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Guest Author

Pat Neal: Florida must commit to the future and invest in high-tech jobs

Pat Neal

The world around us is constantly changing as technology evolves. Investing in high-tech jobs can set Florida up to succeed far into the future while providing people with high-wage jobs that will keep the American dream alive and well in our great state.

Other states have already committed to investments in the future, with millions of dollars being poured into high-tech centers that boost the economy and create hundreds of jobs.

Luckily, our state leadership is committed to this goal, with Gov. Rick Scott recognizing the growing need for high-tech jobs in the state. He has consistently touted STEM programs in Florida’s education system, including his $10,000 STEM Degree Challenge to steer students into high-tech STEM jobs. He approved $15 million in funding last year for the Florida Advanced Manufacturing Research Center, now BRIDG, which partners with universities and companies to develop high-tech sensors.

Studies have shown that regions and states comprising of high-tech research and industrial centers achieve economic boons.

The Bluffs, an advanced manufacturing park in Pensacola, is a prime example: A Florida TaxWatch report found that about 6,000 new positions in Pensacola’s manufacturing sector would be created if The Bluffs reached its maximum potential. It goes on to state that new wages in the region as a result of increased job creation could grow by as much as $400 million and that Florida’s Gross State Product could rise by as much as $1.1 billion.

Research centers like BRIDG and The Bluffs are critical pieces to Florida’s high-tech puzzle and need both private and public support to attract companies to invest in them. We will need every available resource in the toolkit to do so, including Enterprise Florida (EFI), which has played a large role in the development of BRIDG and The Bluffs.

Unfortunately, EFI is at risk of being eliminated completely by the Florida Legislature, which would cut our investments on opportunities in high-tech fields. This would be an unwise move, especially as other states bolster their efforts to build up their high-tech industries and put Florida at a disadvantage to other states, halting the progress the state has made in high-tech principles. Instead, lawmakers in Tallahassee should consider the benefits of using EFI and other state resources to boost our high-tech footprint.

In this global economy, we cannot afford to rest on our laurels. Making an investment to ensure that Florida becomes a high-tech hub that attracts the top individuals and companies to the state is essential to the success.

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Pat Neal is a former state senator and the 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.

Kim Syfrett: Senate workers’ comp plan provides balance for businesses, workers

Kim Syfrett

Reforming Florida’s workers’ compensation system has been one of the most contentious issues discussed this legislative session. Numerous players have weighed in on this often-complex legislation, including representatives from big business, corporate insurers, and the legal community.

However, the “Grand Bargain” – and its implications for the workers this system was meant to protect – seems to be forgotten in the version of the bill advocated for by insurance lobbyists and recently passed by the Florida House. Thankfully, the Senate version of workers’ comp reform, championed by Sen. Rob Bradley, offers a significant step in the right direction.

The Senate version (SB 1582) strikes an appropriate balance by keeping costs down for businesses. It does this by creating a competitive ratemaking system that would allow employers to shop for affordable coverage, requiring insurance companies to refund money to policyholders if defense costs exceed a certain percentage, and capping claimants’ attorney fees at a constitutionally-valid amount, which are only paid when benefits are wrongfully denied.

Unlike the insurance industry’s bill in the House, the Senate bill rightfully provides the injured worker with greater access to the courts. It streamlines the authorization of medical care, which speeds up treatment and avoids the need for unnecessary litigation.  Finally, the Senate bill removes incentives for insurance companies to deny advancing necessary medical care for a worker.

These meaningful reforms have the ultimate result of creating a more predictable and stable market for workers’ comp insurance. What employers really need is more certainty over the course of the system rather than a new crisis every few years with rate peaks and valleys because of the lack of a constitutional law. It also benefits everyone when injured workers can get the care they need and get back to work quickly, rather than a system that doesn’t return skilled workers to their jobs.

They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result. If the House version of this bill somehow made its way into Florida law, we would see the courts rule it unconstitutional once again. This happened with the workers’ comp laws passed by the Legislature in 2003 and 2009, and would continue the same rollercoaster ride of rates for businesses that stifles job growth and creates market uncertainty.

I’ve worked with hundreds of injured workers throughout my career and can speak firsthand about how, without a working law, we ALL end up paying the costs because so many end up on social programs funded by taxpayer dollars when they can’t get an insurance company to approve a course of care.

