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Craig Waters: Florida’s courts lead in use of social media

Long seen as the quietest branch of state government, Florida’s state courts have emerged in the last year as a national leader in social media use.

Craig Waters
Waters during the 2000 election challenge. (Wikimedia)

In fact, we are leading the nation with 20 out of 26 court divisions using Twitter to reach the public right now. That’s an astounding number.

In a report sent this week to Florida’s Chief Justice Jorge Labarga, our staff detailed the first year’s work in a state court communications plan adopted by the Florida Supreme Court in December 2015.

Labarga sent the plan for implementation to a professional association of Florida court staff called the Florida Court Public Information Officers, or FCPIO. I am the group’s founder and its current executive director.

The goal is simple. It’s not enough that courts do justice. They also must make sure people see justice being done.

It was a mission we quickly accepted. Originally set up by a post-9/11 crisis management plan in 2002, FCPIO has evolved into a group of court communications professionals unique in the nation.

No other state has anything approaching it – though many states now are studying FCPIO and the plan it is carrying out for Florida’s judiciary.

FCPIO incorporated itself as a federally recognized nonprofit in early 2007, right at the time events in Silicon Valley began shaking up the communications landscape. That was only a year after Twitter opened its doors and three years after the founding of Facebook.

But FCPIO also brings talent to the table. With representatives in every Florida state court, the group has been led by several media-skilled court officers that saw the need for statewide education and coordination with an emphasis on openness.

I am a lawyer and former Gannett newspaper reporter who has worked for the Florida Supreme Court for 30 years and started its public information office, its gavel-to-gavel oral argument broadcasts, and its website in the 1990s.

FCPIO’s current president, Eunice Sigler of the Miami courts, is a former Miami Herald reporter and winner of a Pulitzer Prize for team coverage of the Elian Gonzalez immigration case.

The report on implementing the plan addresses other issues that include:

Websites: Eighteen of Florida’s 20 circuit courts and all of the district courts of appeal currently are working toward redesigns of their websites because they are the judiciary’s most important communications tool.

Social media: The Florida state courts continue to debate the pros and cons of social media because of the strict ethical limits they must shoulder. While Twitter is now broadly used, Facebook has been more controversial – and only a minority of the state courts currently use it. However, FCPIO is studying ways to address concerns and identify best practices employed by courts now using Facebook.

Podcasts: Two courts in Orlando and Miami currently are using podcasts to communicate with the public, and the Florida Supreme Court soon will start its own podcasting program.

Media Relations: FCPIO will continue to educate courts personnel and judges in the methods needed to work in a cooperative and respectful way with news media. And Twitter has become an important tool for getting word out to the press and the public about breaking news.

Community outreach: Court outreach programs such as courthouse tours for schoolchildren, citizen forums, and public education programs remain important parts of the courts’ mission. They include outreach to elected officials, town hall meetings for residents, and innovative uses of Twitter to reach out to student groups and others.

Internal communications: Proper communications with internal court staff remain important so that everyone understands the overall mission, the need to speak with a unified voice, and the ways to address problems when they arise. One important example is crisis communications with staff during hurricanes or other emergencies.

The Florida state courts’ stress on good communications rests on a near-legendary history. It’s part of a longstanding commitment to transparency that began with Florida letting cameras into the courts in the 1970s.

It continues today thanks to several visionary judges leading the state system over the last half century. And despite doom-saying elsewhere in the nation, Florida’s courts really have had a very positive experience.

In other words: Openness works.


Attorney Craig Waters has been the public information officer and communications director for the Florida Supreme Court in Tallahassee since June 1996. He is best known as the public spokesman for the Court during the 2000 presidential election controversy, when he frequently appeared on worldwide newscasts announcing rulings in lawsuits over Florida’s decisive vote in the election.

