One prescription for what ails Florida: Put people over politics

By Rebecca Goddard

University of Miami Hurricane

Controversy– often of an explosive sort– characterizes most political debate in modern America, from healthcare to gun control.  But as Florida struggles to navigate its divided political landscape, participants at the Florida Priorities Summit offered this advice: start prioritizing people over politics.

Leaders from around the state in infrastructure, education, health care, gun legislation and environmental policy gathered Tuesday and Wednesday at the University of Miami to discuss Florida’s future. The conference was part of a project by the Miami Herald, el Nuevo Herald and Bradenton Herald.

Cindy Arenberg Seltzer, president and CEO of the Children’s Services Council of Broward County, asked the questions on the minds of many: “What is it that we want our state to look like? What is it that we want our image to project?”

For Victoria Kasdan, a registered nurse and executive director of We Care Manatee, the answer was simple. She said creating an affordable and accessible healthcare system would be a major step towards brightening Florida’s future.

“We’re all consumers of healthcare, so there’s no reason that we all shouldn’t be concerned about high costs and about affordability,” Kasdan said. “It impacts us all.”

Kasdan asked legislators to expand Medicaid, calling this solution “low-hanging fruit,” and pointing out that Florida is one of only 14 states that have not already expanded the program.

She also reminded politicians what’s at stake.

“Dear legislators, these are not inanimate objects, the uninsured, these are people,” Kasdan said.

Seltzer had a different request for lawmakers. She urged them to start considering students an investment rather than an expense.

“In order for the state to succeed economically, to be competitive in the global economy, we have to have a world class education,” Seltzer said.

And what does Seltzer think will improve education? Money.

In fact, she said funding is the single most important force in the battle to better Florida’s education system. Taxpayers are willing to spend more on education, but it’s up to lawmakers to make sure the money is allocated properly, Seltzer said.

Rhea Law, chair of the Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney Florida law offices, said she just wants politicians and the public to start focusing on their common goals rather than their differences.

“We really can all coalesce around the fact that we want a safe environment, an inclusive environment for our state,” Law said. “If we can agree to that, coming to the specific solutions that drive us to that result is what’s going to drive our ultimate ability to reach a consensus.”

Kasdan offered another way for constituents to inspire legislators to create change.

“We need to appeal to them as people, not as party members and really to go after the humanity of the issues,” she said. “Until our politicians incorporate and encapsulate the humanity of some of the requests we’re making, I don’t think we’ll make progress.”

Kasdan said cooperation in recognizing the humanity of each individual is the best way to lift the “dark cloud” that’s over Florida, the only way that the Sunshine State will be able to fully live up to its nickname.

Fixing education is going to take more money

By Christina Morales

University of Florida/The Independent Florida Alligator

Florida public schools are feeling the squeeze and asking taxpayers to fork out more cash to improve education.

The most important resource to improve education is more money, said Florida Influencer Cindy Arenberg Seltzer at the Florida Priorities Summit in Miami on Wednesday. Arenberg Seltzer and a group of other influencers came up with suggestions on how to solve problems in Florida education.  

Fixing the public education system starts making sure state government funds it adequately and  adds money from the lottery and other local sources  as extra income, Arenberg Seltzer said.

In Alachua County Public Schools, officials are passionate about finding  more money to increase pay for teachers, fix up outdated facilities, provide additional school security and enhance mental health resources.

The county’s school system took the problem of its outdated facilities into its own hands and passed a half-cent sales tax initiative in the 2018 midterm elections, according to the Alachua County Supervisor of Elections Office.

Revenue from the tax could bring in $264 million over 12 years to invest in upgrades to school facilities, which are gearing up to start soon said Alachua County Public Schools Spokesperson Jackie Johnson. These include new classrooms and science labs, installing new furniture, lighting and flooring and overhaul school security.

Lawmakers in Tallahassee cut facilities funding in Alachua by more than $168 million in the last 10 years, according to Alachua County Public Schools.

More than 30 other counties in Florida have resorted to passing a sales tax to upgrade facilities, Johnson said.

But facilities are just a start. Johnson said the state isn’t providing enough funding for many things they’ve implemented including recent school safety laws.

