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Guest Author

Mary Barzee Flores: ‘Impeach Trump’ must be Democratic candidates’ rallying cry

President Donald J. Trump should be impeached and removed from office.

As a former judge, I don’t make that statement lightly, but I have come to believe such steps, sadly, are necessary to restore trust, respect, and dignity to the American presidency.

That said, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation — and those of the U.S. House and Senate — must continue unimpeded, particularly in light of the indictments unsealed last week against Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, and George Papadopoulos’ guilty plea.

We deserve a complete accounting of Russian interference in the 2016 elections, potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, and answers to whether the president obstructed justice in the course of that investigation. Any who violated our laws deserve swift and sure punishment.

I spent nearly a decade as a judge and over a decade prior as a federal public defender. I have a deep and abiding respect for the notion that no man or woman — even the president of the United States — is above the law. But prosecuting a sitting president is not as simple as empaneling a grand jury and filing an indictment in federal court. Nor should it be.

This is why the U.S. Constitution lays out the standards and procedure of impeachment. Unlike the justice system, a “crime” need not be committed to impeach a public official, nor does committing a crime necessarily warrant impeachment. Articles 1 and 2 of the Constitution grant the legislative branch broad responsibility to determine which acts rise to a level requiring the exercise of this authority.

But even in the unlikely event that Mueller’s investigation does not find that Trump himself committed criminal trespasses, it doesn’t require a team of prosecutors to make the case that this president has — in ways large and small — violated the sanctity of the public’s trust to an extent great enough to merit removal from office.

We needn’t await Mueller’s report to know that, in less than a year in office, Trump has:

– Fired an FBI director investigating his administration for failing to demonstrate sufficient loyalty.

– Hired a national security adviser who the nation’s highest intelligence officials warned was compromised by Russia.

– Pardoned a political supporter in such a way as to disrespect and weaken the judiciary’s inherent authority.

– Betrayed the trust of one of our closest allies, Israel, by passing classified intelligence to Russia, risking human lives and compromising national security.

– Appointed family members, sycophants and business partners to high-ranking government positions.

– Profited personally in office, in violation of the emoluments clause of the Constitution.

For all these reasons, and many more, this president should be impeached and removed from office.

While the White House veers dangerously off course, only the U.S. House of Representatives has the constitutionally endowed power to get our country moving back in the right direction by initiating articles of impeachment.

Unfortunately, under the leadership of Speaker Paul Ryan, this House has only acted to empower and enable Trump. This House’s own “investigation” into the president is so compromised as to be laughable. This House is still launching investigations into Hillary Clinton’s emails.

Ryan’s House will never impeach Trump — and if we don’t elect a Democratic majority next year, the Trump administration might even survive to see a second term in power.

I call on all my fellow Democrats running in 2018 to make the case against this president, to be willing to hold him to full account, and to use impeachment as a central rationale in our argument to Americans.

This needs to be a rallying cry for Democrats.

Donald Trump isn’t on the 2018 ballot — but his presidency must be. We must be willing to tell voters, “Yes, I will vote to impeach Donald Trump and restore honor, respect and decency to the presidency.”

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Mary Barzee Flores, a Democratic candidate for Florida’s 27th Congressional District, is a former circuit court judge and federal public defender. President Barack Obama nominated her the federal bench.

Jeff Kottkamp: Real animal welfare reform starts with shelters

Jeff Kottkamp

State Sen. Tom Lee has proposed a constitutional amendment, as a member of the state’s Constitutional Revision Commission, that would end live greyhound racing and allow all 12 of Florida’s greyhound tracks to essentially continue operating as minicasinos.

It has been suggested that the proposal is an animal welfare proposal. There have been numerous attempts to end live racing in the Legislature over the years. All of those efforts have failed, in large part, because most members of the Legislature oppose the dramatic expansion of gambling that would result from such efforts.

The fact is — if live racing is stopped the welfare of over 8,000 majestic racing greyhounds would be put in jeopardy. If you take away the ability of the dog owners to make a living — you also take away the ability of the owners to care for the dogs.

And please don’t suggest that we can adopt out 8,000 greyhounds. While we have a robust greyhound adoption program in Florida — it would take many years to adopt out 8,000 greyhounds. When it comes to the welfare of dogs — the biggest problem we have is not greyhound racing — it’s the number of dogs killed by animal shelters.

