Florida editorial roundup

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Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

May 19

Pensacola (Fla.) News Journal on another tax break:

For an area that has undergone a lot of misery the last three weeks, we're pleased to praise Gov. Rick Scott and the state Legislature for agreeing on a bill that will save families money this summer on school supplies.

Scott signed the bill last week that will mean several "back-to-school" items will be free of sales tax for three days. Eliminating the sales tax is a practice we've long supported, especially when there is a budget surplus.

This year it will be particularly welcome since money might be tight for flood victims as they recover and replace possessions. Besides, a lot of usable school supplies from this year - notebooks, pens and pencils, as well as clothing - might have been lost in the flood's aftermath.

The News Service of Florida said the back-to-school holiday takes place from Aug. 1-3 - mark your calendars - and will allow Floridians to buy clothes, school supplies and personal computers without paying sales taxes.

"The back-to-school holiday expands a discount introduced last year on computers and raises the tax-free bar from $75 to $100 on the prices of clothing, bags and backpacks," the News Service's Jim Turner reported last week. "Last year, sales taxes weren't collected on personal computers and related gear worth under $750. This year, no sales taxes will be collected on the first $750 of any computer and related gear, regardless of the overall cost of the piece of electronics."

Some estimates put the statewide savings at nearly $37 million for taxpayers. Families struggling to arm their children with the right supplies to succeed should welcome the chance to save a few dollars.

The back-to-school sales-tax holiday is the latest in a series of moves lawmakers crafted and the governor supports. Last month, the governor signed into law a move that rolls back vehicle fees that will save motorists $20 to $25 per vehicle. Our own state Rep. Mike Hill made that a goal during his campaign last year and deserves praise for working to get it passed.

"The vehicle fee reduction is expected to collectively save motorists about $309 million during the upcoming 2014-15 budget year, with the new lowered rates going into effect Sept. 1," the News Service reported. "Those savings are expected to grow to about $395 million a year, once they are in effect for the full 12 months of a fiscal year."

When it's affordable, we appreciate any effort that puts money in taxpayers' pockets.

Online:

http://www.pnj.com

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May 17

News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Florida, on taxes:

What government "gives" you with one hand, it can take away with the other — often while hoping the taxpayer is not paying close attention.

That's the bait and switch the state pulled in its recently concluded session.

At Gov. Rick Scott's request, legislators passed a $400 million cut in car tag fees, effectively repealing the increase the Legislature passed in 2009 during a budget crisis caused by the Great Recession. The cut is the right move, as the hike had been sold as a temporary, emergency action to help offset declining revenues while staving off spending cuts in critical areas. Now that the state is running a budget surplus, the time is right to restore the previous lower fees.

However, at the same time Tallahassee is looking to spend more than $400 million more on education for 2014-15 — but making local taxpayers fund the bulk of it.

Each year the Legislature sets the Required Local Effort (RLE) rate, which is the property tax rate local school districts must levy in order to receive funding back from the state. The amount that each district receives is determined by a formula, with some getting back more than they sent up the pipe and others getting less. Volusia County is considered a "donor" county because it receives only about 97 cents on every dollar it sends to Tallahassee.

If taxable property values fall across the state, the Legislature can either mandate a property tax rate increase or make up the difference from the general fund. If values increase, as they have recently, the state can maintain the same tax rate, which will bring in additional local dollars; or the Legislature can implement what is called the roll-back rate on the RLE, a decrease that will offset the increase in values and make the RLE revenue-neutral.

Guess which option legislators chose this year.

The RLE tax rate will remain the same, so lawmakers can boast they didn't raise taxes. Yet, most local property owners still will pay more in taxes because their property values went up. This is called having your cake and eating it, too.

State legislators increase funding for education without having to find the extra dollars in the state budget, thus avoiding making hard choices. They do so by shifting the burden to local taxpayers, but without taking direct responsibility for it by raising the property tax rate.

When property owners open their new tax bill and see a bigger number, most would need a CSI unit to detect the state's fingerprints on it.

Granted, the increase for most won't be overwhelming — about 5 percent (by contrast, the state is increasing its contribution to education funding by 2 percent). But that essentially will offset the savings from the widely touted cut in car tag fees — and perpetuate a discouraging lack of government transparency.

Online:

http://www.news-journalonline.com

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May

Online:

May 19

Miami Herald on President needing to address VA scandal:

Before President Obama gives in to the clamor for the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, he should order the retired general to fix the problem, ASAP.

It's become depressingly customary for politics to trump policy in virtually every realm of activity in Washington. The latest scandal is no exception. A resignation might appease some administration critics — for one news cycle. Meanwhile, nothing would get done about the excessive wait times and allegations that some hospitals kept a double set of books to conceal the problem, leading to unnecessary deaths from lack of service.

To be clear, there are actually two overlapping scandals that require action.

— The first is the systemic dysfunction involving long wait periods, high personnel turnover, insufficient doctors and patients left to wait even when facing life-threatening health problems.

These are problems inherited by the administration, and there are signs that some progress has been made under Gen. Shinseki, who was plucked from retirement by President Obama to run this chronically troubled agency. Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are using VA healthcare at higher rates than past generations of veterans, more Vietnam vets are receiving VA care as they age and the agency has liberalized rules for treatment of PTSD.

But progress has not been fast enough. Two years ago, a Government Accountability Office report concluded that the VA's reporting on its medical-appointment wait times was "unreliable" and badly in need of a complete overhaul.

— That could have led inadvertently to the current firestorm. Gen. Shinseki ordered that wait times at the 152 medical centers in the VA system be reduced to 14 days. In places like the VA's Phoenix facility, doctors apparently tried to game the system by hiding the real number of veterans on the waiting list. As many as 40 patients died while waiting for care.

On this front, Gen. Shinseki's role has been unsatisfactory. He urged Congress to wait until various internal investigations are done, but that could take until August. The VA secretary himself has seemed maddeningly impassive, other than to tell Congress that he was "mad as hell" about it. Shouldn't he be hiring more doctors and visiting some of the troubled facilities in person?

Contrast his lack of action with former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in 2007 when he learned of medical-treatment failures at Walter Reed Hospital. He immediately went to the hospital (so did President Bush), fired the commanding general and promptly got the resignations from the previous commander and the Secretary of the Army.

That is easier to do in the military, of course. House Republicans have proposed legislation to give Mr. Shinseki greater authority to fire or demote senior executives and administrators. Congress should do so — then let's see what he does with it.

The buck stops with the president, whose silence is baffling. Unlike his reaction to the scandal in the Affordable Care Act last fall, when he repeatedly reassured Americans the problem would be fixed, Mr. Obama has limited his response to a written statement. That's not enough. If he cares, he must show it.

As for Gen. Shinseki, he should take to heart the example of former Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius. She ignored calls for her resignation over the Affordable Care foul-up and stayed to oversee the fix. Then, after the job was done, she resigned.

Online:

http://www.miamiherald.com

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