“I think people need to elect people who are willing to invest in public education, because we don’t have that right now,” Johnson said.

Alachua County schools also face the problem of a wide achievement gap between black and white students divided in east and west — with mostly black eastside elementary school students failing statewide exams and mostly white students passing exams in westside schools. Alachua’s public schools have the largest achievement gap in the 67 counties in Florida.

The district revealed a plan in August to close the gap by tackling student achievement, advanced coursework, graduation rates, student discipline and diversity of the workforce.

With three boys going to public schools in East Gainesville, Nicole Stewart, 47, said she feels the pinch in the equity gap. At Abraham Lincoln Middle School, where her 13-year-old son Nicholas used to attend, the school offers different hallways, newer computers and textbooks to its Lyceum magnet program, Stewart said.

The same resources are not given to students not in the program said Stewart, a former Miami-Dade County Public Schools teacher.

“There’s a very glaring difference, and people pretend not to see it,” she said. “How could they educate kids in one hallway different than another? There should be equality in the way we educate students. Most of the problem is with the adults, not with the children.”

With a top eight public university and a local college in the neighborhood of Alachua students, Madeline Pumariega, a Florida Priorities Summit speaker and chancellor of the Florida College System, said more can be done by institutions to help close the gap.

Institutions could expand funding of dual enrollment courses to help future students save money and finish college faster to enter the workforce, Pumariega said. University and college officials can also have talks with superintendents to work together to offer programs and services and educate students on college scholarships and pell grants.

On a college level, Pumariega said the North Florida Community College has balanced graduation rates between students on and off Pell Grants. In South Florida State College, the gap between black and white students has also closed.

Pumariega said these results come from efforts to put students on a guided learning path instead of bouncing around from major to major.

“I think there’s a focus in making sure that all students succeed and that every student achieves,” she said.

Takeaway from the 2018 midterms: Focus will stay on Florida

By Christian Ortega

Editor-in-Chief of The Reporter—Miami Dade College

Though it’s been a week since midterm election day, the nation remains focused  on Florida’s results — and when all the votes will be counted.

The races for governor, U.S. senator and agricultural commissioner are all being decided by a recount, and lawyers for the Republican and Democratic party are challenging parts of the process.

For many, this brings back memories of the 2000 presidential election, when the close race between Al Gore and George W. Bush and the “hanging chads” from punchcard ballots caused a national uproar.

“The first thing I think of is the vitriol, divide and the attack on institutions, which we have been seeing especially towards the elections,” said Amy Driscoll, a Miami Herald editor who helped cover the 2000 recount.

The discussed took place as President Donald Trump’s raised questions of fraud in the Florida vote, and called on Senator Bill Nelson to admit defeat.

“When will Bill Nelson concede in Florida? The characters running Broward and Palm Beach voting will not be able to ‘find’ enough votes, too much spotlight on them now,” he said in a tweet on Tuesday.

Senator-elect and current Florida Gov. Rick Scott added that “Every Floridian should be concerned there may be rampant fraud happening in Palm Beach and Broward counties…and the Broward Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes has a history of acting in bad faith.”

While there hasn’t been evidence of fraud in recounts for Broward and Palm Beach Counties, there has been a litany of mishaps following election night.

Late starts, overheating machines and lawsuits have slowed the counties’ abilities to count the ballots with precision and accuracy.

“As I saw these demonstrations happening again [in Florida], I thought ‘Nothing ever changes,'” said Mark Seibel, an editor at BuzzFeed News.  “And [once again] it’s Republicans out protesting and I thought that was so unnecessary because one of the things we learned from reviewing the ballots is that they’re protesting something that may actually help you [Republicans].”

In an earlier discussion, Rachel Smolkin, the executive editor of CNN Politics, said that what’s at work in Florida is a fundamental issue of democracy.

“This is a repeat of the Bush vs. Gore scenario but in a time when things are really heated,” Smolkin said.

Smolkin added that Florida is a “conflicted state in a conflicted country” and that the media’s coverage of this year’s election has muddied the accuracy of the results, with races being called too prior to the recount being announced.