In 2008, the Florida Senate Agricultural Committee sent out 180 surveys to municipal and private animal shelters to help determine the welfare of animals at the shelters. Only 30 shelters responded. Their responses were analyzed by committee staff and the Legislative Office of Economic and Demographic Research. The information provided by the shelters was shocking.

In 2007 alone, the 30 animal shelters that responded to the survey took in 66,513 dogs. During that same year, the responding shelters killed over 37,000 dogs. It was particularly noteworthy that municipal shelters killed more than five times as many dogs as private shelters.

It has been estimated that somewhere between 3 and 8 million animals are killed each year in pet shelters nationwide. It has also been estimated that in Florida 450,000 dogs and cats were killed by shelters just in 2012. According to the Orlando Sentinel, the shelter in Orange County killed 2,232 dogs in 2012. I think those numbers underestimate the problem — but even those numbers are horrific.

As a proud owner of two dogs that have been rescued, I believe that improving the welfare of dogs is a worthy goal. However, ending live greyhound racing would do nothing to achieve that goal. A better approach would be to lead an effort to make all animal shelters in Florida “No Kill” shelters. Such an effort would save the lives of thousands of dogs — and save the taxpayers millions of dollars.

One of the first bills I passed as a Member of the Florida House of Representatives was a bill to increase penalties for the intentional cruelty to animals. My wife Cyndie volunteered her time to help me pass the bill. In fact, without her efforts the bill probably would not have passed. Thus, I know from personal experience that, with enough commitment and effort, an animal welfare bill can be passed in the Legislature.

In addition, while in the House I sat on the Select Committee on Constitutional Amendments. At the time we were concerned that our State Constitution was being used by special interests to accomplish what they were unable to achieve in the Legislature (the most glaring example was the pregnant pigs amendment). We looked for ways to prevent the Constitution from being misused in the future.

Apart from the fact that making our shelters “No Kill” shelters is a far better way to improve the welfare of dogs than ending greyhound racing — I do not believe the greyhound issue belongs in the Constitution because it does not involve a fundamental right. The Constitution should be reserved to set forth our state’s founding principles and fundamental values — not used to circumvent the Legislative process. For that reason, I urge the Constitutional Revision Commission to reject the greyhound proposal.

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Jeff Kottkamp is president of Jeff Kottkamp, P.A. He was Florida’s Lieutenant Governor from 2007-2011 and served three terms in the Florida House of Representatives. Kottkamp represents the Florida Greyhound Association.

Stephanie Garris: Free and charitable clinics have important hurricane role

The storms that barreled through Florida and wreaked havoc on Puerto Rico are long gone. Their impact, however, continues to be felt by millions.

Since September, more than 70,000 Puerto Ricans have relocated to Florida after the catastrophic damage of Hurricane Maria. While fleeing from one crisis, they’re now encountering another: finding that their health insurance from Puerto Rico isn’t accepted on the U.S. mainland.

Finding yourself without medical coverage or care can be terrifying. Imagine that, after having to leave your home, possessions, and perhaps even friends and family behind. It’s another layer of confusion and exhaustion in an already difficult situation.

Fortunately, that’s where Florida’s free and charitable clinics come in.

The clinics of the Florida Association of Free and Charitable Clinics provide free health care for uninsured, low-income communities. This year, our 82 volunteer-driven clinics provided nearly 200,000 patients with more than 400,000 medical, dental, vision, specialty care, behavioral health, and pharmacy visits at no cost.

These front-line medical providers are now serving an influx of newly arrived patients from Puerto Rico. In some cases, the treatment received is life-saving — and life-changing.

One woman had just completed cancer surgery, but had to flee before starting chemotherapy. Another was pre-operative for cancer, forced to evacuate before getting the surgical care she needed. Both got the care they needed. Two of our Orange County clinics were the first and only on-site medical providers at Orlando International Airport’s assistance relief center. Yet another clinic is distributing food, water, and hygiene supplies to those in need.

Our nonprofit, faith-based, community-based clinics are saving lives with strong support from the Governor and Florida’s lawmakers. Legislative funding of Florida’s free and charitable clinics has always been a smart investment. It has helped keep vulnerable, uninsured Floridians healthy and working. And it has lowered the state’s health care costs, by decreasing indigent care at emergency rooms, and reducing avoidable hospitalizations and readmissions. Our member clinics and specialty care networks this year provided more than $100 million in medical services with a $10 million appropriation — an unparalleled return on investment.

