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Lawmakers Continue Marijuana Hearings

October 16th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

With two amendments circulating that could legalize marijuana, state lawmakers got two presentations Wednesday.

One on what happened in Colorado and the other on the Florida’s medical marijuana industry.

Legalization in Colorado appears to have been more successful than Florida’s efforts with medical marijuana.

Andrew Freedman oversaw Colorado’s marijuana legalization.

Since 2014 there have been just over 100 fatal accidents in which marijuana was in the system, but accident rates have not increased.

“Colorado had 11 deaths per 100,000 of population. The national average that year was 11.6 deaths,” said Freedman.

And contrary to other reports, underage use did not skyrocket in Colorado.

“There was a surprisingly significant decrease post commercialization in Colorado,” said Freedman.

And when it comes to vaping illnesses, he said the problem was not with legal vendors.

“Most of it is coming out of the black market, which has been thought that there is a quality control issue black market vaping products,” said Freedman.

Lawmakers were told there was nothing nefarious about fewer than 100 doctors making the most medical marijuana recommendations.

The two biggest problems are cost and the availability of physicians.

“There are patients who live in counties that don’t have a dispensary. Or patients who don’t live in counties with a qualifying physician,” said Executive Director of the Florida Board of Medicine Claudia Kemp.

And Florida NORML told lawmakers high costs were driving patients back into the black market or cheaper alternatives.

“It so much easier to go and get a five or ten dollar prescription. So you’ve seen an increase in opioid overdose deaths with every county in Florida with that has a restrictive policy for medical marijuana,” said Villar.

The result has been 25 percent of the state’s medical marijuana approved patients leaving the system.

Colorado received more than $250 million last year in tax revenue from marijuana.

The money was used to build and repair schools.

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Lawmakers Seek Parking Protections for Law Enforcement

October 16th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Legislation unveiled Wednesday would prohibit home owners associations from banning law enforcement officers from parking their marked or unmarked cars in their driveway.

The legislation is a result of a Clearwater officer being told she could not park her patrol car in the driveway because it was considered a commercial vehicle.

State Senator Ed Hopper who represents Clearwater filed the bill.

“And I’ve had so many phone calls from other associations like, We want to have a marked cruiser in our community because it is a deterrent to bad things that bad people do. So, we’re going to try our best to correct this inequity, and make sure that any law enforcement officer in a marked or unmarked law enforcement vehicle has the right and privilege to park their vehicle in the driveway,” said Hooper.

Several years ago, lawmakers waded into a homeowners association dispute after the association tried to ban the flying of the American flag.

Sponsors equated that incident to the prohibition of police cars.

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Lawmakers Looking to Reduce Hurricane Insurance Payment Delays

October 16th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Lawmakers are trying get to the bottom of why many insurance claims for Hurricane Michael took moths to close and why more than 17,000 remain open a year after the storm.

Policy holders are asking for stricter punishments for insurers who delay payment.

To this day one out of ten insurance claims from Hurricane Michael remain open.

Ann and Randy Seglers’ Panama City home suffered catastrophic damage.

“It rained in our entire house. Singles were blown off and there was no protection,” sad Ann.

A year later, they’re still living in a camper on their property waiting on their insurance company to pay.

“We’re just in limbo,” said Randy.

Attorney Chip Merlin represents the Seglers and others like them.

Of the more than 1,700 complaints received by the Department of Financial Services concerning Hurricane Michael claims, more than half deal with claim handling delays.

Merlin blames insurance companies for dragging out the claims process and delaying payment.

“There’s no penalty right now for insurance companies that are delaying it and we’ve got to have more teeth in our laws so that they’re being held accountable,” said Merlin.

Lawmakers are listening to policy holder advocates like Merlin and also from insurers to try to find solutions.

“When there’s claim delay it hurts the entire community and that’s what’s going on in Panama City Florida,” said Merlin.

While many policy holders have had to seek help from attorneys to close their claims, insurance companies argue excessive litigation is the biggest problem.

