November 27, 2021

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Five ways Florida lawmakers can make the state a better place

This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.

Florida’s annual two-month legislative session opens Tuesday. Legislators must eventually pass a budget, but along the way they can consider a legion of potential new laws and tweaks to existing ones. Some have merit, others don’t. Here are five ideas that would make Florida a better place, followed by a few proposed laws that should be quickly snuffed out.

Criminal justice reform. Punishment is an important part of criminal justice, but too many people in Florida are spending too many years in prison. The system costs too much and too many prison guards are burned out and leaving for different jobs. The Legislature has made some inroads on reforms, but it’s time to pass more laws that scale back minimum mandatory sentences, return more sentencing discretion to judges, turn some drug possession felonies into misdemeanors, and release more older prisoners who are unlikely to commit additional crimes. The state should also consider pulling back on the current requirement that prisoners complete at least 85 percent of their sentences before being considered for early release. For many inmates — especially non-violent offenders — 60 or 65 percent is a more reasonable requirement and would provide more of an incentive for inmates to better themselves while behind bars. Criminal justice reform is a big challenge, but it is worth the effort.

Say no to the toll roads. The first hint that these billion-dollar boondoggles need to end up in the waste basket: The three roads, dubbed the Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance, are largely pushed by politicians, not transportation planners. In fact, most of the preliminary studies have found the roads aren’t really needed. The 330-mile project calls for extending the Suncoast Parkway from Lecanto in Citrus County to the Florida-Georgia state line and linking the Suncoast to the Florida Turnpike. The third leg — 140 miles between Collier and Polk counties — resembles the former Heartland Parkway proposal. Two Republican governors already killed the Heartland plan, and the Department of Transportation found in 2015 that it wouldn’t attract enough drivers to pay for the cost. And these roads aren’t cheap: Gov. Ron DeSantis has asked for up to $700 million just for planning. The price tag to complete the roads remains unclear, though Florida TaxWatch estimated that just the Suncoast extension would cost at least $4 billion and potentially more than $10 billion. Don’t buy into the spin that these corridors will help expand internet access and bring business to rural communities. There are better and less expensive ways to accomplish those goals. The state doesn’t need these new toll roads. The money would be far better spent improving the existing road system.

Florida law should quit coddling the Confederacy. It’s unbelievable, but in Florida in 2021, it’s against the law “to mutilate, deface, defile or contemptuously abuse … the flag or emblem of the Confederate states by any act whatever.” And state law still enshrines Confederate Memorial Day on April 26 and the birthdays of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis. On Jan. 6, the Confederate battle flag was paraded around the U.S. Capitol during the insurrection. This is an easy call. Take these laws off the books. In fact, a bill filed by Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, would clean up the law. No need to waste time on debate. Just do it.

Fund Florida Forever. In 2014, Floridians overwhelming passed Amendment 1, which stipulated that one-third of the state’s real estate documentary stamp taxes go to conservation, with Florida Forever’s land preservation program as top priority. The proceeds were expected to average about $1 billion a year. Florida Forever has been woefully underfunded, and this year Gov. DeSantis suggests that $50 million — a paltry 5 percent of $1 billion — is more than adequate. Florida Forever’s predecessor, Preservation 2000, received an average of $300 million annually for 10 years. That should be the minimum now. This is another easy call. Spend the money as dictated by voters who amended the state Constitution.

Collect internet sales tax. For years, lawmakers have talked about closing the gaping loophole in the state’s tax collections: Brick and mortar retailers must collect and remit sales tax to the state, but some online retailers selling the same or similar products don’t. For purchases made online that originate outside Florida, the arcane law requires the buyer — not the seller — to add 6 percent to the purchase price, fill out a tax return and pay up. But very few do, effectively rendering hundreds of thousands of Floridians into scofflaws for failing to comply. The backward system costs the state about $500 million to $700 million a year in uncollected taxes. We’ve written many times about how the setup makes little sense and how nearly every other state has made the needed changes. This is a no brainer and an easy fix.

Most of the hundreds of bills that get filed will go nowhere. Here’s hoping these terrible ideas are among them:

Kill the anti-protest bill. Supporters of the Combating Public Disorder bill say it would deter riots and punish rioters. But the misleadingly named bill is so flawed in so many ways that it’s irredeemable. The fact that the wide-ranging bill targets groups as small as three people for punishment is enough not to like it. This is a dangerous bill that would leave Florida residents less safe, not more.

Leave voting by mail alone. As we have said, the bill (SB-90) to make voters request a mail-in ballot every election cycle instead of every second election cycle is a solution looking for a problem. The process works. Don’t mess with it.

Locals know best. Lawmakers need to focus on issues of statewide concern and leave local decisions to local governments. Regulating — or not regulating — vacation rentals is an inherently local issue, best left to local governments. But state lawmakers will once again consider poking their noses into the issue (HB-219). They shouldn’t. Lawmakers also are exploring whether to undo apprenticeship programs at the local level and a Tampa Bay board formed to improve regional transportation. This micro-managing from Tallahassee isn’t needed or helpful.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.

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