But it’s in the days and weeks following these disasters that our clinics have never been more important. No one has more experience than Florida’s free and charitable clinics activating medical volunteers and providing direct medical care to underserved communities. In the aftermath of a crisis, our clinics are the best prepared to ensure our state’s most medically needy are cared for.

In the wake of these storms, another opportunity has arisen for the state to support health care for the uninsured. Florida Statute 458.315 gives our Surgeon General the authority to determine “areas of critical need” in the event of health care shortages. Surgeon General Philip also has the ability to grant temporary certificates to licensed medical professionals coming to Florida from Puerto Rico.

Granting these certificates and designating areas of critical need would not only allow our clinics and specialty care networks to increase their capacity, but also potentially add some of these temporarily licensed medical professionals to our teams to care for tens of thousands of evacuees who find themselves uninsured and without income. We are hopeful Surgeon General Philip will work with us to help these folks in need.

Florida’s free and charitable clinics are here for the hundreds of thousands of Floridians who will pass through our doors this year. We’re here when our state needs us the most. And we’re here for our fellow Americans from Puerto Rico seeking stability, compassion, and care here in the Sunshine State.

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Stephanie Garris is the chief executive officer of the Grace Medical Home and chairs the public policy committee for the Florida Association of Free and Charitable Clinics. She lives in Orlando.

John Stemberger: Constitutional privacy fix will protect Floridians

I read with great interest the letter by First Amendment Foundation (FAF) President Barbara Petersen to Lisa Carlton, chair of the Declaration of Rights Committee of the Constitution Revision Commission (CRC), regarding her concerns over the proposal written by former Florida Supreme Court Justice Kenneth Bell, and which I am sponsoring, entitled the “Florida Privacy Restoration Act.”

I am somewhat bewildered by FAF’s letter. In my opinion, it reads as if the Foundation never read the last sentence of the existing privacy amendment as found in Article 1, Section 23, and/or the ten words I am proposing to be added to the provision: “with respect to privacy of information and the disclosure thereof.”

As you may know, Florida newspapers have a history of consistently opposing Florida’s privacy laws, often with little serious legal analysis and with the same type of alarmist tones and hypothetical scenarios you expressed in your letter.

In 1977, newspapers across Florida opposed the 1977-78 CRC’s proposed privacy amendment because of fears that the ability of the media to collect information would be stifled. The St. Petersburg Times argued that it “could have a chilling effect upon news gathering and would provide a convenient excuse for government secrecy … harmful to the public interest.”

In 1980, Florida newspapers continued to raise “grave concerns” and stoke fear over the privacy amendment proposed by the Legislature. A strong “government in the sunshine” provision was added, which stated “[t]his section shall not be construed to limit the public’s right of access to public records and meetings as provided by law.”

This clear added language should have allayed all concerns, but the Tallahassee Democrat’s editorial board still recommended a “no” vote to the privacy amendment in 1980.  Despite the scare campaign by the news media, the amendment was adopted by the people of Florida by a 59 percent vote. People understood it was intended to protect informational privacy, which is what they wanted and why they voted for it.

After 37 years and 52 Florida Supreme Court cases citing the privacy clause, none of the many issues newspapers were concerned about have come to pass – not a single one.

The Florida Privacy Restoration Act is simple, clean and well thought out. The language will require Florida courts to interpret the privacy clause in the manner intended by its original drafters and the people who adopted it. The intent being to protect the people from the government’s collection and more importantly, disclosure, of personal and private information.

Existing federal privacy rights robustly protect virtually all of the privacy interests ruled on by Florida courts except informational privacy.  This is the very reason the amendment was passed but Courts have ignored both intent of the drafters and the people who adopted it.

The truth is — today we have an even more rapid growth of technology resulting in the increased invasion of personal and private information through various forms of surveillance and the monitoring of personal electronic devices. This information can be collected directly by government or obtained by them from private corporations. This alone warrants the amendment.

The number one concern raised by people speaking during the CRC’s ten public hearings around the state was fixing the privacy clause so that it could no longer be hijacked by Florida’s high court and used for purposes other than what it was intended. Concerned citizens wanted the privacy clause returned to its original purpose – to protect informational privacy.

The Florida Privacy Restoration Act responds to the voice of the people and provides a necessary fix to the state constitution.

