Weekly Roundup: Shuttle Blasts Off Into History
Around the State
The space shuttle Atlantis lifted off Friday from the Kennedy Space Center taking with it a piece of history, not to mention an economic engine that will be hard to replace.
After three decades, the program is folding up, leaving thousands of highly paid, highly educated workers wondering where they go from here. The shuttle’s farewell launch capped off a shortened and largely uneventful week kicked off by the nation’s birthday, which prompted many to take leave of the capital city.
Instead, national news took precedence this week. Days before Atlantis thundered toward the stars, the Casey Anthony murder trial blotted out the sun as the nation’s media microscope turned its gaze on the 25-year-old Orlando mother acquitted of killing her 2-year-old daughter in a case that boosted cable ratings and set off a flurry of legislative efforts from state lawmakers appalled by the verdict.
Legislators responded as their predecessors have in the face of similar high-profile cases that outraged the public: by saying “there oughta be a law.”
In other news, the Florida Supreme Court weighed in on a pair of cases pitting business interests against consumers as opinions dealing with asbestos and malpractice were decided by the high court.
Meanwhile, the state is gearing up for yet another environmental fight as it prepares to battle the feds over air-quality standards that some say could harm the state’s utility industry.
Finally, BP has told federal officials overseeing Gulf repayment that the region’s economy has shown enough signs of recovery that the company’s liability should be limited going forward.
ATLANTIS MAKES HISTORY:
The shuttle program, indelibly linked to the state – it’s even on Florida’s commemorative quarter -- will soon be talked about in the past tense. Atlantis’ 12-day mission, the last to be flown over a 30-year span, will mark the end of the longest running manned space effort.
The program, which put the Hubble telescope up and linked Earth to the International Space Station, also brought the country and manned space flight to its knees with two of the most-watched tragedies since man ventured into space more than four decades ago, with the disasters that destroyed the Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003.
But aside from its role in the nation’s history and scientific endeavors, the shuttle program was a large employer and a key economic driver in the Space Coast. Its end leaves the area wondering what’s to come; how the roughly 9,000 jobs lost will be replaced; and whether those thousands of engineers and others will decide to seek similar work elsewhere or wait for a new job in Brevard County.
Gov. Rick Scott tempered sadness with optimism for a rebound that’s becoming a trademark.
“This is a historic time, and it's sad to see the program end," Scott said in his weekly radio address. "However, I am optimistic that we can attract high-tech aviation and aerospace jobs to the Space Coast because of our highly skilled work force."
CAYLEE’S DEATH LEADS TO RUSH FOR NEW LAWS:
The seven-week trial of Orlando resident Casey Anthony led the news this week as a jury Tuesday found her not guilty of murdering her 2-year-old daughter Caylee -- a controversial verdict that set off a national debate.
By Thursday, two Florida lawmakers had quickly filed a bill called "Caylee's Law" to upgrade from a misdemeanor to a felony a failure to report a missing child, and shortening the time to report a child’s death.
The bill (HB 37), sponsored by Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami, and Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, came a day after a different lawmaker, Rep. Bill Hager, R-Boca Raton, had issued a press release saying he plans to file his own bill called Caylee's Law. All would boost penalties. On Friday they were joined by Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, who also said she wanted to do the same and planned to file the bill there.
Reported missing in July 2008, 2-year-old Caylee's body was found in December. Anthony did not report her daughter missing for 31 days, one of the suspicious pieces of evidence used against her. She was sentenced to four years for lying to police, but will be released Wednesday because of good behavior.
Plakon said he joined forces with Diaz after receiving numerous e-mails from constituents pleading with him to change state law.
"For her to be able to go out and party for 31 days and mislead law enforcement, that seems wrong," Plakon said. "This bill says it should be illegal for a caretaker to do such a thing."
Over in the Senate, Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, is asking that the Senate Criminal Justice Committee take up the issue in September to determine if additional laws are needed to close loopholes in state law dealing with missing children.
It is not unusual for well-publicized child deaths to spark legislative reforms. In 2005, Florida also attracted national attention over the kidnapping and disappearance of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford. In response to her death, the Florida Legislature passed a bill in 2005 that required more stringent tracking of sex offenders. If passed, in addition to Jessica Lunsford, Caylee Anthony would join a long, sad list of children for whom laws were named -- from Carlie Brucia to Kayla McKean to Bradley McGee to Jimmy Ryce.
AIR-QUALITY FIGHT LOOMS, WATER WARS CONTINUE:
Pointing to potentially higher electric rates, the Florida Public Service Commission is expected this month to raise concerns with the federal government about new air-pollution standards.
Utilities such as Florida Power & Light and Progress Energy Florida and the state's municipal electric industry also are wary of the proposed standards, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is expected to finalize in November.
The proposed standards, released in March, target coal- and oil-fired power plants and are designed to curb emissions of mercury and other pollutants that cause human-health problems.
Public Service Commission members last week reviewed drafts of documents that the agency will send to the EPA and members of Congress. The documents cited utility estimates that could cost hundreds of millions of dollars complying with the standards -- a cost that would be passed on to utility customers.
"The FPSC is concerned about the impact of these substantial compliance costs on Florida's consumers, particularly in this time of economic distress and high unemployment,'' one of the draft documents said.
The air-quality battle mirrors in some ways the state’s continuing battle with Washington over numeric water-quality standards. The federal government has given the state more time to come up with acceptable criteria to address pollutant levels in Florida’s lakes, rivers and other freshwater bodies.
COURT RULES ON MEDMAL, ASBESTOS:
The Florida Supreme Court on Friday found that lawmakers acted unconstitutionally in 2005 when they put new restrictions on lawsuits filed by people exposed to asbestos.
The 5-2 ruling was a blow to business groups that sought to limit asbestos lawsuits. The 2005 law required plaintiffs in asbestos lawsuits to meet criteria for showing physical impairment. The high court said Friday that such a burden of proof was unnecessary and unconstitutional.
The case came a day after the high court sided with the parents of a brain-damaged child in a medical-malpractice lawsuit against an obstetrician and a Jacksonville hospital.
Justices overturned a 1st District Court of Appeal ruling that would have limited the parents to seeking money through the Florida Birth-Related Neurological Injury Compensation Plan, a no-fault system created to deal with cases in which infants suffer brain injuries during labor, delivery or immediately after birth. Chief Justice Charles Canady was the lone dissenter.
SCOTT NET WORTH FALLS:
Florida Gov. Rick Scott saw his net income plummet in 2010 from the year before, but the Naples business executive still showed a net worth of $102 million, according to financial disclosure forms filed with the state and made public this week.
Last year when he was running for governor, the former health-care executive said he was worth $218 million. Scott's wealth, which dropped in part because he spent more than $70 million of his own money to finance a successful gubernatorial campaign, also still topped that of all other Cabinet officials combined, according to reports filed with the Commission on Ethics that were due July 1.
Despite the lower net worth, Scott’s net income rose 46 percent to $11.5 million. It's almost all investment income; as governor, Scott makes 1 cent a year.
Scott is confident workers at a newly announced venture at the Port of Jacksonville will make more. He announced the addition of 200 jobs with the opening of Keystone Terminals.
Keystone recently finished construction of the $100 million port terminal that followed a long legal fight with the Jacksonville Port Authority over use of the site. Keystone, primarily a coal company, first announced plans to build the terminal in August of 2009.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Shuttle Atlantis roars into space, a swan song for the shuttle program, and a scary opening of a new chapter for the Space Coast.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Today really sucked. For the first time after the launch, after that initial wave of patriotism, came a wave of absolute sadness." -- State Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, who represents the Space Coast.