Winner and Loser of the Week in Florida politics — Week of 4.4.21

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The 60 Minutes "hit piece" on Gov. Ron DeSantis backfired.

Critics routinely complain about high-stakes testing in public schools.

It’s too much pressure on students, they argue. Teachers often “teach the test” because poor scores by their students could impact their jobs.

All of that is true.

So, it’s understandable why many parents and students cheered Friday’s order from Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran. Provided 2021 high school graduates have already qualified for a diploma, school districts, and charter schools can waive state testing requirements for those students.

That’s a good move, considering how whacked the current school year is because of you-know-what.

However, there’s another part of Corcoran’s order that is a little trickier.

He said districts could promote third-graders no matter how they performed on their Florida Standards Assessment reading tests.

Third grade is a critical year in a child’s educational development. It’s only going to get harder after the third grade for a child who isn’t ready to read well. We all know what the pandemic did to public education, but when we’re past that, then what?

As the school curriculum gets back to normal, what happens to those students who never mastered Zoom and fell behind?

Sure, making a large number of kids repeat the third grade could create unacceptable classroom crowding. Teachers would be extra strained to deal with that many kids.

However, school districts better have a plan — and soon — when kids who aren’t ready for the fourth grade show up in classrooms.

Now, on to our weekly game of winners and losers.

Winners

Honorable mention: Florida retailers. After seemingly endless haggling, online retailers must soon start collecting a 6% sales tax. The Senate passed the e-fairness legislation and sent it to Gov. Ron DeSantis for his signature.

“This bill, as we have talked about, will level the playing field,” Republican Rep. Chuck Clemons said.

Brick-and-mortar retail stores complained for years that they faced a serious disadvantage against online merchants over the tax. The law required consumers to pay the tax on any online purchase, but few did that.

The state said they should self-police, download tax documents, and send the money to the Department of Revenue.

That wasn’t working out so well.

Lawmakers say this move will generate an additional $1 billion to the state.

Almost (but not quite) biggest winner: State budget writers. The Session is down to knuckle-cracking time on the state budget. That’s always a contentious time, but it’s even worse this year because of the pandemic.

But last week, lawmakers learned the state has about $2 billion more income than first estimated.

This is good news for schools, health care, and prisons, which depend heavily on state funding. Florida also expects to receive about $10 billion from President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package.

While the extra money gives the state a little breathing room, things will still be tight until the pandemic is fully in the rearview mirror.

“While we are encouraged by the revised general revenue estimate, we remain resolute to make wise, fiscally conservative decisions with Florida taxpayer dollars,” House Speaker Chris Sprowls said.

“As we move into budget conversations with our Senate partners, we will be mindful of this positive news and work together to ensure that our future is secure.”

The biggest winner: DeSantis. Usually, one of the worst things a top lawmaker wants to hear is that a producer from 60 Minutes wants to interview you. And there’s no question that last Sunday’s piece on the Governor’s rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine in Palm Beach County had the potential to leave a mark.

Instead, it turned into a public relations windfall for DeSantis. Two top Democrats said the report omitted information that would have contradicted the storyline that the Governor used “pay to play” tactics in deciding who got preference in vaccine distribution.

Publix donated $100,000 to DeSantis’ political action committee before becoming a major distributor for Palm Beach County’s vaccines. That is not in dispute.

However, County Mayor Dave Kerner said he recommended Publix because of its proximity to the largest number of people. He called the 60 Minutes report “intentionally false.” Emergency Management Director Jared Moskowitz said the story was, well, something akin to bull droppings.

He said it more colorfully than that.

A columnist for the Washington Post called the piece “a hit job.”

DeSantis spent much of the week taking a victory lap and taking shots at the media. You can’t blame him, really.

“You can’t trust them. They’re not trustworthy,” he said. “They will lie. They will smear. And then they just move on to the next target and think they’re going to get away with it.”