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John Stemberger is a member of the 2017-18 Florida Constitution Revision Commission. He is an Orlando attorney, president of Florida Family Policy Council, and one of the leading pro-family advocates in Florida.

Karl Dix: Ceres Environmental diligently working to clear debris

For nearly 40 years, Ceres Environmental Services, Inc. (Ceres) has been dedicated to helping communities recover after major storms and natural disasters by removing, reducing and disposing of debris. We understand the importance of this step, as it allows communities to be restored and residents to return to normalcy.

Under pre-storm contracts, Ceres partners closely with valued members of local government staff to prepare for major storm events, like Hurricane Irma. Following the landfall of Hurricane Irma, communities across the state called upon Ceres to clear streets of immediate threats to life, infrastructure and the environment while allowing access to impacted areas by first responders and damage assessors.

Together, Ceres and local government staff enacted debris removal plans to begin immediate debris removal from streets, parks and schools. To date, Ceres has removed in excess of 2 million cubic yards of debris with more than 1,300 hauling units where we have contracts with the local governments. In fact, 80 percent of our clients have already had our crews come in and complete a first pass, and the remaining 20 percent of our clients will see first pass complete by the end of October. This is a commitment Ceres made at the onset to staff, elected officials and communities when we signed pre-storm contracts. This is a commitment Ceres intends to keep.

Despite these efforts, however, there have been a number of erroneous news reports that claim Ceres is deliberately delaying the removal of debris or asking for higher rates in the region before work is performed. These claims are categorically false. Ceres has worked around the clock to ensure debris is removed in the wake of this devastating storm and have never demanded higher rates before performing our duties. While it’s true that there have been market forces at play beyond our control that have created challenges with retaining workforce throughout Florida, Ceres has worked tirelessly to resolve these issues quickly and have never wavered in our commitment to removing debris in the communities we serve.

And, for those communities that are currently underserved, Ceres stands ready to assist the local governments and its residents. For example, Ceres is prepared to make a number of crews available in Collier and Lee Counties, one of the hardest hit areas of the state, to augment the ongoing cleanup effort in the region. This will allow for those communities to recover more quickly and residents to return to a sense of normalcy.

The reality is, Hurricane Irma was an unprecedented storm that touched almost every county in the Sunshine State. The storm left massive amounts of debris in its wake and created an arduous and time-consuming cleanup process. As a Sarasota-based company with employees living in the same communities in which we currently serve, we understand that it is frustrating for residents, elected officials and staff to still see debris in their neighborhoods and are anxious to put the recovery process behind them. As your partner, Ceres hears your frustrations and is committed to removing debris as quickly and efficiently as possible.

We take seriously the vital role Ceres plays in the recovery after a major storm like Irma. As we move forward, Ceres is mindful of the challenges that remain, but we have demonstrated our unwavering commitment to removing debris as quickly as possible in communities across the state. And, Ceres will continue to uphold that commitment.

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Karl Dix is Director of Client Services, Ceres Environmental Services, Inc.

 

Greg Steube: Hotels want Florida to be like Communist China

Recently it was reported by The New York Times that President Xi of China and the Communist Party, in order “To reduce the flow of outsiders to the capital, Airbnb and similar home-sharing services have been temporarily suspended.” Nothing would make the Florida hotel industry and local governments happier than if they could do the same and ban short-term vacation rentals in our state.

Since 2011, local governments and hotels have attempted to restrict or outright ban vacation rentals. Flagler County has an ordinance in place that prohibits the rental of private property for less than six months – they currently have over $22 million in Bert Harris claims as a result. Additionally, the City of Miami Beach is fining private property owners for violating their vacation rental ordinance to the tune of $20,000 a day.

In my region, you can’t rent out your property in Longboat Key for less than 30 days. Anna Maria Island has millions of dollars in Bert Harris claims from private property owners due to their vacation rental ordinance.

A recent op-ed by Carol Dover of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association (FRLA) presents an alarmist, inaccurate and unfair portrait of short-term vacation rentals that fails to acknowledge their important contribution to our local and state economies – or her organization’s self-interest in limiting them.

Large hotel chains like Hilton and Marriott, for example, pay untold amounts to FRLA and its national organization to protect their market share. Dover claims that vacation rentals are “illegal hotels” – which is absurd. Florida Statutes Section 509.242 defines “A hotel is any public lodging establishment containing sleeping room accommodations for 25 or more guests …” Most vacation rentals are privately-owned single-family homes or condos. The only difference between a vacation rental and renting out your private property under the landlord-tenant law is the length of time the occupant stays.

