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Ewan Watt, Jordan Richardson: Lessons in lockup — what Florida can learn from Texas

Since 1970, the size of Florida’s prison population has grown by more than 1,000 percent, and its corrections system is now the third largest in the nation.

Under the state’s rigid mandatory minimum laws, more people are being sent to prison for a longer amount of time, with an annual average cost of $20,553 per inmate.

Though each state faces its own unique challenges, Floridians would do well to look to its southern neighbor, Texas, for inspiration on how to think creatively about reform.

A decade ago, leaders in Texas were faced with the daunting prospect of spending billions to construct new prisons to house the state’s exploding inmate population. But they took a different path by offering alternatives to incarceration, providing rehabilitation services for drug addiction and creating new pathways to employment.

Texas closed three facilities, saving $1.5 billion in construction costs, and $340 million in annual maintenance. The Texas model has since inspired other states like South Carolina, Georgia, Utah, and Oklahoma to reform their criminal justice systems.

While these Texas-inspired reforms have helped both cut crime and produce a windfall for taxpayers, Florida has remained wedded to a faltering criminal justice system that’s excessively punitive and costly with minimal public safety benefits.

Mandatory minimum laws require judges to impose a minimum prison term if a defendant has a criminal record or is convicted of an offense that meets “certain statutory criteria.”

While the original intent of Florida’s mandatory minimums was to equip law enforcement to pursue drug “kingpins,” the outcome shows something different. A new study by The James Madison Institute in Tallahassee and the Reason Foundation notes that Floridians can face 15 years in prison and a $500,000 fine for trafficking just 25 grams of oxycodone.

The report also reveals that 1,690 individuals “who have no violent incarceration history and are not currently serving a prison term for a violent offense” are incarcerated for offenses related to hydrocodone or oxycodone trafficking.

These sentences not only fail to deter crime, but — at an average cost of $20,553 per inmate per year — they are also extremely costly to the taxpayer. One solution that has been implemented in Georgia and Oklahoma is empowering judges to diverge from the mandatory minimum if certain mitigating factors exist. This move ensures that offenders are treated on an individual basis rather than with a one-size-fits-all sentence.

A person’s ability to find and maintain gainful employment is a strong indicator of whether he or she will remain out of the criminal justice system. Unfortunately, Florida has an environment that often makes it illegal for former offenders to find work unless they have completed thousands of hours of training and paid steep fines—even to become a barber or construction worker.

According to the Institute for Justice, Florida has the fourth-most burdensome licensing regime in the nation, which raises prices for consumers and makes it more difficult for former inmates to get jobs and contribute to society.

A recent Arizona State University study shows that excessive licensing regulations like Florida’s increase recidivism. If the government makes it illegal for someone to become a taxpayer, illicit activity will seem more attractive to that person. Thus, overhauling Florida’s occupational licensing regulations for all is not just an economic necessity, but a public safety one.

The good news is that Florida voters are supportive of the types of reforms necessary to improve the system. Almost 70 percent of voters in Florida agree that “our prisons house too many individuals,” and 74 percent agree that “we spend too much money” incarcerating nonviolent offenders.

Like Texas and other neighboring states that have considered reforms, Florida could begin to tackle such challenges with a criminal justice task force to identify opportunities that would improve its system by lowering both costs for taxpayers and crime rates.

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Ewan Watt is the director of external relations at the Charles Koch Institute. Jordan Richardson is a senior policy analyst at the Charles Koch Institute.

 

Nathan Vink: Earth does not need us, but we most certainly need a healthy planet

A few weeks ago, I stood at Yaki Point on the edge of the Grand Canyon watching the sunset. A cold desert wind rushed up the cliff sides, sucking the last remaining heat from the sandstone below. The rustle of pinyons and junipers gave sound to the silence of the setting sun.

I was almost left breathless by the enormity of the space in front of me as I looked at each layer of sandstone, limestone and shale below representing a massive span of time in the history earth, all the while the sky was painted multiple shades of orange, purple and red. In a sense, my mind was blown.

On the bus back to camp, I spoke with a friend and asked her about her experience. She talked about how insignificant she felt and how the immensity of the open space made her feel small. She likened the feeling to when she looked across an ocean or up at a night sky full of stars.

I asked if she would describe the feeling as a sense of awe, and she agreed.