Christopher Huff: Changing times demand a retreat from enduring fallacies of war between the states

Dr. Christopher A. Huff

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer‘s announcement this week that the city’s Confederate statue will be moved from Lake Eola Park to Greenwood Cemetery represents a positive step in recognizing the changing nature of Southern culture and the diverse set of voices that deserve a say in the ongoing process of commemorating a complex and troublesome past.

The popular memory of the Civil War that dominated the South when the city’s Confederate statue was erected in 1911 was based on white supremacy and the mythology of the Lost Cause. The early 20th century represented the low point for Southern race relations. Following the removal of federal troops that marked the end of Reconstruction, Southern state governments and white supremacists worked intently and often violently to reverse any gains made by African-Americans after the end of slavery. To this end, they orchestrated the rise of “Jim Crow,” a system that created an inferior social status for African-Americans by segregating them from whites whenever possible and denying them political power.

Florida, despite its current cosmopolitan nature, was a full participant in the South’s attempt to control African-Americans through fear and intimidation. During the wave of lynching that occurred in the decades around the turn of the 20th century which helped define the Jim Crow South, white Floridians killed more African-Americans per capita than those of any other Southern state.

As African-Americans experienced brutal subjugation in the Jim Crow South, several organizations attempted to recast the cause of the Civil War. The mythology of the “Lost Cause,” as it became known removed slavery as the war’s chief instigator and instead blamed the conflict on The North, which was hellbent on destroying the Southern way of life and left Southern states with no choice but to secede. According to Lost Cause thinking, Southern soldiers did not die defending slavery but fought to protect their home and honor — a cause that deserved remembrance.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy played a major role in spreading the Lost Cause mythology through its efforts to have Confederate soldiers reburied, shape the content of school history textbooks, and oversee the erection of Confederate monuments — including the one that currently stands in Lake Eola Park.

The efforts of the UDC proved quite successful based on the large number of Confederate monuments still standing in towns and cities across the South and the ongoing popularity of Lost Cause beliefs held by many Southerners. The phrase “Heritage Not Hate,” seen on T-shirts, bumper stickers and baseball hats across the South, is a simplified distillation of the Lost Cause mythology.

Orlando in 2017 is a much different city than the one that erected The Confederate monument at Lake Eola Park in 1911. At the time, the statue represented the belief of many white Floridians in a misinterpretation of the past that helped justify the systematic mistreatment of black Floridians. Those are beliefs that do not generally represent Orlando today.

Moving the statue does not erase Southern history or its Confederate past. Nor does it dishonor those who died in its defense. Moving the statue from its current position, however, does recognize that memorials are not empty of meaning but are instead physical representations of the values and beliefs held by the community that erected them. It is time to place a new memorial in Lake Eola Park that embodies Orlando’s current commitment to diversity and toleration.

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Dr. Christopher A. Huff is an assistant professor of history at Beacon College, the first higher education institution to award bachelor’s degrees primarily to students with learning disabilities, ADHD and other learning differences, where he specializes in 20th American political and social history, focusing primarily on the protest movements of the late 1960s, the civil rights movement, and southern history.

Richard Corcoran: Don’t believe hyperbole, hysterics from budget critics

One of my all-time heroes is Winston Churchill. He’s widely credited with having said, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”

In the digital age, this phenomenon, which once took days or weeks, now takes mere hours or minutes.

To know this is true we only need to look at the hyperbole and hysterics coming from the special interests and their allies in the news media surrounding the passage of the Florida legislative budget. If you can believe it, one newspaper even argued that Gov. Scott should veto the budget because it offered kids in failing schools hope, and because voters shouldn’t be able to choose another $25,000 homestead exemption on their property taxes.

I wish I were joking, but I’m not.

But rather than indulge in the same scare tactics employed by some opponents, I’d like to just tell you exactly what the budget does and doesn’t do. None of what I’m about to tell you is half true or somewhat true — it’s all completely true.

First, this budget was subject to the most open, transparent, and transformational budget rules in history. No more secret projects at the last minute, no more stuffing university budgets with pork, and no more tricks to hide future spending. And contrary to media hysterics, virtually every bill included in the budget negotiations was introduced, vetted, debated, and even voted on in committee for weeks or months prior to the budget.

