, in order for individuals to get the necessary treatment they need.
Reports indicate there are almost 800,000 adults in Florida with serious mental illness and about 1.5 million adults and children who have some level of psychological distress. According to the 2015 Report of Mental Health America, there are almost 600,000 uninsured individuals in Florida who have a mental illness.
Reduce hospital cuts
Scott continues to hammer away at non-profit hospital systems in the state, like Lee Health, with his plan to cut $298 million in supplemental pays to hospitals that serve poor, uninsured patients. Scott's plan to hurt indigent patients does not offer any solutions to where those patients should go for healthcare. We urge the Legislature to reject Scott's plan, allow non-profit hospitals to continue to help those who need it and continue to develop wellness programs to reduce the number of people who come into their emergency rooms.
Scott plans to cut almost $1 billion from healthcare, which accounts for about 42 percent of the state's budget - 33 percent for Medicaid costs alone.
The Florida Senate planned cuts for hospitals are not near as severe, calling for a $7.7 million reduction.
Lee Health faces a $20 million hit, based on Scott's plan. That's substantial as the health system balances increasing costs, the state's reluctance to pass any sort of Medicaid expansion legislation as well as rising costs for those with private insurance to make up for healthcare costs for the poor. In 2016, Lee Health's cost for charity care rose to $54.8 million, up from $45.4 million in 2015. In addition to the $20 million proposed cut in Lee Memorial's supplemental payments, Scott is proposing a reduction in Medicaid reimbursement rates, as well as other payments associated with indigent care, for a projected total of $35 million in cuts, according to reports.
The local system had significant costs for charity care and unpaid Medicaid and Medicare in 2016, totaling $375.3 million.
The House health appropriations chairman, Rep. Jason Brodeur,says the House is not interested in harming hospitals, but he also is skeptical about handouts to the poor. Non-profit hospitals must continue to work with the Legislature to build a plan that reduces healthcare costs for the poor, but until them, denying them healthcare is not the answer.