The feeling of awe is defined as an overwhelming feeling created by something grand. This feeling is so intense that studies have shown the feeling of awe can increase compassion and ethical decision-making within people. This feeling promotes positive discussion, as many look to process the experience for understanding.

For me, these moments are memories that stand the test of time, from standing on a mountain summit while three massive wildfires rage in the distance, to lying in the sand watching the sun set on an uninhabited island in the Bahamas. These types of deep sensory immersions have drawn me closer and closer to the natural world.

I have experienced enough of this feeling to know that it is in fact not my own insignificance that I’m being shown but my connection to these awe-inspiring places and my connection to nature.

We learn to block out the natural world around us as we move through our daily lives, rarely taking the time to notice the brilliant red of a cardinal or movement of the clouds. We are sometimes taught to find awe in the power we have over our planet, the power to harness rivers, to extract fossil fuels and to have a dominance over all other species. While the feats of humankind have brought me to a sense of awe as well, the idea of something that happened in nature — just a straight line, a unique shape or a perfect angle — brings me back again and again.

I find this to be the great motivator when it comes to my ethics around conservation. With climate change and conservation, many feel overwhelmed when asking, “What can I do?” Recycling, vehicle emissions, water conservation, power sources and wildlife advocacy are all areas of need, but with so much needed, how can one “insignificant” person make a difference?

Whether it’s to preserve these feelings for yourself or others, or a deeper connection with the natural space around you, my advice is to pick something and make it yours. Continue to do the “small” things, such as recycling, using efficient light bulbs and using less water, but also take on a project that means something to you, that calls to you.

Take wildlife conservation, for example.

The Endangered Species Act of 1973 has contributed greatly to helping many species back from the brink of extinction, including bald eagles, gray wolves and most recently manatees, which were taken off the endangered list and placed on the threatened list. The act has recently come under attack by some as constricting businesses from operating due to conflicts with practices that affect endangered species and their habitats. Large areas of land and waterways are protected from development and pollution due to the habitats they provide from protected species.

Scaling back this act or removing species off the list prematurely could roll back the hard work of many and the impact it has had on many species. Regarding manatees, some believe this is a premature move that could endanger manatees more, as boats colliding with manatees are still a significant issue that hasn’t been fully addressed. For those wanting to help, the Humane Society of the United States is a good place to start.

In regards to river and water conservation, the Oroville Dam failure in California — where a concrete spillway collapsed earlier this year — brought to light the significant need to take a closer look at dams in our country. From infrastructure concerns to habitat destruction, the building of dams has come with headaches. While obviously not all dams are bad and at times serve a significant role in the livelihoods of many, others have lost their beneficial meaning and now stand to create more harm than good. As climate change continues, studies show many dams are not ready to take on the extreme weather patterns that are to come, with the Oroville Dam as a prime example. If this is an interest, American Rivers, a national advocacy group, focuses on this subject.

Now more than ever it is necessary to continue the philosophical shift from the idea of saving the planet toward the idea of preserving the human race through harmony with the natural world. It is not that we just are hurting the planet, but that we are inflicting damage to ourselves by ignoring the warning signs. When you look at the earth as an organism, you can see the idea that the earth will treat something that hurts it like a virus; it will do what is necessary to eradicate that which is trying to hurt it.

As severe weather becomes more and more extreme, water levels rise and temperatures climb, these are warning signs of overreach and discourse. The earth does not need us, but we most certainly need a healthy planet. It’s not just the idea that our planet is bigger, stronger and more complex than us, but that the natural world and we are one.

While we as individuals are a small cog in a larger instrument, we are still an integral piece, and how we come together in harmony with the natural world will create the blueprint for what the future holds.

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Nathan Vink is the assistant director of UCF’s Outdoor Adventure and a contributor to UCF Forum. He can be reached at Nathan.Vink@ucf.edu.

Jim DeBeaugrine: Revenue from medical marijuana for treatment, prevention would be minimal

Jim DeBeaugrine

If nothing else, the intense debate over how to implement legalized medical marijuana in Florida has given many of us a crash course in business economics, government regulation and medical protocols.

We’ve heard hours of discussion on such topics as vertical versus horizontal business structures, free-markets versus exclusivity, and physician discretion versus government prescription.

Missing from this discussion, however, is the collateral damage of the drug trade – addiction, criminal behavior, broken families, unemployment, even death.