The fact is, travelers love the options they have with vacation rentals and the authentic experiences they enjoy staying in rented rooms, homes, apartments or condos. A recent statewide survey found that 93 percent of Floridians believe Florida travelers should be permitted to rent accommodations other than hotels – such as vacation rentals and bed and breakfasts.

An economic impact study showed that Florida’s vacation rental market had a total economic impact of $31.1 billion from an estimated 17 million vacation rental visitors in 2013. Florida’s vacation rental industry directly or indirectly supports a total of 322,032 jobs annually generating approximately $12.64 billion a year in labor income.

Although that study is four years old and was released well before companies like Airbnb and HomeAway became household names, we can only assume the economic impact has grown. For a state that relies heavily on sales tax revenue, that economic impact is significant.

As the 27th President of the United States, William Howard Taft, once so eloquently stated: “Next to the right of liberty, the right of property is the most important individual right guaranteed by the Constitution and the one which, united with that of personal liberty, has contributed more to the growth of civilization than any other institution established by the human race.”

The FRLA’s interest in this issue is not about creating a level playing field. It’s about taking away consumer choice and protecting hotel market share.

Hotels are the taxi cabs of yesteryear. When innovation and competition begin to threaten an industry, they resort to name calling and political protectionism. I see it year after year in Tallahassee. Last year it was Uber and Lyft versus taxi cabs and now it’s the national and state hotel lobby declaring war on vacation rentals.

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State Sen. Greg Steube represents Senate District 23, which covers parts of Sarasota and Charlotte counties.

Eric Mitchell: The right side of medical cannabis

Patients throughout the country are discovering alternative and compassionate ways to treat their chronic illnesses as states continue to open up laws for various kinds of medical cannabis. This is a remarkable opportunity for many individuals whose ailments have made day-to-day living an enormous challenge.

As a practicing physician specializing in pain management, I can guarantee that this is exactly what this medicine does. It greatly improves the lives of suffering patients with disabling diseases and provides individuals with the possibility to once again live healthy and productive lives.

For the past five years, I have validated that the standard and traditional medications have not been effective in controlling, stabilizing or rendering relief from chronic maladies. Also, in the past five years, through a state-approved alternative medical program, I have been able to grant patients a certificate, allowing them to use medical cannabis. In doing so, I have witnessed a marked reduction in the use of antidepressants, narcotics and other medicines that carry unfavorable side effects and possible addiction.

As the medical cannabis industry continues to make strides in revolutionizing health care, its impact has stretched far beyond its alternative designation given as a medicine.

For instance, states in the U.S. with legalized medical cannabis programs have lowered the usage of opioids in their region. Each year, these states have seen a 25 percent decrease in opioid overdose mortality rates compared against states that do not have medical cannabis laws.

This success is only possible because of the medical cannabis companies that continue to get it right. These are the companies that take a thoughtful approach to cannabis, making a difference in the lives of their patients and in the communities they serve. They bring in the highest caliber of medical professionals, scientists and compassionate caregivers, generating vigorously patient-centric programs and providing top-quality pharmaceuticals.

To be clear, these companies couldn’t be farther from the “pot shop” misperception currently plaguing the industry. The medical cannabis field is thriving because of companies with evident professionalism and a strong commitment to improving patient care – not because of those stigmatizing shops that disparage the industry’s great efforts.

AGRiMED Industries, where I currently serve as medical director, is a fully-integrated, minority-owned company and an exemplary model of today’s true medical cannabis industry.

By using state-of-the-art greenhouse facilities, AGRiMED produces consistent, high-quality medicine for patients. Our organization is led by a diverse team of business and medical professionals who are committed to improving the health and wellness of patients who can benefit from the positive scientific effects of cannabis-derived medicines. AGRiMED is also so much more.

The focus of AGRiMED’s leadership extends past medicine into the communities we serve. With a special interest in motivating and educating younger generations to achieve success, we have made it a company goal to build relationships with colleges, universities and medical centers so we can provide training and internships to students for early experience in the industry. We have done this with Lincoln University, a historically black institution, and intend to do the same with others, such as Bethune Cookman University.