“Election night is a big night, but it’s not the only night. We can do a better job of setting up expectations of the people about the timing of elections,” Smolkin said.

What Does This Year’s Election Mean For The Future Of Florida?

“Flip a coin and what’s most likely going to happen is that it will land on its edge due to razor-thin election margins,” Marc Caputo of Politico said in describing Florida’s 2020 elections.

According to Caputo, there has been a paradigm shift in voter behavior.

“White people are starting to vote like non-white people,” Caputo said. “There’s a coalescing of the white vote that heavily trends conservative and Republican.”

He said while there are more non-white voters in the electorate, they don’t turn out in as heavy percentages as white voters. “Sixty percent of voter rolls are non-Hispanic white, but about 68 percent of the turnout was white.”

Nationally, Florida has cemented itself as the state to monitor in future elections.

In another change, in this midterm election, national issues outweighed local issues, Smolkin said. “You saw that reflected in exit polls where so many people were placing a vote for President Trump or against him.”





Improvement in Miami transit means ‘maximizing options’

Joshua Ceballos

News Director FIU PantherNOW

Like a bad student, commuting in Miami has gotten a severely bad grade and it needs to improve.

The public transportation system in Miami-Dade County is notoriously inefficient, and this year the inefficiencies were quantified by an organization called Transit Alliance Miami.

Transit Alliance released a “Mobility Scorecard,” in which they gave a letter grade backed  with data analysis for each of the county’s modes of transportation. The Metrorail and Metrobus systems both received a grade of “D,” and the trolley systems received an “F.”

Marta Viciedo,  founding partner of Urban Impact Lab and Transit Alliance Miami, said that constituents in the county have voiced their opinions that they cannot rely on the bus system, and elected officials are listening. But making changes could take some time.

Viciedo and her organization are working with individuals like Carlos Cruz-Casas, the assistant director for strategic planning of the Miami-Dade Department of Transportation and Public Works, to redesign public transit around the city to better serve the people.

“Starting in early 2019 we are going to launch conversations with the people about a bus system redesign, and we are hoping by mid-2020 to have the entire redesign done,” said Cruz-Casas.

That redesign involves taking a deep look at how transportation patterns have changed over the years, according to Cruz-Casas.

“The off-ramps from I-95 offer free flow access from Brickell into Little Havana because there was nothing in Brickell before, but now things have changed, and we need to address that,” said Cruz-Casas.

Students can get involved in this transit redesign once the program launches in 2019 according to Viciedo. Transit Alliance will be visiting campuses like Florida International University to get their insight into their transportation needs.

“We need every voice at the table, we need to know how everyone is using the system and how they need it to work,” said Viciedo.

The change in transit can’t only be in buses, and perspectives need to evolve to include rideshare apps and new technology. Other panelists like Chris Caines,  executive director of the Miami Urban Future Initiative at FIU and Florida Sen. Jeff Brandes, R- St. Petersburg, spoke on the importance of rideshare apps and autonomous vehicle programs for the future of transit.

Let’s not let nostalgia contribute to current failures. Words like Uber and Lyft went from nonsense words to verbs very quickly,” said Caines.

Brandes advocated for cities to have a broader perspective on transit, and to make sure that their dollars go into projects that will be worthwhile and flexible, like robust bus systems or more subsidized rideshare opportunities.

Senator Jeff Brandes (right) speaks on the future of transit in Florida at the 2018 Florida Priorities Summit.

“You can’t solve all the problems today. Let’s solve til 2030,” said Brandes. “My general advice is to invest in things that maximize your options, and don’t lock you in like a permanent light rail.”

With increasing polarization, how can Influencers get anything done?

By Tim Fanning

University of South Florida St. Petersburg

Political polarization seems to be the defining feature of  21st century politics in the United States.

Republicans and Democrats are further apart ideologically than at any point in recent history, with each side viewing the other with increasing distrust, bias and hostility, according to the Pew Research Center.

This can make improving education, transportation and infrastructure, gun safety, the environment and many other issues almost impossible.

So how can some of Florida’s top leaders and decision-makers, who gathered at the University of Miami Wednesday to discuss and develop solutions to the most critical issues facing the state, solve those problems?