Florida finally has a chance to get this right by passing comprehensive reform found in Sen. Rob Bradley’s legislation.  These reforms are simply too costly to us all not to get it right.

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Kim Syfrett is a Panama City attorney who represents injured workers. She also serves as secretary of Florida’s Workers’ Advocates.

Adam Putnam: Florida is a tinderbox, Florida Forest Service works around the clock

In every corner of our state, severe drought conditions have made Florida a tinderbox. Roughly 100 wildfires are currently burning about 75,000 acres, and our Florida Forest Service wildland firefighters are working side-by-side with partnering agencies to battle these fires and protect life, property and wildlife.

On Friday, Collier County had to evacuate approximately 7,000 homes due to a massive wildfire. We’ve not seen fire conditions this bad since 2011, and we have wildfires burning from the state line to Miami.

Current conditions conjure memories of one of the worst years on record—1998, when at one time I-4, I-75, and I-10 were all closed at the same time, Disney World was closed, the Pepsi 400 was postponed, and an entire county, Flagler County, was evacuated. In 2017 so far, more than 130,000 acres have burned due to wildfires. Many homes have been saved, but some have been lost.

My grandfather used to say, “extremes beget extremes.” Some of the wettest El Nino cycles that we have are followed by the driest conditions that are ripe for wildfire. These tough drought conditions are worsened by the abundance of undergrowth—brush and weeds—that grows and thrives due to the heavy rainfall the prior year. With dry conditions, all of it turns into kindling that fuels large and swiftly moving wildfires, whether caused by people or nature.

Recently, I asked Governor Rick Scott to issue an executive order to enable us to use all available resources to combat these wildfires. National Guard UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters are assisting our other aircrafts fighting these wildfires. One of the most concerning aspects of these conditions is the last time an emergency order was issued in 2011, it was mid-June. June is typically the peak of wildfire season, so it’s a very serious situation that it’s even earlier in the year that we’re seeing such extreme conditions.

Unfortunately, the two most common causes of wildfire are people. The leading cause of wildfire is human carelessness, such as allowing a debris pile to grow out of control or a spark from an intentional fire to land on dry land and start a wildfire. The second leading cause is arson. We’ve seen a 70 percent increase in arson cases this year compared to last year with 240 cases so far.

Education and awareness are important components of preventing wildfires. Residents should obey county burn bans, which can be found on FreshFromFlorida.com. They can also track current fire conditions on the website and learn how to create defensible spaces around their homes. Most importantly, if evacuation orders are given, residents and visitors should heed those warnings and keep themselves and their loved ones safe.

Combatting wildfires is truly a partnership. When we recently had a fire on St. George Island, our Florida Forest Service firefighters were out there cutting fire lines, bringing down the intensity of the flames, while the local structural firefighters were up against the houses, making sure they were the last line of defense to protect those homes. As a result, no homes were lost in that fire.

We recently had a firefighter overtaken by flames in his dozer in Okeechobee, and Okeechobee County Fire and Rescue were already on the scene and assisted in getting him out safely. Thanks to their swift rescue efforts, our firefighter is safe and in good health. The comradery of the firefighting service is an extraordinary one, and we should all be proud of them.

The Florida Forest Service will continue to work around the clock to protect residents and visitors, property and wildlife from fire. And I encourage every Floridian to do their part to help prevent wildfires and report any suspected cases of arson by calling local authorities. May God bless our firefighters.

Adam Putnam is Florida’s Commissioner of Agriculture.

Eric Draper: Florida making smart progress on solar

Eric Draper

On a sunny day in Florida, I watched the American flag rise and fly over hundreds of acres of solar cells. It was an amazing experience to think the million panels I was looking at in Manatee County were replacing energy from conventional fuel combustion plants. Yet this solar field feeding directly into the power grid was not using any water nor emitting pollution. I could not have been more excited.

In recent years, Florida has increasingly lived up to its name as the Sunshine State, with more and more solar panels dotting our landscape. Solar energy makes so much sense for Florida’s natural environment because every watt of solar electricity reduces energy produced by traditional generation.

Growth in Florida’s solar capacity is accelerating largely as a result of large solar power plants Florida Power & Light is building, just like the one I visited in February. On that day alone, six FPL solar plants generated 335 megawatts of electricity — the same capacity as a coal-fired power plant.