After being recognized for its state-of-the-art greenhouse facilities, diverse leadership team and community involvement, our organization was scored the top medical cannabis company in Pennsylvania. This unique blend of quality production and skill is how we secured one of just 12 licenses issued for the entire the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania last year, and it is how we continue to remain at the forefront of the medical cannabis industry – an accomplishment we hope to bring to many other states.

Our success in Pennsylvania is just one example of how the medical cannabis industry can move mountains. With the ongoing commitment of companies like AGRiMED, medical cannabis will continue to improve the health and wellness of ailing patients who can benefit from this age-old plant’s positive effects.

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Eric Ignatius Mitchell, M.D., MA, FACPE, CPE, is the current Medical Director for AGRiMED Industries, LLC. He is a practicing orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine doctor specializing in pain management from a telecommunication platform globally.

 

Richard Berman: Florida lawmakers must support the Employee Rights Act

The 2018 election cycle is already underway. By next November, big bucks will be spent on dozens of House and Senate campaigns around the country. Experts estimate more than $3 billion will be spent on political advertisements alone.

If history is any indication, labor unions will be intimately involved. From 2012 to 2016, America’s unions sent nearly $765 million in member dues to the Democratic Party and liberal special interest groups. This is in addition to funds spent directly on candidate support. CUF estimates that, since 2010, unions have contributed more than $1 billion to liberal groups without prior member approval.

Recipients range from the Democratic Governors Association (DGA) to the Clinton Foundation and Planned Parenthood. The DGA received nearly $11 million. Catalist, the Democratic Party’s go-to data firm, made off with roughly $9.5 million. Working America, the AFL-CIO’s grassroots political machine, received a whopping $52 million in the last five years alone.

One of the group’s goals is to establish government-paid health care for everyone.

Despite the lopsided political preferences of union officials,  40 percent of union household members vote Republican in any given election cycle. In 2016, 43 percent of union household voters supported President Donald Trump. Union leadership continues to disregard them and bankroll the anti-Trump resistance.

This leaves many employees without a voice that matches their dues money. While opt-in permission is already a requirement for union campaign contributions, the same is not true for thinly veiled political advocacy — often disguised as “representational activities” — that is largely unrepresentative of employees’ interests. When did the multimillion-dollar Clinton Foundation become a charity entitled to the hijacked dues of union members?

Union officials can spend member dues on political advocacy without ever receiving affirmative consent from their dues-paying members. And they do so to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.

In many cases, union members see their hard-earned dues spent on political causes they oppose. Imagine being a Republican and seeing a portion of your monthly paycheck used to fund a left-wing political agenda, or vice versa.

The solution to this injustice is the Employee Rights Act (ERA).

Reintroduced in the 115th Congress, the ERA would require union officials to obtain permission from their members before spending dues money on political advocacy. This would prevent union elites from turning their backs on members and playing politics against employees’ own interests.

The most comprehensive update to American labor law since the 1940s, the ERA contains eight common-sense reforms, including a guaranteed secret ballot in union elections. All the bill’s pro-employee provisions are designed to protect worker voice and democratize currently undemocratic union workplaces.

The ERA’s key provisions are so common-sense that  80 percent of union household members — across the political aisle — support them. More than 50 free-market organizations have endorsed the legislation, claiming it would “allow American workers an unencumbered opportunity to make their voice heard.”

Fortunately, most of Florida’s Republican delegation is on board as well. From Sen. Marco Rubio on down, Floridians in Washington are some of the ERA’s most dedicated champions. Unfortunately, Reps. Carlos Curbelo, Mario Diaz-Balart, and other lawmakers have yet to show their support for pro-employee labor reform.

The ERA is the only bill in Congress with 80 percent bipartisan support. It’s an idea whose time has come.
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Richard Berman is the executive director of the Center for Union Facts.

Robert McClure: Support the Tax Credit Scholarship to protect Florida’s families

Science, psychology, and innovative research have proven that children possess different learning abilities, skills and interests. To make the most of these unique ways of learning, students need educational options that meet their particular scholastic needs and broaden their interest in education.

The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, administered by Step Up for Students, provides families with the power to choose a school offering the most appropriate learning program for their children. Currently, more than 100,000 students, from families making $24,000 a year on average, are empowered to attend a school that better fits their needs. Over 70 percent of these students are minorities, and they are the students struggling in public schools when they leave with the scholarship. Because of this program, families are lifted from the cycle of poverty and provided a vital escape hatch from schools that were not a good fit for them.