Ironically, these collateral effects are the most likely to directly impact the average Floridian. As we’ve recently learned from the prescription opioid crisis, it doesn’t matter that a substance is legal and highly regulated.

Fortunately, the Legislature has a tremendous opportunity to make major progress toward addressing these unwanted side effects. Under current law, marijuana is subject to the state’s sales and use tax. This is, by the way, consistent with most of the states that have legalized medical marijuana. State economists estimate that tax collections will eventually rise to $24 million on an annual basis. This estimate, however, is based on assumed annual sales that are roughly one-quarter what a leading industry expert predicts.

Either way, these funds represent an untapped resource that could be used to boost the state’s substance abuse education, prevention and treatment efforts.

As things stand right now, the House bill (HB 1397) exempts medical marijuana from state tax. The Senate bill (SB 406) retains the sales tax but the funds would go to General Revenue unallocated. As unallocated General Revenue, $24 million is a relatively insignificant amount that will be fought over by the myriad interests that compete each year in the budget process. As a dedicated funding source for prevention and treatment, however, it becomes a significant shot-in-the-arm to help address a growing crisis in our state.

At the Center to Advance Justice, our primary mission is to educate the public on policies and practices that research show to be effective in reducing criminal behavior and the associated costs. As such, we are acutely aware of the connection between substance abuse and criminal activity.

Perhaps even more compelling is the public health crisis we are experiencing with the recent spike in opioid overdose deaths. It is a painful reminder that shutting down a market, as we did with pill mills, does not solve the underlying addictions that drove it.

The bottom line is that the drug trade, whether legal or not, creates unintended societal consequences that affect us all.

Any public policy discussion related to creating a new legal drug market should include a discussion of these unintended effects. It is both logical and appropriate for an industry to participate in addressing the externalities it creates. Plus, the well-developed regulatory schemes that exist for the existing pharmaceutical industry are not in place in for medical marijuana.

Finally, we have not picked up on any opposition from industry representatives we have spoken with regarding the idea of the industry contributing to prevention and treatment efforts.

Therefore, the Center to Advance Justice, along with several advocacy organizations, respectfully suggests that the Legislature give serious consideration to retaining the existing sales tax and dedicating all or a portion of the funds to evidence-based prevention, education and treatment.

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Jim DeBeaugrine is the CEO of the Center to Advance Justice, a Florida nonprofit that provides information to the public and to policy makers regarding evidence-based approaches to reduce crime and the associated costs. He was formerly the staff director of the House Justice Appropriations subcommittee and the Executive Director of the Agency for Persons with Disabilities.

Darlene Farah: Prosecutors recognize death penalty’s harm to victims’ families

Darlene Farah

For so long, prosecutors have repeated the mantra that the death penalty is needed for murder victims’ families and to provide them justice. This idea developed into an unquestioned assumption that guided many district attorneys in handling cases and crafting campaign messages. Yet the recent announcement by State Attorney Aramis Ayala of Orlando, Florida, to no longer seek death sentences challenges the notion that capital punishment helps victims’ families. Given the uncertain and painful process that capital cases put victims’ families — including my own — through, I applaud this announcement and hope other prosecutors will adopt a similar approach.

There’s a vast disconnect between the theoretical death penalty championed by some officials — which they say is justice and brings closure — and what it looks like in reality. My children and I witnessed that reality firsthand after my daughter Shelby Farah was murdered in Jacksonville, Florida, on July 20, 2013.

For over three and a half years, we endured delays and constant legal uncertainty before a trial could even get started. Many other Florida families found themselves in a similar position, as the state’s death penalty statute faced litigation and ended up being overturned twice just in the last year.

These problems with the death penalty are not limited to Florida. If you look at all the executions last year in the United States, it took on average 18 years from sentence to execution. But more often than not, death sentences are overturned and don’t even end in an execution. So for surviving loved ones promised justice in the form of an execution, the promise usually ends up being empty and misleading.

Given this reality, more experts in trauma are now concluding that the death penalty inflicts additional pain on murder victims’ families in the wake of tragedy. Across the country, murder victims’ families themselves — ConnecticutNebraska, and elsewhere — are voicing concerns about how capital punishment harms them.

I decided to speak out against the death penalty for the emotional well-being of my family. Together we needed to focus on healing after Shelby’s murder, not years and possibly decades of trials and appeal that come with death penalty cases.