Five percent of Michael claims are in litigation.

“What’s happening in Hurricane Michael litigated claims is a gold rush,” said Locke Burt with Security First Insurance.

But policy holder advocates shoot back, arguing if insurers paid on time there wouldn’t be a problem.

“Far from a gold rush, this is a crying shame,” said Property Insurance Claims Attorney Amy Boggs.

Florida’s Consumer Advocate and the Chief Financial Officer are working on a consumer protection package to hopefully speed up payments after a storm.

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Lawmakers Propose Cost Protections for Breast Cancer Screenings

October 16th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Each week 264 men and women are diagnosed with breast cancer in Florida.

52 will lose their lives to the disease, but specialists agree the best way to increase survival rates is early detection.

For many specialized screenings come at a high cost, but Senator Lori Berman, a breast cancer survivor, has filed a bill that would prevent insurers from over charging.

“Presently when an individual has a mammogram and follow up treatment is advised insurers can charge unlimited amounts for the follow up. The high cost can result in individuals delaying or even canceling potentially life saving diagnostic treatment,” said Berman.

The bill would require any follow up screening after an initial mammogram cost no more than the deductible paid for the mammogram.

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Lawmakers Hear Case Against Legal Marijuana

October 15th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Members of a House committee heard from a Harvard scientist about the potential pitfalls of legalizing recreational marijuana in Florida.

The scientist argued the social costs might outweigh any economic benefits.

House majority leader Ray Rodrigues has long raised concerns over the use of marijuana.

“High THC that’s being smoked on a daily basis is harmful,” said Rodrigues in a committee meeting in April of 2019.

Now, in the Committee he chairs he’s bringing scientists to give lawmakers a glimpse into some of the data that he says is often left out of the legalization debate.

Dr. Bertha Madras, a Harvard Professor of Psychobiology expressed concerns over rising THC content in modern cannabis and increased rates of depression, psychosis, schizophrenia, suicide and other substance abuse among marijuana users.

“It is the most self-delusional drug of all,” said Madras. “People are not aware of what’s happening to them as they use heavily, as they use more and more, as it erodes their sense of wellbeing.”

Another concern raised by the Harvard Professor debt with recent vaping illnesses across the US.

She said 75 percent of cases were related to THC vaporizers, not nicotine.

“I urge this state to be thoughtful and diligent before launching yet another massive human experiment,” said Madras.

Advocates push back, attributing many of the issues marijuana users experience to social stigma.

“Normalization, it’ll help all around with families, with family relations, with just everything in general,” said Melissa Villar with NORML Florida.

The presentations are strictly to educate lawmakers, who may find themselves in a position of developing regulations around legal marijuana whether they like it or not.

Three citizen initiatives for legalization are gathering signatures for the 2020 ballot.

“And it’s important we’re equipped with facts that we can then share with our constituents,” said Rep. Rodrigues.

Testimony from a former Colorado Marijuana official and the Florida Board of Health will be heard Wednesday.

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Lawmakers Give First Approval to Internet Sales Tax Collection

October 15th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida is losing $700 million a year it is already owed on internet sales.

State lawmakers took the first step to begin collecting the money, passing the bill through its first committee Tuesday, but there are concerns over who will benefit from the collections.

A 2018 US Supreme Court decision cleared the way for states to start collecting taxes from vendors who make internet sales made into their state.

43 of 45 states with a sales tax jumped on the idea.

“Only us and Missouri. We are falling behind the times and its not fair for anyone in our state,” said Senator Joe Grutuers who is sponsoring the Senate bill.

In Florida the payment remains voluntary.

Purchasers must fill out a form and submit a check.

Fewer than 5,000 forms are filed each year.

Retail giant Walmart urged support for the measure.

So did the Florida Conservation Voters.

“We many unmet needs in terms of conservation initiatives, protecting our precious water quality,” said Lindsey Cross with FCV.

Earlier this year it was the Governor who killed the idea because he thought it looked too much like a tax increase, but sponsors have been working on him ever since.