Return power to local municipalities.

“At the local level, no one is going to opposed education, no one is going to opposed transportation,” said Chris Caines, the executive director of Miami Urban Future Initiative, a think tank at Florida International University.

“Empowering local municipalities to make some of these decisions and then letting people decide what kind of communities they want to live in is a possible way to move forward,” said Caines, who was one of around a half-dozen different Influencer chairmen at the Florida Priorities Summit.

The reason, Caines said, is that Americans trust local municipalities more than the federal and state government.

Over the years, state lawmakers have passed preemption laws that make sure that cities and counties can’t prohibit things like smoking in music venues, patio dining areas or parks, or regulate Styrofoam or plastic straws.  

Local governments can’t raise the minimum wage, tweak worker benefits or prohibit gun control laws. Miami Beach tried, only to be blocked by a court ruling.

Caines is optimistic that many of the solutions presented at the summit, particularly on infrastructure and the environment, can and should be handled at a local level.

On education, for example, where Influencers said should be seen as an investment rather than an expense, funding provided through the lottery and local measures should add to the state’s education fund rather than supplant other sources of money.

Victoria Kasdan, a longtime nurse and executive director of We Care Manatee, a health care nonprofit, said Influencers need to appeal to lawmakers as people, not as specialists or party members.

“Until we do that with the requests we are making,” Kasdan said. “I don’t think we will make progress.”

Florida recount: ‘A conflicted state in a conflicted country’

By: Joshua Ceballos

News Director for FIU PantherNOW

The ballot machines are overheating, and so are Florida voters as the recount of the gubernatorial votes drags on in Broward and Palm Beach counties.

In the midst of the state recounting its razor-thin election results, protesters and political experts are calling for the removal of Broward County Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes.

At the Florida Priorities Summit on Wednesday, a panel of political reporters panelists discussed the issues at play in Florida’s election and what needs to be done to make sure the State is no longer “the problem child” of the country.

Marc Caputo, a reporter for Politico Florida, said that Snipes has seen the writing on the wall and that she cannot continue if Florida wants to avoid this issue again.

“She’s running a really incompetent operation, and we need to get rid of her,” said Caputo.

Caputo echoed the sentiments of Republican protesters present outside Snipes’ office on Monday.

Sofia Manolesco, Republican protester outside the Broward Supervisor of Elections office. (Photo by PantherNOW)

Rachel Smolkin, the executive editor of CNN Politics, said that what’s at work in Florida is a fundamental issue of democracy.

This is a repeat of the Bush vs. Gore scenario but in a time when things are really heated,” said Smolkin.

Part of the problem when it comes to exceedingly close elections, according to Caputo, is media coverage. He said that the media has the responsibility to make sure the public has a realistic expectation for election results.

We grew so accustomed to our electronic media and instant info that the senate race was called a little early, and we should’ve prepared the public that official returns don’t show up until later on,” said Caputo.

Smolkin called Florida a “conflicted state in a conflicted country,” and agreed with Caputo that the media can do a better job of easing this conflict.

Election night is a big night, but it’s not the only night. We can do a better job of setting up expectations of the people about the timing of elections,” Smolkin said. 

The issue comes not only from public perspective but also from an operational standpoint on the part of elections offices in South Florida.

In Palm Beach County, the recount continues to lag behind due to overheating of ballot machines on Tuesday, Nov. 13. The overheating has required Palm Beach to restart their counting process.

Caputo said that these machines are the same ones that were used by Theresa Lepore, former Palm Beach County supervisor of elections during the contentious presidential election recount between George Bush and Al Gore in 2000. These machines were problematic then, and they’re problematic now.

If Florida wants to avoid these issues in the future, they have to learn from the past, according to panelists at the summit.

Miami Herald Editor Amy Driscoll covered the recounts in Florida in the 2000 election, and she said that things are looking very similar today to the situation then, although the stakes are different.

Back then, the State did not have statutory provisions for statewide recounts for close elections that it does now, said Mark Seibel, national security editor for BuzzFeed News, but many of the same issues are happening.