Second, this budget refuses to mortgage our children’s future. This year we were faced with billion-dollar-plus shortfalls in the next two years. Due to our fiscal responsibility, we turned those billion-dollar budget shortfalls into billion-dollar-plus surpluses. We also set aside another $3.2 billion in reserves, and we did it all without raising taxes.

Third, not only did we protect the future without raising taxes, we actually cut taxes. We added another $25,000 homestead exemption on the ballot in 2018, and we saved homeowners over $500 million in property tax increases that some in Tallahassee wanted to use to pay for more pork.

Fourth, this budget puts a record amount of money — $24 billion — into K-12 education. In addition, all highly effective teachers will get a $1,200 bonus and effective teachers will get an $800 bonus. And the very best and brightest teachers will get a $6,000 bonus. And yes, children in the 115 failure-factory schools will get the opportunity to attend a new school, in the same neighborhood, with a proven track record of giving kids a hope and a future.

Fifth, this budget eliminated hundreds of millions of dollars in member pork-barrel spending, and I personally encourage the governor to go forth and veto additional pork projects he feels waste taxpayer money.

Sixth, this budget rightsizes VISIT Florida to $25 million and places strict accountability requirements on an agency that threw away tens of millions of your taxpayer dollars and even contracted to advertise to visitors in Syria. Yes, you read that right: Syria. This budget also eliminates corporate welfare and bureaucrats unfairly picking winners and losers. No more Enterprise Florida board members, who pay $50,000 for those seats, handing out your money to their friends or multibillion-dollar corporations getting taxpayer handouts to compete with your local businesses.

This year’s budget does this and so much more. From funding to clear out the backlog of sexual assault testing kits to fully funding the KidCare program, to making feminine hygiene products tax exempt, this budget is tough on waste, generous to our kids, and prioritizes real people.

For some, however, this wasn’t enough. It is this exact same logic and thinking that has put this country $20 trillion in debt and enriched insider elites at the expense of the hardworking, play-by-the-rules majority of we the people.

Well, we have news for them: Not anymore. Not with your money. And not on my watch.

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Richard Corcoran is Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives.

 

Jason Fischer: Our kids deserve hope

Over the past few days, many district superintendents and other defenders of the struggling status quo have attacked HB 7069, a bill focused on reforming and improving K-12 education. As a former Duval County School Board member, I am proud to have voted for this bill and urge Gov. Rick Scott to sign it into law.

The notion that this bill will gut public education or undermine public schools is hogwash. Instead, it provides the reform and disruption our K-12 education system desperately needs.

HB 7069 does several positive things: boosts K-12 funding to a record high $24 billion; rewards teachers and principals with bonuses; reduces standardized and computer testing; expands school choice access for special needs and virtual school students; implements mandatory recess for early grades; and provides the needed funding and incentives to attract nationally-proven charter school networks to Florida.

The last provision listed above, known as Schools of Hope,” sets aside money designated for high-performing charters, which can provide high-quality alternatives for students assigned to chronically failing traditional public schools. School districts who wish to convert a chronically failing traditional public school to a district-run charter are also eligible to access this funding should they choose to submit detailed turnaround plans.

My interest in “Schools of Hope” stems from Duval County, which has 10 failing traditional public schools who have earned failing grades for four or more years. One, in particular, has been failing for 10 years, and the parents whose students are assigned to that school have had little to no options to send their children elsewhere.

No parent or child should have to wait 10 years to be assigned to a high-quality school. Furthermore, taxpayers should not be asked to fund failure year in and out when we know there are proven charter networks from around the country who can do better. This is why certain established charter networks like Great Hearts or YES Prep should be given an opportunity to seek out Florida’s underserved communities and provide the education our own schools have failed to deliver.

The only problem is Florida’s charter school funding and accountability models are so restrictive, the nation’s best actors in the charter school realm face too many financial and structural barriers to coming here. “Schools of Hope” will help remedy these challenges.