The sponsor and business groups would like to see the $700 million that would be collected go to tax reductions on business rents.

“And I thing we should continue working on eliminating the commercial rent tax,” said Gruters.

The cash is enough to pay for a teacher raises pushed by the Governor, but the AFL-CIO is worried the people who pay the tax won’t benefit.

“If we take $700 million from working families that buy things online and turn around and give it to folks, who quite frankly, don’t need a tax cut, That would be really bad for Florida,” said Rich Templin with the AFL-CIO.

The legislation contains an exemption for out of state retailers.

If they sell less than one hundred products or have sales less than $200,000 annually, they do not have to collect Florida sales tax.

As lawmakers sort things out, buyers should beware.

The Department of Revenue has audited some people who failed to report small internet purchases, which is a first for the tax collectors.

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Sigfredo Garcia Spared Death Penalty

October 15th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

A jury recommended and a judge in the state capital has imposed a life sentence on Sigfredo Garcia, the man convicted of killing FSU law professor Dan Markel in a murder for hire plot.

Garcia’s lawyer, Saam Zangeneh said his defense was hampered because Garcia would not take the stand to implicate the mother of his two children, who was tried with him.

“Her Lawyer said it was Sigfredo to Charlie. We could have easily said Katie to Charlie and Sigfredo had nothing to do with this, and Luis. We could have made that argument. I think it would have been a stronger argument for us to make, but we were instructed not to make that argument,” said Zangeneh.

And after the sentencing, Ruth Markel, the mother of the slain law professor broke her silence to reporters.

“We respect the process. There’s a lot more work to be done, and we are looking forward and hoping it will be done soon. We want to thank all of the law enforcement, the state attorneys office,” said Markel.

The case against the mother of Garcia’s children, Katherine Magbanua, ended in a mistrial.

A new trial date could be set later this month.

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VisitFlorida Fighting For Funding Once Again

October 15th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

VisitFlorida, the state’s primary tourism agency is again asking lawmakers for funding.

Last year the agency took at $26 million cut, resulting in a 42 percent reduction in staff.

The funding cut has also made it more difficult for the agency to respond to negative press from storms and other natural disasters that take a toll on the state’s image as a top vacation destination.

“If VisitFlorida is not here to be the voice saying Florida is open for business, just because Dorian’s off the coast doesn’t mean you shouldn’t come to the panhandle or Tampa Bay, then no one is going to have that message. And that science is going to be detrimental to our Florida economy,” said VisitFlorida CEO Dana Young.

With the agencies’ funding set to expire on June 30th, VisitFlorida is hoping to have its funding reauthorized for eight years, but it may depend on what deal can be cut with the House Speaker, who has been critical of the agency in the past.

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Wilton Simpson Designated as Next Senate President

October 15th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

A Pasco County egg farmer, Wilton Simpson, was designated to lead the State Senate after the 2020 election by his fellow GOP Senators Tuesday.

Simpson is one of the state capital’s low key lawmakers who likes to get things done without taking the credit.

A framed quote from gangster Al Capone hangs on his office wall, warning people not to mistake his kindness for weakness.

“And don’t mistake my kindness for weakness. That was the part that I would l would always say to folks, because People would say, you know, you’re so nice, how are you going to be a legislator because you have to be mean or sometimes. You have to be tough sometimes. So I would tell them, don’t mistake my kindness for weakness,” said Simpson.

Simpson wants to revamp foster care in Florida and promises more of the same when it comes to being business friendly.

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Democrats Aim to Reduce Prison Population

October 15th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Democrats in the state house want to give non violent offenders behind bars more gain time for good behavior.

Their goal is to reduce the prison population and avoid building more prisons and relieve the shortage of correctional officers.

Rep Diane Hart of Tampa is a co sponsor.

She has visited more than two dozen prisons and found most to be in disrepair.