Al Tompkins, a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism school that owns PolitiFact, also weighed in.

“While it made for interesting television it didn’t make for complete truth,” he said.

There you have it, citizens.

Losers

Dishonorable mention: Anthony Sabatini. The Chief Bloviator of the Florida House was up to his gasbag nonsense again.

The Republican (if they will claim him) from Howey-in-the Hills bleated via Twitter that he — yes, he ALONE — voted NO on seven bills last week.

The offending bills included the online sales tax, a GOP plan to combat sea rise, and a measure to help struggling seniors.

Except, well … he didn’t vote because he couldn’t be bothered to show up on the House floor when it was time to be counted.

Sabatini said he told an aide to enter some “after roll call” votes, which aren’t really votes at all. All of the bills in question show how the lawmakers voted. There are blank spaces after Sabatini’s name.

Meanwhile, the Orlando Sentinel reported that disgraced and indicted Joel Greenberg used taxpayer money to pay Sabatini $7,500 in legal fees. Greenberg is the former Seminole County Tax Collector, and he’s in a world of hurt right now. More on him in a bit.

The Sentinel reported, “It’s not clear what Sabatini … who casts himself as a crusader against “wasteful” government spending, did for the $7,500.”

Officials were said to be “not sure” what exactly Sabatini worked on.

Almost (but not quite) biggest loser: Residents near Piney Point. The good news is that the debacle at Piney Point in Manatee County didn’t reach the full-blown disaster stage many feared.

Workers drained an estimated 202 million gallons of polluted water from the Piney Point phosphate holding pond over fears the structure was about to breach. That could have sent a 20-foot-high wall of water barreling toward nearby homes.

DeSantis declared a state of emergency and local officials ordered evacuations at more than 300 nearby homes. For several cuticle-gnawing days, local news reports focused on the potential for catastrophe.

It was real, but it also was avoidable.

Reporters warned for years that this kind of failure was possible. And while the workers who helped avoid the worst-case scenario deserve applause and thanks, the episode reminded everyone why it’s not a good idea to build homes near a 79-acre pond filled with toxic water from an abandoned phosphate operation.

Put it this way: The nonstop coverage of a near-epic ecological nightmare probably didn’t help property values near the site. Florida real estate is hot, but probably not that hot.

The biggest loser: Matt Gaetz. It’s not even close. The walls seem to be closing in on Florida’s congressional frat boy as bombshell stories continue to rattle his world. The hashtag #Gaetzgate is gaining steam.

The latest one from The Daily Beast began this way:

“In two late-night Venmo transactions in May 2018, Rep. Matt Gaetz sent his friend, the accused sex trafficker Joel Greenberg, $900. The next morning, over the course of eight minutes, Greenberg used the same app to send three young women varying sums of money. In total, the transactions amounted to $900.”

Greenberg, the disgraced and indicted former Seminole County Tax Collector, could face decades in prison as prosecutors lay a case for sex trafficking and related charges against him.

He and Gaetz are friends — well, maybe. Federal prosecutor Roger Handberg told a judge he expects Greenberg to plead guilty, so obviously, he is negotiating for leniency.

Greenberg’s get-out-of-jail-eventually card could be Gaetz.

Greenberg’s attorney, Fritz Scheller, told reporters later, “I’m sure Matt Gaetz is not feeling very comfortable today.”

Gaetz has not been indicted and has denied any wrongdoing. However, the court of public opinion is turning against him.

Scheller said his client was “uniquely situated” to help prosecutors. What would a win look like for him in this game of let’s make a deal? Simple, Schneller said: “the least exposure possible.”

Draw your own conclusions.

Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois called upon Gaetz to resign. The majority of Republicans stay as far away from this as possible, lest they be splattered with any goo when this explodes.

Joe Henderson

I have a 45-year career in newspapers, including nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. Florida is wacky, wonderful, unpredictable and a national force. It's a treat to have a front-row seat for it all.


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