Objective research has shown that this program helps children on scholarships, children who remain in public schools, and taxpayers. Just a few weeks ago an objective analysis from The Urban Institute found that the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program significantly improves the likelihood that students enroll in college. If a student spends at least four years in the program, they have a 40 percent greater chance of going to college.

Despite these benefits, it is dismaying to see an article such as the one that appeared today in the Orlando Sentinel. The paper cherry-picked stories of bad actors at a few schools (out of 1,700 across the state that serve these children) and made little mention of the very credible study by The Urban Institute. Moreover, the article lacked context and reflects an all-too-familiar bias against parental choice.

It is a shame that in the face of a successful program such as Step Up, in a society which prides itself on a commitment to innovation, objective results and scientific advancement, that we must continue to oppose a status quo that would rather protect adults who run the system rather than students who are stuck in the system. These tactics are the last gaps of an establishment on the wrong side of history.

Our state must be committed to seeing that every student has a path to success, and that none are denied a quality learning opportunity by anti-choice forces, simply because of the ZIP code in which they reside. A one-size-fits-all system of education is not the most effective way to provide students with exceptional learning opportunities. We support all forms of schooling that provide a strong education. The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program and Step Up for Students are unique in the opportunities they provide families, and we applaud their mission of helping every child find success as they pursue their education and, ultimately their passion in life.

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Robert McClure, Ph.D., is president and CEO of The James Madison Institute, a statewide think tank based in Tallahassee, devoted to research and education on public policy issues.

Carol Dover: Protect Florida tourists, neighborhoods by stopping illegal hotel operators

As the voice of Florida’s hospitality industry, the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association has long championed a uniform, statewide system of compliance for all commercial lodging establishments.

As they compete for tourism business, all FRLA lodging members must register with the State, collect taxes, and protect Florida consumers through adequate insurance — rules that prevent substandard operators from exposing travelers and residents to senseless risk and gaining unfair advantages in the marketplace.

Unfortunately, the same does not necessarily ring true for short-term rentals here in the Sunshine State.

Recently, the Senate Community Affairs Committee convened a public hearing in Tallahassee to solicit feedback on the current state of short-term rentals and their impact on our communities.

During these discussions, it was illuminated that — while Florida has long welcomed vacation rentals into the mix of accommodations options for tourists — there exists a divergent, growing problem of bad actors exploiting online platforms like Airbnb and HomeAway to operate what amount to illegal hotels across the State.

Far from the concept of “home sharing,” where homeowners welcome a guest into their residence on an occasional basis, this new phenomenon involves commercial operators acquiring and listing multiple units in the same residential neighborhood and/or listing these units in a “revolving door” fashion.

In other words, these real estate speculators are operating de facto hotels without adhering to the common-sense regulations and tax obligations every other hotel or inn in the State must follow. As a practical matter, this means that when a short-term rental goes awry — by becoming a year-round party house in a sleepy residential neighborhood, or the site of a bedbug outbreak — impacted consumers and neighbors have little recourse, and the unscrupulous landlord can continue to operate their short-term rentals unchecked.

Our lawmakers must take this new and growing trend seriously, as they will ultimately make the tough decisions on how to respect the property rights of homeowners while reining in those commercial operators operating outside of current law.

We thank legislators for starting this meaningful discussion so that well-informed solutions can be debated in the forthcoming legislative session.

Visitors are coming to Florida in record numbers, with or without short-term rentals, and it is our duty to ensure tourists have a safe and enjoyable experience while protecting the Florida brand.

Florida’s hospitality industry brings in $108.8 billion and represents 1.4 million jobs — making tourism the Sunshine State’s top industry. No single commercial lodging establishment type or operator can claim 100 percent credit for being the driving force for this level of economic impact—it is a collective effort among all businesses within the hospitality industry.

But, we can and must take a peek under the hood to make sure all parts of the lodging sector are functioning in a manner that will serve to forwardly propel Florida’s brand as a destination, while ridding the system of bad actors impacting tourists and residents alike.

This can be done in such a way that permits true, reasonable home sharing while irrefutably subjecting commercial operators and their short-term rentals to the same commonsense rules other public lodging establishments must abide by.

The time has come to address the rise of illegal hotels in our neighborhoods, operating without regard for Florida’s “public accommodations” laws. Our vacationers and our families deserve nothing less.

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Carol Dover is president and CEO of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association.

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