“House bill 189 will reduce the state correctional population by 11 percent, equating to the release of over 10,000 people. By passing this legislation, we will save the state over one billion dollars over the next five years,” said Hart.

The gain time initiative would reduce the time non violent offenders spend in prison from 85 percent of their sentence, down to 65 percent.

It would apply retroactively to anyone now in prison.

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GOP and Dems United in Fight Against Open Primaries

October 14th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Democrats meeting in Orlando over the weekend officially came out against a proposed constitutional amendment known as All Voters Vote.

Republicans and Democrats here in Florida seldom agree on anything, but they have found something to oppose together.

During the 2018 Florida primary, there were five Democrats and two Republicans running for Governor.

Under All Voters vote, all seven would have faced off in August, with the top two vote getters advancing to November.

“It’s going to enable more voters to vote and have a say in the process, because in those closed party primaries, the winner only has to speak to a very small sliver, the extreme wings of their parties to get through the primary process,” said All Voters Vote Chair Glenn Burhans.

The Republican and Democrat parties are both opposing the amendment in the Supreme Court, as is the Attorney General Ashley Moody, who called it misleading.

Evan Power is the Republican Chair in the state’s capital.

“I think what we are going to do is throw everybody into a jungle primary, and then money will control who comes out of that jungle primary, and then you’ll end up with two Republicans or two Democrats, and then the other party is going to be even more upset about it,” said Powers.

But Democratic Strategist Steve Schale thinks the opposition is misguided arguing open primaries could give parties more incentive to reach out to independent voters.

“Yeah, again, first of all we need those folks to vote for us in November, so if we start talking to them in primaries, it helps the conversation along,” said Schale.

During the 2016 primary the top two vote getters were republicans, Putnam and DeSantis, but organizers dispute that’s they way it would have turned out if this amendment were in place.

“They’re forgetting 3.7 million non party affiliates that couldn’t have voted in those primaries,” said Burhans.

The amendment would apply only to elections for Governor, Cabinet and State Legislature.

California and Louisiana are the two states were all voters can vote in primaries.

Other states allow voters to choose which partisan primary they’d like to vote without becoming a member of those parties

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Death Penalty Under Consideration for FSU Law Professor’s Killer

October 14th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

The same jury that on Friday found a man guilty of murdering FSU law professor Dan Markel is now considering whether Sigfredo Garcia should face the death penalty.

The ten woman two man jury heard from a psychologist who said Garcia was traumatized at an early age because he father was unfaithful to his mother, spent time in prison, and died when Garcia was just eleven.

Ruth Markel, the law professor’s mother, told jurors she is still waiting for justice that may never come.

“And the grief and pain of a mother who loses her child never ends. For me closure and normalcy are only words in a dictionary. Not a reality I will ever experience again. We have waited for more than five years for those involved in Dan’s murder to brought to justice, which has only exacerbated my pain, grief, anxiety and health,” said Markel.

The jury deadlocked on whether co-defendant Katherine Magbanua was also guilty.

She faces a retrial, likely early next year.

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Agriculture and Septic Tanks Targeted by Blue Green Algae Task Force

October 14th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

The state’s Blue Green Algae Task Force has published its first round of recommendations to lawmakers aimed at cleaning up Florida’s water ways.

It was formed by Governor Ron DeSantis after the devastating out break of toxic cyanobacteria, better known as blue green algae, in 2018.

“To improve Florida’s water quality, making sure we’re protecting these treasures that make us unique as a state,” said DeSantis in January.

The task force’s initial recommendations follow multiple meetings around the state.

Beth Alvi with Audubon Florida said she likes what she’s seen so far.

“It was really interesting to see them ask the right questions and follow the dots to the questions that all of us who have been working in this arena have been asking for years,” said Alvi.

The recommendations include better monitoring of nutrient reduction plans and increasing best management practice enrollment and enforcement for agriculture.

“Lake Okeechobee’s problem, a big part of it is agriculture,” said Leon County Water Conservation Commissioner Bill Howell.

Septic tanks are also a major nutrient polluter in Florida.