Here we are in 2018 with machines that can’t do the job they’re designed to do, and with misleading ballots,” said Seibel. “I thought the state had made great strides since 2000,  but they didn’t go far enough.”

Better public transportation is a mind game AND a money game, Florida Influencers say

By Devoun Cetoute

University of Florida /

Underpaid bus drivers, cutbacks on services and decaying bus stops are some of the issues the Gainesville Regional Transit System has faced in the past year.

In a survey of 50 influential Floridans for a project on setting the agenda for Florida’s future, 40 said increasing resources for buses and local mass transit  should have been a top priority for candidates in the recent election, according to the Miami Herald.

On Tuesday, many of those influencers met in Miami to discuss solutions to five issues deemed most pressing by the public: healthcare, transportation and infrastructure, education, the environment and gun safety.

The influencers broke off in discussion groups to tackle these topics during the first day of the Florida Priorities Summit hosted by the Miami Herald, el Nuevo Herald and the Bradenton Herald.

Five were given the task to find a solution to the rising concerns about transportation and infrastructure.

Michael Finney, president and CEO of the Miami-Dade Beacon Council, said the way to combat this issue is to change people’s habits and not depend on new technologies. He went on to say that depending on public transportation is more convenient, saves time and leads to a healthier life style.

“We need to get people excited for public transportation,” he said.

Margaret Lezcano, managing director of UBS, and Chris Caines, executive director of the Miami Urban Future Initiative, said that some ways to pull people into public transport would be to upgrade and buy buses, expand routes and improve bus stops.

However, Finney said that course of action would only address the symptoms and not the larger problem.

Caines believes that Floridians lack the desire to use public transportation, and it’s out of history and habit.

“Florida is a sunbelt state,” he said. “A lot of communities grew up around the car. When you start from a place of sprawling suburbs and car ridership and then after the fact build in mass transportation it is challenging.”

The panel decided that there were questions that needed to be answered that would lead to solutions.

Some of them being: How will we create inter-mobile apps that display information from different types of transportation; How will we embrace smart city infrastructure; How can we redirect toll road revenue for transit?

During the final day of the summit, the panel will share proposed solutions to the challenge.

While the panels talks and decisions fit a large county with bustling metropolitan areas, Caines gave some insight on what a small county like Alachua and a mid-size city like Gainesville is facing and what can be done.

Listen to the discussion here:

Why some of us can’t stop thinking about guns

By Grace Wehniainen

University of Miami Hurricane

As a native of Parkland’s next-door neighbor, Coral Springs, I live in a community changed by gun violence. These days, who doesn’t?

Here, you never stop thinking about guns, and how they can harm—because even on everyday drives to Walmart, you see Douglas, and remember the lives that were lost there.

And the airport.

And your friend’s college campus.

And at—well, you get the idea.

That feeling—of confronting gun violence, even in the most mundane of places—is not-so-slowly growing more familiar to Floridians, and to the nation as a whole, too. So I was eager to listen to the experts, a roundtable of Florida influencers, talk about guns, one of five key priorities discussed at the Florida Priorities Summit on Tuesday.

The discussion was refreshing. It provided a level of practicality and professionalism we don’t often get to see in political “talks” with family and friends. Based on a common understanding that there is, indeed, a problem, the assortment of influencers were able to work based on that foundation—that something needs to be done.

What that something is, though? TBD. Equal in their intentions yet disparate, sometimes, in their idea of execution, members of the table formed a sort of microcosm for the larger debates happening throughout the state and country.

That disparity was highlighted, particularly, by deliberation on gun access.

Mary Anne Franks, a University of Miami law professor, emphasized the need for making it harder for everyone to get guns. Bob McClure, though, president of the James Madison Institute, likened her suggestion for a stricter system to a kind of “gun version of the IRS,” and said the average law-abiding citizen should not be subject to increased restrictions.

(But as Franks said, a law-abiding citizen is only law-abiding until they aren’t.)

Of course, the conversation continues. I forget why I expected there to be some sort of unanimous group vision from the get-go—but now I know that even these esteemed, experienced influencers can disagree on the carrying-out of gun control. That’s not really a bad thing, though. If they were to approach the issue from a perfectly cohesive perspective—no issues, no “buts” or “I-don’t-think-sos”–then surely whatever plan they put out would have a hard time winning over the other 50 percent of the population come next Election Day.