The previous State Attorney, Angela Corey — who had a reputation for frequently seeking death sentences — refused to listen to my pleas and pushed forward with the death penalty in response to my daughter’s murder. Our family did not find relief until a new State Attorney was elected and took death off the table in 2017. Finally, our family was able to put the legal process behind us and move on with our lives.

This decision in my case, and the broader announcement from the Orlando State Attorney to never seek the death penalty, reflect a growing recognition of capital punishment’s harm on surviving families. No longer tied to the empty tough on crime rhetoric of their predecessors, a number of prosecutors are questioning the death penalty’s value and seeking it less often or not at all.

Some of this shift has occurred quietly. Death sentences in the U.S. are at record lows, as prosecutors seek them less often. In recent years, only a handful of district attorneys seek death with any frequency. Out of the over 3,000 counties nationally, only 16 counties produced five or more death sentences between 2010 and 2015.

Hopefully, State Attorney Ayala’s announcement will further spur these trends. Officials need to honestly evaluate the reality of the death penalty and its consequences for murder victims’ families. What they will find is an increasingly indefensible policy that hurts rather than helps those that it purportedly serves — murder victims’ families.

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Darlene Farah of Jacksonville is the mother of Shelby Farah, who was murdered in 2013.

Kate MacFall: Florida black bears under threat again, for no reason

Kate MacFall, Florida state director for Humane Society of the United States.

Florida’s black bears are once again under threat of trophy hunters invading their forest homes and shooting them for no reason.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission may revisit the issue of a Florida statewide hunt on black bears, and it is time for citizens to let them know we want our bears protected – not shot for a trophy.

The issue could come up for discussion fairly soon, possibly at the Commission’s April 19-20 meeting in Tallahassee. Floridians should urge the Wildlife Commission to listen to the majority of us who want Florida black bears treated humanely and conserved for future generations.

Florida’s bears are a unique subspecies of the American black bear and were only removed from the state’s threatened list in 2012. Florida’s bears are slow to reproduce, and females spend up to 18 months raising their cubs. If a mother is killed by a trophy hunter, her cubs could die from starvation, dehydration, predation or exposure.

Last year, a group of knowledgeable Florida scientists sent a detailed letter to the Wildlife Commission, warning that allowing the hunt to continue as it did in 2015, coupled with roadkill numbers, nuisance bears killed and poaching, “may well plunge multiple subpopulations into sharp decline.”

No one in modern times needs to hunt bears for food or clothing. They are hunting for thrills, and Floridians don’t support this. Of more than 40,000 comments sent to the FWC before the 2015 hunt, 75 percent opposed it. A 2015 statewide Remington Research poll found that nearly two-thirds of Floridians oppose bear hunting. The poll showed that Floridians overwhelmingly favor educational outreach (84 percent) and bear-proof garbage cans (81 percent.) Eighty-seven percent agreed that neighborhoods near areas where bears roam have a responsibility to avoid attracting bears by securing their garbage and other foods.

County commissions in Hillsborough, Miami-Dade, Pinellas, Seminole and Volusia, and city commissions in Davie, St. Petersburg, Fort Myers, Cape Coral, Pinecrest, Cutler Bay, Deltona, Clermont, South Miami, Biscayne Park, Eustis, Safety Harbor and Palmetto Bay all passed resolutions opposing a Florida bear hunt.

Our state wildlife officials publicly acknowledge what the scientific research shows — that bear hunting does not reduce bear-human conflicts, because the bears hunters kill in deep woods are not the “problem” bears found rooting in unsecured suburban garbage cans. The FWC has authority to deal with those kinds of bears without holding a hunt. In fact, newly invigorated efforts to provide neighborhoods with training and bear-proof garbage bins have already cut the number of nuisance complaints.

 As development sprawls across Florida, our bears already face threats from highways and genetic isolation from other bear subpopulations.

If you oppose a new trophy hunt on our black bears, please take a few minutes to write the Fish and Wildlife Conservation commissioners at Commissioners@MyFWC.com or call them at (850) 488-4676.

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Kate MacFall is the Florida state director for The Humane Society of the United States.

Emmett Reed: Who best entrusted with senior care – caregivers or insurers?

Emmett Reed is executive director of the Florida Health Care Association.

In an effort to protect their turf, the health plans behind Florida’s managed care program for Medicaid recipients keep saying they help many older Floridians move from nursing homes to live in community settings. What they fail to tell you is that these elders are just a small fraction of nursing home residents – the reality is that some frail elders simply cannot be properly cared for outside a skilled nursing center.