There’s more than 2.5 million in the state and 280,000 are leaking.

“That’s going directly into the water table. That’s the drinking water,” said Howell.

The task force wants to bring back septic tank inspections, which haven’t been mandated since 2012.

“To keep your septic tank working well you need to have regular inspections,” said Alvi.

The task force also wants lawmakers to move septic tank oversight to the Department of Environmental Protection.

They’re currently monitored by the Department of Health.

More recommendations from the task force are sure to follow.

The group is set to meet for a total of five years.

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Opioid Task Force Conviens

October 11th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

The Statewide Task Force on Opioid abuse met for the first time in the state Capitol Friday morning.

The panel is tasked with making legislative recommendations to help stem a crisis that is killing 17 Floridians every day.

It’s an epidemic touches almost every corner of society.

That’s why the state’s opioid task force includes law enforcement, addiction experts and mental health professionals.

“This is not a situation of trying to make bad people good, but rather sick people well,” said Task Force Co-Chair and Seminole County Sheriff Dennis Lemma.

In its first meeting three committees were designated.

Prevention, treatment and law enforcement.

“We were always playing defense. This demonstrates that now we’re ready to play offense,” said Former State Representative and task force member Jim Boyd.

The law enforcement component will likely be targeted at traffickers according to members.

But Sheriff Lemma said for those who are addicted, the focus will be on treatment.

“We feel that crime and delinquency are symptoms of other problems,” said Lemma.

Task Force Chair Attorney General Ashley Moody said any recommendations will be based on proven methods and data.

“We’ve already been looking at what’s working and what’s not across the state so that we can overlay those with death rates and seeing where are death rates going down and what practices are being used,” said Moody.

While opioids are the main focus of this task force, some of the members expressed a desire to be more proactive in addressing other drugs gaining popularity like methamphetamine.

Task force member and Miami Judge Steve Leifman believes the task force’s work might help stop the next drug crisis before it happens.
“Just chasing a particular drug is not necessarily going to do it, but it is a great start for us by focusing on the opioids to then look at the other issues,” said Leifman.

The task force will need to work fast if they hope to have recommendations in place by the start of the next legislative session in January.

The task force is will be meeting once a month going forward.

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Garcia Guilty of Markel Murder, Hung Jury for Magbanua

October 11th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

A jury in Tallahassee has found one person guilty of first degree murder in the slaying of an FSU law professor, but it could not come to a unanimous decision in the case of a woman co conspirator.

The family of slain law professor Dan Markel left the courtroom without talking to reporters.

Prosecutor Georgia Cappleman said the family is pleased with the verdict, despite the jury being unable to come to a unanimous decision on codefendant Katherine Magbanua.

“It’s been a long road and I’m really happy to get the beginnings of some justice for the Markel family,” said Cappleman. “They’re happy, they’re very happy.”

Katherine Magbanua cried as she heard the jury could not agree on murder charges against her.

The father of Magbanua’s children Sigfredo Garcia now faces the death penalty.

“I think that she had been reserving her emotional aspect for a long time and it reached its tipping point,” said Garcia’s Attorney Saam Zangeneh. “You know, and listen to what she just heard. That the father of her children may be put to death.”

Jurors did convict Sigfredo Garcia on a conspiracy.

The only conspirators named in the trial were the family of the slain law professor’s ex-wife, though no charges have been brought against the family at this time.

Cappleman described the verdicts as a good start, despite failing to get a conviction for Magbanua.

When asked if now-convicted Sigfredo Garcia might cooperate to save himself from the death penalty and to save the mother of his children Cappleman said it wasn’t her call to make.

“I don’t do the reaching out. He’s represented by council so I don’t reach out to folks that are represented by council. They’ll have to let me know if that’s what they want to do,” said Cappleman.

Magbanua will remain in jail where she’s been for three years.

A hearing in her case is set for later this month.

A hearing on whether Sigfredo Garcia will receive the death penalty will be held on Monday.

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