The bill also rewards Florida’s 165,000+ hardworking teachers and principals with bonuses for the next three years, ranging between $800 and $6,000, based on eligibility, placing more dollars directly in the pockets of our educators.

At the request of many parents and educators, elementary school students will now receive 20 minutes of required daily recess.

The bill adds more flexibility in testing by rolling back some required state assessments, allowing for paper-and-pencil testing in grades 3-6, and giving state tests later in the school year, so students and teachers have more instructional time in the classroom.

Most importantly, the bill extends school choice to more students by ensuring Gardiner Scholarships for special needs students is fully funded, and it removes longtime barriers to accessing virtual school for homeschool and private school students.

What the bill does not do is cut funding to traditional public schools. Duval County will see an $8.3 million boost overall or $16 per pupil increase in funding.

When a child is assigned to a failing school, one day is too long to wait for a better option. If my child was stuck in one of the 10 failure factories in Duval County, I wouldn’t wait 10 years to see if it gets better.

It is a moral disgrace to insist some of our neighbors here in Duval County remain stuck in failing schools for generations because of personal or political vendettas against nontraditional public schools.

We have a moral obligation to give every child an education that equips them to succeed in life. No one should have to wait another day to access that education. We also know that more flexibility at the local level will lead to better student outcomes. That’s why this legislation is in the best interest of Florida’s students.

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Jason Fischer is a father, businessman, former Duval County School Board member, and current State Representative for House District 16.

Gus Bilirakis: Lower drug costs through competition and innovation

In Florida and across the country, Americans continue to feel the pressure of rising prescription drug costs. Too often, bad actors in the marketplace take advantage of monopolies, skyrocketing the price of lifesaving medication simply because there is little to no competition.

We need to take thoughtful action, and avoid knee-jerk responses, to solve this issue affecting so many millions. Leveraging the power of the free market and incentivizing competition among drugmakers will drive costs down — not government mandates.

The success of Medicare Part D illustrates how competition in the prescription drug market helps make sure patients can afford the medication they need. Under the Part D program, seniors have a variety of coverage options and stable premium costs. No wonder it has a 90 percent satisfaction rate. Just as important, Medicare Part D has been significantly under budget from original CBO estimates, proving the government does not need to spend absurd amounts to address drug prices.

To be clear, there is no shortage of potential for increased competition in the marketplace. The United States is the undisputed global leader in biomedical innovation. Our companies produce 57 percent of the world’s new medicines and invest $70 billion a year to research and develop new therapies. If we want to spur the discovery of treatments and cures for deadly diseases like cancer, Alzheimer’s and more, we need to allow America’s innovators to do what they do best.

There is a role for Congress to play to keep drug prices in check, which is why I introduced the Lower Drug Costs Through Competition Act to increase competition specifically in the generic drug market. The bill would incentivize drugmakers to develop generic drugs when competition does not exist, or when there is a drug shortage. It would directly address situations like Turing Pharmaceuticals hiking the price of an HIV drug from $13.50 to $750 overnight, or when Mylan raised the cost of the EpiPen by more than 400 percent.

We can modernize the Food and Drug Administration and clear the backlog of generic drugs waiting for approval. We can reduce unnecessary regulations that hinder innovation and competition. We can remove legal and regulatory barriers so insurers and drug innovators can make more arrangements to “pay for performance.” And we can quickly implement the bipartisan 21st Century Cures Act, using real-world evidence and innovative clinical trial design to get new medicines to market faster.

In the end, we all want affordable prescription drugs and a health care system that spurs innovation. I believe the best approach to accomplish this goal is harnessing the power of the free market to bring costs down and get treatments to patients faster.

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Gus Bilirakis represents Florida’s 12th Congressional District, which includes all of Pasco County and parts of Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. He is a member of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health.