Along with saving water and reducing air pollution, solar plants have an additional benefit. The land used to build fields of solar panels can be used to enhance habitats for birds and other wildlife. Fallow land repurposed for solar can recharge groundwater by allowing rainfall to soak into the earth. With so much of natural Florida being gobbled up by development and agricultural uses, I’m for using every acre we can to restore some lost wildlife habitat.

Audubon Florida has long been a proponent of solar power. We were there nearly a decade ago promoting the policy that led FPL to build the state’s first solar plant in DeSoto County, the largest in the country at that time.

On the day I watched our flag fly over the new solar plant, FPL announced one of the largest expansions of solar power ever in the southeastern United States — eight new solar power plants with 2.5 million solar panels that will generate enough electricity to power 120,000 homes by early 2018. Shortly thereafter, FPL furthered its commitment with plans for an additional 1,500 megawatts of new solar under development across its Florida service area.

Each will feed electricity directly into the grid to serve all FPL customers at no net cost.

In support of our clean energy and water conservation goals, and in keeping with Audubon Florida’s commitment to community-based conservation, we are partnering with FPL to advance solar energy while improving the environmental values of the land where the solar plants are sited.

By recommending bird and pollinator-friendly vegetation for the solar plants, Audubon and its local chapters will make these facilities home to wildlife and nature. Audubon already has provided recommendations of native trees, shrubs, grasses and vines.

FPL’s solar energy advancement already aligns with Audubon’s goals. But it is the potential of partnership with local communities to protect and enhance wildlife that says more about FPL’s motivation. They are investing in making these sites friendly for butterflies, bees and birds.

Working together, we can harness solar energy and the power of Audubon’s grassroots community. We can ensure solar power plants not only advance zero-emissions and zero-water-use energy but also benefit the local communities where they are built.

That’s a partnership worth celebrating for Earth Day in the Sunshine State.

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Eric Draper is executive director of Audubon Florida.

FPL Babcock Ranch Solar Energy Center, a 74.5-megawatt solar power plant in Charlotte County, Fla., is one of three massive new solar farms built by Florida Power & Light in 2016. FPL is currently building eight more new solar power plants and plans to add a total of 2,100 new megawatts of new solar over the next few years.
The American flag flies over the FPL Manatee Solar Energy Center in Parrish, Fla. The 74.5-megawatt solar power plant is one of three massive new solar farms built by Florida Power & Light in 2016. FPL is currently building eight more new solar power plants and plans to add a total of 2,100 new megawatts of new solar over the next few years..

 

Mark Holden: A ‘safety valve’ needed for drug mandatory minimum sentencing

William Forrester was 52-years-old, on disability, and suffering from numerous health problems when he was arrested in 2008.

His offense? A pharmacist filled a fraudulent prescription for 120 oxycodone pills.

When he came back the next month to have another prescription filled, which was also fraudulent, the pharmacist called the doctor, who told her he did not authorize either prescription. Forrester was charged with painkiller “trafficking.” He was convicted at trial and sentenced to 15 years in prison, the mandatory minimum sentence for that offense. He will not be released until 2021, a month shy of his 65th birthday.

Unfortunately, Forrester’s story — highlighted in a recent report by the James Madison Institute and Reason Foundation — is not unique. Mandatory minimums have sent thousands of low-level drug offenders to prison unnecessarily since 1999. And though the legislature modestly reformed those sentences in 2014, it’s still possible to be sentenced to decades in prison for comparatively minor drug offenses.

While harsh mandatory minimums were intended to apply to drug kingpins, evidence suggests they are routinely applied to low-level and first-time offenders. A 2012 report by the state’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability found that the majority of inmates incarcerated for these offenses sold roughly the “equivalent to one or two prescriptions.” More than one-third of those inmates — like Forrester — were arrested for just possessing too many pills illegally. The majority had substance abuse problems and were at low risk for recidivism. Nearly two-thirds of inmates incarcerated for painkiller “trafficking” offenses had never been to prison previously.

Incarcerating these low-level offenders is expensive. For the roughly 2,310 inmates incarcerated for these offenses, taxpayers are paying $123,562 per day, or approximately $45.1 million per year. These costs might be justified if mandatory minimums were working, but all available evidence suggests Florida’s drug problem is worse today than when mandatory minimums were imposed in 1999.