These health plans, along with the state Agency for Health Care Administration, are basing their assessment on seriously flawed calculations. While they say it would cost taxpayers $200 million to remove skilled nursing centers from managed care, such a carve-out would actually save taxpayers $68.2 million per year.

Florida has a long-standing commitment to helping elders stay in their homes or community settings for as long as possible. But we must also recognize that for more and more of the frailest residents, a nursing home is the best, and perhaps only, realistic option.

The state’s erroneous cost estimate is based on an assumption of what it would cost if certain individuals who received home- and community-based services had instead been cared for in a nursing center. But the proposed carve-out focuses solely on exempting long-stay nursing center residents, not those who could otherwise live in community settings. There are no savings to be realized for these individuals because their health and medical needs can only be addressed in a nursing center – they cannot be safely cared for in a home or community setting.

Official state figures show that managed care companies transition only about 4 percent of nursing center residents into home- and community-based care. That means the other 96 percent continue to receive their care in skilled nursing centers. The huge savings touted by the managed care companies simply cannot be realized.

Florida’s system of managed care doesn’t work effectively for long-stay nursing center residents, who can’t take care of themselves or be safely cared for in the community. With those residents stuck in the managed care system, taxpayers are paying approximately $68.2 million in unnecessary fees each year for management services that are not needed, according to a study for the Florida Health Care Association.

In the final analysis, managed care companies are more like insurance companies than like health care providers – if it doesn’t work for their bottom line, they’re not interested. So when your loved one needs the kind of care that can only be offered in a skilled nursing facility, who would you rather entrust with their care: their insurer or their trained caregivers?

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Emmett Reed is executive director of the Florida Health Care Association.

Frank Ortis: PACE sets consumer protection industry standard for home improvements

City of Pembroke Pines Mayor Frank Ortis

As a mayor, job creation, healthy neighborhoods, and public safety are my top priorities. That’s why Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) is such a winning idea for Pembroke Pines and, in my view, cities across Florida. PACE lets property owners leverage their home’s equity to finance hurricane-hardening, energy efficiency and renewable energy home improvements, like solar panels, roofing and windows. Homeowners then pay for improvements over time through an additional line item on their property taxes.

Most homeowners scramble to replace these home systems with the cheapest option — or don’t make the improvements at all. That’s not good for them, or our neighborhoods. PACE is a great tool that empowers homeowners to invest in their homes in a way that makes them more prepared for the next storm and lowers their long-term energy costs.

What makes PACE even better is the job creation impact it has. By boosting home improvement activity, cities and counties can give a boost to local small businesses. That, in turn, grows high-quality construction sector jobs that can support families and boost the overall economy. They are also the kind of jobs that can’t be shipped overseas or automated.

But PACE does much more for our homeowners than make them better prepared, or save them energy. The consumer safeguards provided through PACE financing are unparalleled. PACE financing can only be offered by licensed contractors in good standing with the state and only those efficient or high-performance-rated products can be installed using PACE financing. Reverse mortgages, home equity lines of credit and credit cards don’t come close to offering that type of oversight. In addition, the contractors who complete projects funded through PACE don’t receive a dime until homeowners sign off that the work was completed to their satisfaction.

And even in the short time we’ve had PACE in Pembroke Pines, we’ve seen even more progress. Mortgage-level disclosures, modeled after federal “Know-Before-You-Owe” forms, with comprehensive details spelled out clearly, are now standard. PACE financing companies also manage disputes between homeowners and contractors. Could you imagine a credit card company doing anything like that?  The answer is no.

These consumer safeguards are all enshrined in enhanced standards, released in February by nonprofit advocacy group PACENation. These standards include measures like requiring that all homeowners receive a live, recorded phone call to confirm financing terms and reinforce written disclosures. They also instruct all PACE providers to develop forbearance programs for customers who encounter unexpected financial hardship. And some companies, like the nation’s leading residential PACE provider, Renovate America, have specific protections for seniors and have developed systems to help homeowners identify contractors that offer top-quality customer service. Top PACE companies also have dedicated staff to assist homeowners and real estate professionals when selling a home with a PACE improvement—which is important as PACE becomes more common across Florida.

PACE financing brings energy efficiency and hurricane readiness within reach for many homeowners who might otherwise delay.