Richard Corcoran: Federal government needs to act now; mosquito season is here

As we celebrated Mother’s Day with our families this weekend, I could not help but think of all the moms in the U.S., and all over the world, who have been affected by Zika in the last year.

As a father of six, I know that all children bring challenges.  But a child born with microcephaly will present his or her parents with unique struggles.

As we enter into the warm summer months, the threat of another outbreak is looming. That is why I have and will continue to urge the federal government to quickly authorize new strategies that can be used to both curb the spread of the virus and prevent additional outbreaks.

 I believe we should be taking a multi-faceted approach to put an end to the threat of Zika. This must include spraying programs, education awareness efforts, and the search for a vaccine. But more importantly, we must also look at new and science-based solutions that can control the growing population of disease-carrying mosquitoes in Florida.

The mosquitoes that spread Zika are called Aedes aegypti. It is an invasive species in the U.S. and uniquely built to spread disease because it loves living in and around our homes and it loves to feed off humans rather than other mammals.

Besides Zika, it spreads a number of other diseases – yellow fever and dengue, just to name two. International travel and warm weather only increase the chance that these diseases are not only here to stay, but that we will continue to see more outbreaks. Because of the way it lives and breeds, the diseases the Aedes aegypti spreads are hard to control. It’s like a dry field of grass – just one spark can cause an out-of-control fire.

While ongoing research for a vaccine is imperative, we can’t only focus on a solution that will cost billions of dollars and that won’t be ready for years to come. I think we should be focused on the root of the problem – identifying new, innovative solutions to cut down on the population of Aedes aegypti. Some of those solutions already exist today.

One example of the technology I’ve advocated for is the Oxitec genetically engineered Aedes aegypti mosquito. When it is released into the wild, it doesn’t bite, it doesn’t transmit disease, but does transmit a self-limiting gene that makes its offspring die before reaching adulthood.

This technology is being used successfully in some countries already. If we had it available in the U.S., many expectant mothers might have one less thing to be anxious about.

Last year during a CDC briefing about the Zika outbreak in South Florida, former Director Thomas Frieden cautioned, “We also don’t yet have ideal ways to control the particular mosquitoes that spread Zika, and we need better methods and tools for mosquito control.” He added, “… aggressive mosquito control measures don’t seem to be working as well as we would have liked.”

What he means is that the insecticides that most cities use today to control mosquitoes do not work well for a variety of reasons, including the mosquitoes’ ability to be insecticide resistance. Even mosquito control officials have cautioned that insecticides are becoming less and less effective. This combined with the unseasonably warm winter we experienced has officials concerned

So as we enter into the summer months, I urge moms everywhere to take a few minutes to learn how to protect themselves from mosquito-borne diseases by going to the websites of the CDC or the Florida Department of Health.

Your health, and the health of your family, may depend on it.

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Richard Corcoran is Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives.

Dennis Ross: Dispelling the myths — real facts about the AHCA

Beyond any measure, the Affordable Care Act, better known as “Obamacare,” has failed in its promises to the American people.

As it stands, Obamacare is in a death spiral and collapsing under its own weight of broken assurances, imperiling tens of thousands of Floridians with ever-increasing premiums and fewer and fewer choices for their medical needs. Here are the undisputed facts about Obamacare:

– It was sold to the American people based on broken promises.

– People did not get to keep their doctors if they liked them.

4.7 million Americans have been kicked off their health care plans.

– Nearly 20 million Americans remain uninsured today.

– It increased taxes on Americans by $1 trillion.

– Deductibles will average more than $6,000 this year, and premiums have risen by 25 percent.

– More than one-third of all U.S. counties have only one insurance provider.

– In Florida, premiums are expected to increase by 19 percent this year.

49 out of 67 Florida counties are estimated to have only one insurance provider this year.

300,000 Floridians had their plans canceled under Obamacare.

– The Congressional Budget Office incorrectly estimated 22 million people would flock to Obamacare.

– Insurance providers are fleeing the exchange left and right, with Aetna announcing it will completely leave the exchange by 2018.