The problem with mandatory minimums for drug offenses is that they strip courts of all flexibility in sentencing, even when imposing the minimum results in absurdity and injustice. For instance, Judge Mark Blechman, who sentenced William Forrester, told him his hands were tied. Judge Blechman said, “I have to sentence you to 15 years, and there’s no ifs, ands or buts about it. The Legislature has said for this particular crime, we prescribe a fixed sentence.” Make no mistake: Forrester committed a crime, and he deserves punishment. But no one is safer when courts are deprived of all flexibility in cases like his.

One way to fix this problem is by enacting “safety valve” legislation. As described in another recent James Madison Institute paper, a safety valve neither eliminates the mandatory minimum sentence, nor requires judges to sentence offenders below the minimum term. It is a narrowly tailored exception for certain offenders and under certain circumstances.

Several states have safety valves for drug trafficking offenses already. Georgia, Oklahoma, and Mississippi have all passed drug safety valve legislation in recent years. In fact, Florida already has safety valve legislation in place for certain offenses, and for habitual offenders. In these cases, judges may depart below the required mandatory minimum if the sentence is “not necessary for the protection of the public.”

A similar safety valve for drug offenses would allow judges to depart below mandatory minimum sentences for individuals who would be better served by shorter terms or alternatives to incarceration, such as drug treatment. It could also save taxpayers millions of dollars annually without negatively impacting public safety, and would limit the negative unintended consequences created by the status quo.

Florida taxpayers deserve the benefits of individualized and proportional sentencing for drug offenses. That’s why more than a dozen national and state conservative organizations, including Americans for Tax Reform, FreedomWorks, and the American Conservative Union Foundation — have asked Florida House and Senate leadership to pass drug sentencing reform this year. And it’s just one reason many of the same groups support a task force to conduct a comprehensive review of Florida’s criminal justice system.

Florida is not made safer when individuals are deprived of all liberty for years — or decades — longer than necessary. Public safety is enhanced, not threatened, when judges are allowed to make individualized sentencing decisions. State Attorney Glenn Hess of Florida’s 14th Judicial Circuit said it best: “Every case should be treated on its merits … Leave it up to the judge to decide which offenders are dangerous and treat them appropriately.”

That makes sense to me.

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Mark Holden is senior vice president and general counsel for Koch Industries, Inc.

 

Steve Hough: Florida’s chance to fix its ‘rigged’ election system

Steve Hough

Florida has a once in a generation opportunity to fix our “rigged” political system via the Constitution Revision Commission.

If you’re like me, you don’t need some expert to tell you about the adverse effects of gerrymandering.

Acrimonious partisan rhetoric, high-dollar campaign financing, and a terrible closed primary system locking out 3.1 million independent voters in our state, has allowed power to shift from citizens to politicians and party leaders.

Every 20 years, Florida convenes the Constitution Revision Commission. It’s a group of 37 political appointees that have the power to put constitutional amendments before the voters in 2018. Coming on the heels of the most destructive and divisive presidential campaigns ever, it’s a welcome opportunity for Floridians to demand the commission help fix our broken elections.

Despite very little notice of the commission hearings, Floridians are packing rooms to speak their minds. In fact, the commission had to move several meetings to larger rooms to accommodate the large crowds.

One of the key topics cited by dozens of speakers: getting rid of the horrible closed primary system that locks out over a quarter of our registered voters and forces politicians to cater to a small fraction of the electorate during the primary, where the majority of races are actually decided. These primary voters are often the most ideologically extreme in both major parties.

As one speaker put it at the recent hearing in Orlando, “When I talk to my young daughter about the presidential election, I’m disgusted by both sides. I don’t hear about how I like this candidate or that one. Instead, people talk about how they hate this candidate a little less than the other. That is abhorrent to American democracy.” He goes on to cite the need for open primaries so that candidates have to connect with all voters, not just the partisan extremes.

Another speaker rose at the Miami hearing to say: “The parties claim primary elections are private elections. But they are paid for by the taxpayers and run by government employees in public buildings on public owned voting machines. So I’m sorry, but their argument doesn’t fly. We can do better.”

The speakers have been a diverse group. They have been men and women. White, African-American, Latino and Asian. It’s truly been a showcase for the diversity of our state.