From where I sit, that makes PACE a promising program for cities and counties throughout Florida.

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Frank Ortis is the mayor of the City of Pembroke Pines in Broward County.

Andy Madtes: What HB 11 supporters don’t get

Andy Madtes, executive director for AFSCME Florida.

Recently the House passed HB 11, legislation that would require labor unions representing public sector workers to certify they have more than half of the workers signed up as members every single year. In their view this will empower workers to somehow bargain better contracts and benefits and, they swear, in no way an attempt to strip workers of their right to a voice on the job.

It could be they just don’t understand how a union, in a “right to work for less” state like Florida, operates in a modern workplace. The wages, retirement, health care and other benefits that a union like AFSCME negotiates are enjoyed by every employee, not just those that pay dues. Things like investments in safety, emergency response protocols and, yes, how to save lives from a burning building are negotiated on behalf of bus drivers, public service aids and more, not just those in police and fire unites that the legislation would except under the belief they are the only ones dealing with public safety. All public-sector workers are on the front line of serving their community.

Maybe the supporters of the legislation believe that all workers pitch in to the union in their workplace. That is not true. Members decide to pay dues for a variety of reasons but not because they are forced to do so. Non-members don’t even pay a fair share for the benefits they get to enjoy.

It is a choice, but this legislation would take that choice from them.

In America, we believe in the will of the majority but respect and protect the rights of the minority. A church doesn’t exist only if they get 50 percent of the town’s residents to attend, or even get 50 percent of their own congregation to attend each week. Official documents are printed in a variety of languages because we don’t force people to speak what most their neighbors speak. And people are elected to office with a majority of those who vote, not a majority of the citizens of that district, because we respect the right for people to not vote if they choose not to.

By requiring a worksite to have a majority of workers signed as members you take away a choice. You limit a right, the right to collectively bargain, that even President Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Labor said, “is clearly established by law.”

I invite anyone who supports HB 11 to join me for a day or two out talking to workers about why they do, or do not, join the union. See how unions actually contribute to our state’s prosperity. Understand how this legislation wouldn’t empower workers but actually take away a right that men and women have died to protect for generations – the right to choose for ourselves.

Any country can operate by majority rule, what makes us special is that we respect minority rights. That is why this is not just bad legislation, it is anti-American.

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Andy Madtes is the executive director for AFSCME Florida. Representing 15,000 members across the Sunshine State, Madtes has led AFSCME to be one of the state’s fastest growing unions.

Pat Neal: Business rent tax stifles Florida’s economic future

The business rent tax is the only state-sanctioned sales tax on commercial leases in the entire country and Florida is the not-so-proud holder of that title. Not even tax-happy havens like California and New York impose this state tax on its businesses. Due to this burdensome tax, Florida businesses shell out more than $1.7 billion every year to the state. As a result, our state economy dramatically suffers in the form of suppressed job growth and economic activity.

Luckily, Gov. Rick Scott is committed to cutting this tax on hardworking small-business owners and budding entrepreneurs. The governor has repeatedly made cutting or abolishing this tax one of his top priorities for numerous years as part of his commitment to creating jobs for Florida families. Recently, he has hit the road advocating for a 25 percent cut in the tax –  a move that could save Florida businesses more than $400 million per year and reduce prices for Florida consumers.

The business rent tax places a disproportionate burden on small businesses and startups that do not have the capital to purchase bigger office space, hire new employees or expand to other locations. All of this creates a chilling effect on many of Florida’s more than 2 million small businesses.

Since businesses must pay a 6 percent state sales tax on their rent, including added costs to that lease – such as property taxes, maintenance and the cost of insurance –  and local governments can add an additional 1.5 percent, your local retailer could be easily paying more than $100,000 yearly in taxes on their lease alone. Those costs are ultimately passed down to consumers in the form of higher prices. Floridians still trying to recover from the Great Recession cannot continue to afford these cost increases.

The business rent tax undoubtedly puts Florida at a distinct competitive disadvantage, one that is not shared by any other state in the country. It gives the impression that we are closed for business and makes our competitor states look more attractive. It doesn’t make sense for a company to move to Florida if they can get similar benefits in another state without paying a burdensome tax on their rent.

Florida TaxWatch’s research has shown that this rent tax presents an impediment to the success of the state’s businesses, and TaxWatch’s long-standing recommendation has been that Florida’s policymakers should take efforts toward reducing or eliminating this tax.