– Leading Democrats, like former President Bill Clinton and Sen. Chuck Schumer, have admitted Obamacare was a mistake and has left Americans with less coverage.

Faced with these failures, doing nothing and watching more and more Americans be forced to pay higher premiums with unaffordable deductibles was not an option. The only responsible path forward was to repeal and replace the failures and broken promises of Obamacare.

The American Health Care Act (AHCA) that I voted for and passed in the House does just that:

– It establishes a health care system built upon free-market and consumer-driven principles that will revive competition, increasing quality, drive down costs and expand coverage.

– Cuts $1 trillion in burdensome Obamacare taxes.

– Congressional Members and staff are not exempt from the AHCA. The McSally Amendment made sure this legislation applies equally to everyone.

– Those with pre-existing conditions cannot be denied coverage. I have a pre-existing condition with my congenital heart defect, and I understand how important it is to maintain coverage for others.

– Low-income Americans are not losing coverage and will still receive coverage under Medicaid.

– The AHCA modernizes and strengthens Medicaid with the biggest entitlement reform in a generation.

– It honors the enhanced state match that beneficiaries have been receiving.

– Restores $79 billion to hospitals who provide a high proportion of care to the most vulnerable patients, including certain Medicaid and Medicare recipients.

– Establishes the Patient and State Stability Fund that provides $130 billion to help states lower the cost of care for patients in need.

– Sets aside $100 billion for states to help low-income Americans access affordable health care.

– President Donald Trump has agreed to give Florida hospitals $1.5 billion to help treat the poor and uninsured.

No changes were made to the benefits Medicare provides in its current form, and the elderly will not lose or face more expensive coverage under the AHCA.

– Children up to 26 years old can stay on their parents’ plans.

– The AHCA substantially lowers premiums and eliminates the individual and employer mandates that are crushing small businesses and families.

– It provides tax credits and health savings accounts to help all Americans purchase affordable coverage, and ensures there is a seamless transition so no one has the rug pulled out from under them.

Defunds Planned Parenthood by blocking more than $500 million of taxpayer money, and maintains the Hyde Amendment. This measure is supported by the National Right to Life Committee and the Susan B. Anthony List.

The AHCA is great a step in the right direction. After seven long years, we are finally putting patients first. We will continue working with the Trump Administration to further stabilize the health insurance market, increase choices, and lower costs for all Americans and families. We will fulfill our promises to those who sent us to Washington to help and protect them. I urge the Senate to quickly take up and pass this important legislation so we can provide relief to Americans across Florida and the entire nation.

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U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross represents Florida’s 15th Congressional District.

Ann W. Madsen: Where are the champions for women?

Ann W. Madsen

As this Mother’s Day approaches, I find it particularly ironic to be advocating for the same support for women as our founder did four decades ago. Helen Gordon Davis opened this nonprofit to help women who needed extra support just to survive — serious counseling, intense skills development, assistance to the homeless and domestic violence populations, legal advice, financial guidance and the restored confidence to lead independent lives. She advocated for and was successful in persuading the state Legislature to create a Displaced Homemakers Program and fund it with a Trust Fund comprised of fees from marriage licenses and divorce applications.

Just this week, a group of legislators in a late Friday afternoon session broke our trust and voted to terminate the Displaced Homemakers Program. What a cavalier and cowardly act. No one thought to speak with any of the eight organizations that work tirelessly to help women in need to see if that recommendation made any sense. No one appeared to consider what would happen to the hundreds of the most vulnerable “moms,” many of them single mothers with young children. No one apparently imagined that their mom, wife, sister, daughter or grandmother would ever need the kind of support that so many have found through this program for 40 years. Yet, wherever I go across Tampa, women from all walks of life, tell me about how the help they received through the Displaced Homemakers program helped them to survive and change their lives.

As I reached out to legislators about this, no one offered to help. I guess they are too focused on other priorities. It made me wonder whatever happened to the champions for women in our State Legislature?  Are there no longer those valiant few that will stand up for what is right? The whole sad episode reminds me of the commercial where a politician was throwing granny off the cliff.