These speakers are not alone. My organization, Florida Fair and Open Primaries, sponsored a poll of Florida voters along with the national organization Open Primaries and the Florida-based Progress for All. The poll findings mirrored the sentiments of those at the commission hearings: 93 percent of Floridians want their elected leaders to bring opposing interests together to create good policies for the state. 92 percent want their elected officials to put the interests of Florida voters ahead of the interests of their own political party. Most importantly, 70 percent of Florida voters, and a full 74 percent of Florida’s Latino community, favor a top-two open primary where all candidates appear on the same ballot, regardless of party affiliation. All voters will be able to vote for any candidate, with the top two vote-getters moving on to the general election.

The commission will continue these public hearings for some time. It’s critical we keep up this drumbeat at every meeting, and increase the volume.

The time is now. The concern is real. We demand change. We want open primaries.

Commissioners, are you listening?

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Steve Hough is the lead spokesperson for Florida Fair and Open Primaries, an all-volunteer grassroots organization of Florida independent voters.

Danny Burgess: It’s vital Florida workers get care they need

A lot of people talk about jobs. How to create them, how to save them, or how to move them.

No matter what side of the “jobs argument” you are on, one thing is certain. There can be no job without a worker to perform that job. That worker is – normally – a human being subject to the vicissitudes of life.

That’s why there’s workers’ compensation insurance – which is coverage purchased by an employer to provide benefits for job-related employee injuries. In Florida, virtually all businesses are required to carry it.

I’m sure you’ve heard in the news the dire situation our workers’ compensation insurance the State of Florida is in. Let me give you a little history on how we got here.

In 2003, Florida’s workers’ compensation insurance rates were the highest in the nation. The Florida legislature tackled the crisis and, since 2003, workers’ compensation insurance rates have fallen 61 percent for Florida’s job creators. This was all done without restricting access to courts as the percentage of workers’ compensation cases in which an injured worker was represented by an attorney remained largely the same before and after the reforms. In addition, these reforms ultimately saved Florida business owners over $3 billion in insurance premiums.

Enter the Florida Supreme Court. Last year the court invalidated a portion of the earlier reforms that kept costs under control.

Even the most ardent detractors of the 2003 reforms will admit that the elimination of those reforms will increase insurance premium costs to small business. We’ve already seen a 14.5 percent increase in workers’ compensation insurance premium rates effective Dec. 1, 2016. That increase would eat away at $435 million of the $3 billion saved by the reforms.

To absorb that cost, employers may choose to shed jobs. Even assuming that each of these jobs pays the average salaried wage in Florida of $46,000, it would, currently, take nearly 65,000 jobs lost to absorb the cost of a $3 billion rate increase.

To put it in perspective, in the last year over 240,000 new jobs were created in Florida. Without fixing the workers’ compensation system a quarter of those jobs could be in jeopardy.

I’ve been fortunate, thanks to Speaker Richard Corcoran and Chairman José Felix Diaz, to lead an effort to prevent that job loss and fix the system. We’ve proposed, and this week will pass, the largest and most comprehensive set of reforms to Florida’s workers’ compensation system in 15 years.

It was vital to me that injured workers get the care they need, while protecting the jobs of the very workers who have been injured.

When we set out to reform Florida’s workers’ compensation system, there were three objectives I sought to achieve. First, the reform had to be constitutional; it would do us no good to pass a bill, and then have the Florida Supreme Court strike it down as unconstitutional. That would put us right back where we are today, with every business in Florida facing an unsustainable 14.5 percent rate hike. Our bill effectively addresses recent case law by not infringing on the injured worker’s access to courts while simultaneously combating the system’s biggest cost drivers, including excessive attorney involvement and fees. This will bring stability to the system and lead to more affordable and significantly lower rates for Florida’s business owners.

Secondly, I believe that we must strike a fair balance between workers and employers. The goal of most injured workers is to get back to work. We should have a system that encourages and medically targets that goal.

Thirdly, I want to ensure that the “Grand Bargain” is kept in place. Without the buy-in of the workforce and the business community — both at the heart of the Grand Bargain — I fear we’ll be right back in the same place next year — a very uncertain place.

This might not be the most exciting issue. The TV cameras won’t be beating down my door. But I’ll rest well at night knowing that real jobs of real families in real need were saved because of what we did. And it doesn’t get much better than that.

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Danny Burgess represents District 38 in the Florida House of Representatives.

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.

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