Florida Influencers and UF students yearn for solutions to the gun debate

Florida Influencers and UF students yearn for solutions to the gun debate

By Christina Morales

University of Florida /The Independent Florida Alligator

Gun violence continues to touch Florida backyards with recent shootings in Tallahassee and Jacksonville.

In Miami on Tuesday, a search for solutions by panel of Florida Influencers echoed the concerns raised byUniversity of Florida students interviewed more than 300 miles away.

These influencers, part of the Florida Priorities Summit, brainstormed ways to slow the cycle of gun the first day of a workshop in Miami. They  talked about topics such as mental health, background checks and domestic violence. Many of their solutions, despite some disagreement, echoed the concerns of UF students interviewed in advance of the Miami summit.

Here’s how two university students and two influencers look at the problem.


Julia Tiplea

University of Florida marine sciences junior

Age: 20

From: Las Vegas, moved to Parkland


Photo of Julia Tiplea by Taylour Marks at the Independent Florida Alligator.

It was already a jarring week for Julia Tiplea after she saw the results from Tuesday’s midterm elections.

Her week grew worse when she woke up to the news of the Thousand Oaks shooting in California that killed 13 people.

Any gun violence deeply affects her life. She lost her friend Quinton Robbins in the Las Vegas shooting and then five months later, her brother hid from an active shooter in Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

“There’s no good way of talking about this without being emotional,” Tiplea, a member of the March for Our Lives Gainesville, said. “Gun violence is not a partisan issue, it’s a human issue.”

Tiplea said it’s a common misconception to think she wants to infringe on the Second Amendment or take away guns. She said she wants to push for common sense gun reform. The most effective piece of legislation would be thorough background checks.

“It’s not an issue of trying to take away guns,” she said. “It’s just an issue of trying to prevent bad people from getting guns.”     

Victor Santos

University of Florida advertising junior

Age: 22

From: Brazil, moved to West Palm Beach

Guns were only for cops and thieves in Brazil where Victor Santos grew up.

When Santos moved to the U.S. with his mom at age 12, he learned that guns were a means to protect himself and his family.

Every individual should have the right to bear arms — even military grade weapons to be able to defend from the government, said Santos, the vice president of the conservative University of Florida of Young Americans for Freedom. Restricting law abiding citizens by age wouldn’t be fair.

Examining the mental health of people with guns, having deeper background checks and addressing mental health at an early age are some of the long-term solutions to the problem, Santos said.

The March for Our Lives movement has woken up many in America, but his problem with the movement is that it only drives short-term solutions.  

“Emotions are valid,” he said. “But you need to remove yourself from the emotional solution to be analytical to come up with a solution for both the short term and the long term.”


Mary Anne Franks

University of Miami law professor

Age: 41

From: Arkansas, moved to Miami

Mary Anne Franks thinks people are looking in the wrong place to find a solution to gun violence.

Franks said it starts with dismantling the culture that makes male shooters deadly. The root of the problem comes from men who feel out of place, don’t get what they want and feel a need to control and resort to violence and rage.

She said men own more guns than women and the vast majority of male shooters have a history of domestic violence.

“If we don’t confront that issue, we’re never going to get out hands on the gun violence issue,” Franks said.

Confronting the issue starts with raising children to feel comfortable with disappointments in life, she said. Working on this and backgrounding could help solve the problem.

“We could start tomorrow by making sure boys can accept rejection,” she said.

Leigh-Ann Buchanan

Venture Cafe Miami 

Age: 32

From: Canada, moved to Miami

With gun safety and public safety, Leigh-Ann Buchanan said there are opportunities for policy changes.

Buchanan said she wants to review Stand Your Ground statutes, something she was involved with as the chairwoman of the American Bar Association’s National Task Force on Stand Your Ground laws.

Clearer statutes would eliminate confusion for law enforcement in stand your ground investigations.

“I have a passion for safe communities and policy that focuses on valuing life and the ability for people to thrive,” she said.