We are not political at The Centre for Women. Our views are politically diverse and we intentionally do not get embroiled in the political arena. We simply concentrate on our day-to-day work of helping women to succeed both personally and professionally. We do it with limited resources because we know our work changes lives for the better. The impact we make is felt every day across Tampa Bay.

We hope Governor Scott will veto this ill-conceived amendment because that is the right thing to do. How anyone can think it is OK to take monies in trust to help vulnerable people and conflate that with support for tourism simply boggles the mind. Perhaps they thought women would not notice or would not speak up. I don’t pretend to know how government works. I am not sure anyone does.

Thankfully, many voices are joining in to encourage continued support for Displaced Homemakers. We hope you will too.

Speak up and ask the Governor to leave the Displaced Homemakers Trust in place so that the most vulnerable among us will have the support they need.

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Ann W. Madsen is Executive Director of The Helen Gordon Davis Centre for Women, Inc. in Tampa.

Samantha Pollara: In defense of my big brother Ben Pollara

For the last five years, my big brother, Ben Pollara, has fought to bring medical marijuana treatment to suffering citizens in the state of Florida.

He acted as campaign manager for United for Care, which was the chief facilitator of Amendment 2’s passage November, and has since worked tirelessly to craft and pass fair legislation to enact it.

His goal was a feasible plan for implementation that not only best represented the interests of sick patients, but also protected and encouraged diversity in the burgeoning medical marijuana market.

Currently, only seven companies have been licensed and approved by the Florida Department of Health to grow and dispense marijuana. In most states where medical marijuana is legal, retail dispensaries are required to be licensed individually.

However, some states, including Florida, permit multiple dispensaries to operate under a single license. Most other states impose caps on licensees, limiting the number of retail operations to either 3 or 4 on a single license, depending on the state.

My brother’s position has always been that setting caps on the number of retail operations is essential to ensuring a free and diverse market for medical marijuana in Florida.

Without these caps, the seven current licensees would be given carte blanche to overrun the market in cartel style, using massive funding capabilities to effectively shut out smaller operations at the outset. That’s basically equivalent to allowing the Wal-Marts and Targets of medical marijuana first entry into the market, without giving Mom and Pop operations a chance to gain a toehold in the industry.

Ultimately, a system of total control via these seven “cartels” would be harmful not only to the market, but to the patients as well, through artificially high prices and product homogeneity as a result of this lack of competition.

In the process of debating the bill, HB 1397, this also became the sticking point for legislators. A version of the bill passed by the Florida Senate would have allocated five dispensaries to each licensee, and allowed each one more for every additional 75,000 patients.  The bill put forth by the House of Representatives, however, contained no such restrictions. The Legislature could not come to an agreement on these terms, and the bill died in the final hours of Friday’s session.

While my brother was adamant that caps were in the best interest of both the market and the patients, he was not so uncompromising that he would have deliberately risked the passage of this bill in the Florida Legislature.

He would have done anything in his power to pass any version of it, rather than see the responsibility fall to the Department of Health, which will disproportionately favor the current licensees.

What ultimately killed the bill was discord and failure at the highest levels of legislature. It’s worth noting that the team of lobbyists working on behalf of the seven currently licensed “cartels” was headed up by Michael Corcoran, Speaker of the House Richard Corcoran’s brother. As a result of this connection, the House’s intractability on the issue of caps seems unlikely to be a coincidence.

To add insult to injury, despite having done everything he personally could to ensure the legislation’s success, my brother has faced a barrage of vicious personal attacks from his former partner and mentor, John Morgan, who places the blame entirely on Ben’s shoulders.

Mr. Morgan has repeatedly published harassing tweets directed at Ben, (one in which he even went so far as to refer to my brother as disloyal Fredo, from the Godfather, complete with the hashtag #FredoWillBeFishingSoon.) and has erroneously accused­­­ him of having an improper financial stake in attempting to pass a version of the bill that included caps.