Unfortunately, despite the support of many lawmakers in the Legislature, this common-sense tax reform has repeatedly languished in the halls of the Capitol. Despite a tighter budget outlook this session, there is still enough money to consider a reduction in the business rent tax.

The fairness and competitiveness of our tax structure is paramount to Florida’s continued success. If we want to continue to be recognized as the top place in the country for business, we must promote incentive programs like Enterprise Florida and commit to reduce or eliminate the business rent tax. This is the one area where Florida cannot afford to be unique.

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Pat Neal is a former state senator and former chair of the Christian Coalition of Florida. He currently serves as chairman-elect for the board of directors of Florida TaxWatch, the state’s independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit research institute and government watchdog, and is the president of Neal Communities.

Steve Bahmer: Senate must ask tough questions on Medicaid payment reform

Steve Bahmer, president & CEO of LeadingAge Florida

Medicaid payment reform for nursing homes is both necessary and complex. And done well, it should be the result of clear policy objectives, careful consideration, vigorous debate and detailed modeling. On behalf of our 250 members across Florida, we encourage the Senate Appropriations Committee to ask tough questions and thoroughly vet the new nursing home payment system it will consider.

In reforming the payment system, it isn’t enough to implement a system that is cosmetically pleasing for a year or two. We need to look two or three years ahead to ensure that the quality of care in Florida nursing homes, which has improved dramatically over the last 30 years, remains as high as residents and their families deserve it to be.

It’s important to be clear: LeadingAge Florida supports the transition to a Prospective Payment System for nursing homes. We simply can’t support the system that has been proposed. And that’s because we’re looking two or three years ahead.

It is easy, of course, to gloss over the many problems with the plan, and the sophisticated sales effort that is underway in support of it does just that. It simply asserts, for example, that the plan incentivizes quality. And it does, to a certain extent. Though, notably, it does so at a level that is $40 million below the Quality Incentive funding that was proposed in the plan that was shelved by a House committee last month.

It also asserts that the plan enhances accountability. The plan does no such thing. Rather, the plan does not contain any requirement that those homes which benefit from additional tax dollars have to spend a single one of those additional dollars on care. No requirement at all.

Proponents claim that 95 percent of Medicaid funding under the PPS plan would have to be spent on care. That is, flatly, untrue. Look under the hood and you’ll see that the 95 percent figure relates to how prices are calculated. It has nothing whatsoever to do with how those dollars are spent.

The plan also removes $44 million that would be spent on care to instead be spent on property. Although we disagree with this shift in funding away from care, this may or may not be a worthwhile change. But that sort of policy shift, among the many others proposed in the plan, ought to be thoroughly vetted and debated in the sunshine.

In the end, the result is a plan that, if fully funded, would prop up the highest quality nursing homes for up to three years by holding them harmless. Ironically, however, that is precisely the type of short-term thinking that supporters of the plan have argued against.

So, let’s look a bit further out — when the transition funding runs out, presumably after three years, 152 nursing homes with 4 and 5-Star ratings from CMS will lose funding, for a total of $39.7 million in losses among Florida’s highest quality nursing homes. And some of them lose big, with losses as high as 23 percent of their Medicaid funding. Meanwhile, 97 homes with 1 and 2-Star CMS ratings will gain funding, for a total of $29 million in gains among Florida’s lowest quality nursing homes.

Nevertheless, this isn’t about winners and losers. This is about state budgets as an expression of the state’s priorities, and about clearly defining what public policy objective could possibly be served by shifting resources from those that have invested in care to those that haven’t.

It is tempting not to look too far down the road. The longer view is the more difficult one. But payment policy isn’t, and can’t be, an annual exercise. Once in place, this system will establish the state’s approach to our frail elderly for years to come. Indeed, it’s been more than 30 years since the last change this dramatic in Medicaid payment policy.

Certainly, nursing homes will respond. The most significant cost driver in any nursing home is staff. So, it may take a year or two, but those high-quality homes that face 15 and 20 percent losses in Medicaid funding will eliminate jobs, cut back on programs, and reduce spending on true quality-of-life elements such as food and services.

We urge the Legislature to step back from this plan and continue working on it during the interim. The implications for our seniors are too important not to.

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Steve Bahmer is president and CEO of LeadingAge Florida

 

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