No one has worked harder to ensure that sick patients in Florida have access to medical marijuana than my big brother, and no one knows that better than John Morgan.

Mr. Morgan ought to be ashamed of himself.

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Samantha Pollara is a vice president of the Hillsborough Young Democrats.

Michael Bileca and Manny Diaz: Florida’s educational industrial complex earned need to be reformed

“It is easier to build strong children, than to repair broken men (and women)” — Frederick Douglass

It is incredible how many societal ills arise out of a failure to educate, in the fullest sense of the word, the children of our great state. We utter platitudes like, “we must do better,” as we watch a generation of children be stripped of their hope, their dignity, and their chance to be all that God intended them to be.

Sadly, this catastrophe is aided and abetted by an educational-industrial complex that is more dedicated to self-preservation then it is student achievement realization. 

How do we know this? Simple. Just try to change the status quo and watch. We are seeing it already in reaction to the Florida House’s revolutionary reform effort this year. Hyperbolic statements, threats, and massive disinformation efforts begin the minute you try to put kids before contracts. 

Despite the fact that there are 115 schools in Florida that failed for more than three years in a row. Despite the fact that just 22 percent of students in grade 8 can do math, and just 31 percent can read, at proficiency level or above. And despite the fact that it takes more than money to educate a child, we are constantly told that all will be well if we would just spend more. 

Where we come from, you’re entitled to what you earn. And the educational industrial complex in Florida has earned reform.

That is why we, along with several of my colleagues, introduced HB 7069 last week. Contrary to “news” reports, virtually everything within this large education reform was debated by the public and the Legislature for months.

We put futures first. We put kids ahead of bureaucrats. And we put money where it does the most good — in our classrooms and with our teachers. 

We begin by spending $241 million more this year than we did last year. This money does not even include $413 million in other provisions of the bill that require funding to go directly to students, parents, teachers, and principals.

Second, we allow what we are calling “hope operators” — i.e. charter school operators with a proven track record of success in low performing, low-income communities —  to come and provide students an alternative to their turnaround failing schools. We believe that hope and opportunity are transformational to the lives of kids who believe many have given up on them.  We also include grants to traditional public schools that submit a transformation plan to turn their school around.

Third, we spend $30 million to ensure every child with special needs receiving a Gardiner scholarship will continue to receive that scholarship and achieve their full potential in life.

Fourth, we recognize that the backbone of our brighter future are our best teachers.  The very best deserve the very best. To achieve this goal, we offer $233 million that is paid directly to teachers: $6,000 bonuses to the best and brightest teachers in our state as well as $1200 and up to $800 bonuses to all highly effective and effective teachers. We believe that your tax dollars should reward excellence not longevity.

We are changing the game with these and dozens of other reforms. Common-sense, child-centric, and results oriented changes are in store.

But as we stated earlier, when you try to fix an institution, those with much to lose make much the noise. In the case of HB 7069, the ones making the most noise are those most resistant to change.

You’ll hear from those suckling off the status quo that we actually spend less per pupil in many districts than we did last year.  What you won’t hear is that in all but one of those districts, the reduction in funding is due to fewer kids being enrolled in those schools. 

You’ll hear critics say that “schools of hope” are stealing from public schools. In truth, public education spending went up again this year. But most importantly, the “schools of hope” will be public schools.  Public schools in the same neighborhood as the kids they’re coming to save. 

 You’ll hear critics say this and so much more.

But we believe as Frederick Douglass believed that it’s easier to build strong children than fix broken adults. And we also know as we build strong children, we will need strong backbones to fix a broken system.

We, for one, won’t ever look at a child stuck in their failing school, with a fading glimmer of hope in her eye, and tell her I put fear before her future. Will you?

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State Rep. Michael Bileca is chairman of the House Education Committee. State Rep. Manny Diaz is chairman of the House pre-K — 12 Appropriations Subcommittee.

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