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Divers Return to View Maple Leaf Ship Wreck Artifacts After 30 Years

April 19th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

A historic civil war era shipwreck in the St. John’s River was discovered in the late 1980’s and excavated in the 90’s.

The team that was responsible for the discovery got a chance to revisit many of the artifacts for the first time Friday, since they removed them from the mud nearly 30 years ago.

In 1865 a The Maple Leaf, a steamboat carrying supplies for the Union army hit a mine in the St. Johns river and sank into the muddy waters below.

“And the hull is in an intact U-shapped time capsule,” said Dr. Keith Holland, President of St. Johns Archeological Expeditions.

With the help of a team of divers, the wreck was discovered more than 100 years later, and researchers were able to recover more than 6,500 artifacts, mostly personal items, that were trapped inside.

“It was just literally grope and feel. Where we would reach into the mud and find an object,” said divert Larry Tipping.

The items inside were preserved almost perfectly.

“Even letters that were received and written. It’s just a human element that’s there and there’s not another site like it anywhere,” said Holland.

Now, primarily stored in this state archive in Florida’s capital city, the original team returned for the first time to visit the artifacts since they were brought up from the mud in the 1990’s.

“I think it’s important to know our history and you know, of course looking at the artifacts that were part of history really just kind of continues that,” said Tipping.

It’s believed the excavation in the 90s only scratched the surface of what remains on the ship.

The items recovered represent only 0.1% of the ship’s cargo.

The discovery of the Maple Leaf was so significant the site of the wreck is now designated as a national historical landmark.

Dr. Holland says, ensuring the wreck and its cargo are still around for future generations, is a responsibility shared by all in the state.

“And we’re going to do everything we can to educate students and people of all ages about Maple Leaf and not let her just drift back into obscurity,” said Holland.

If the site is protected properly, divers say it will keep open the possibility of future excavations to recover some of what is still buried in the mud.

While the items in the state archive are not readily accessible for viewing by the public, many of the artifacts recovered from the Maple Leaf ship wreck are loaned out to museums across the state, including the Museum of Science and History in Jacksonville and the Museum of Florida History in the State’s Capital City.

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Hurricane Michael Upgraded to Cat. 5 By NOAA

April 19th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced Friday that Hurricane Michael has officially been upgraded to a Category Five storm.

NOAA found the Hurricane had average sustained winds of 160 miles per hour, exceeding the baseline for a cat five storm by three miles an hour.

State Senator Bill Montford represents counties impacted by the storm.

He hopes the announcement will help the state secure Federal relief dollars.

“Keep in mind, if I’m not mistaken there’s only been four Hurricane 5’s that’s ever hit the United States and it hit a very pristine, very unique part of our state. So again, this validates what we’ve been saying all along and hopefully this will spur Congress to do their job,” said Montford.

Senator Montford is sponsoring the State Legislature’s Hurricane relief package. He says negotiations for how much the state will be able to spend on panhandle recovery will begin next week.


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Hemp Legalization Ready for Final Votes in Both Chambers

April 18th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Hemp cultivation could be a multi-billion dollar industry in Flordia, but first lawmakers have to legalize the plant in the state.

Legislation would do just that passed its final House Committee Thursday morning and is now ready for final votes in both chambers.

“This bill will provide jobs and commerce for our state,” said House sponsor Rep. Ralph Massullo.

Massullo, a practicing doctor, says the bill aims to ensure quality and safety of the products.
“And we want people to know when they’re buying something they’re going to get what they’re basically being sold,” said Massullo.

Despite hemp products like CBD regularly being sold in the state at the current time, they’re stuck in a legal gray area.

Jeff Sharkey with the Florida Hemp Industries Association says if the bill becomes law it will allow businesses, some of which have been raided by police, to breathe a sigh of relief.

“It’s legal at the Federal level, but we still have this little problem with the Florida criminal code that this bill fixes,” said Sharkey.

The Department of Agriculture will play a major role in rolling out the proposed hemp program, and Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried says they’re already preparing.

“We have so many of our farmers who are itching to get their seeds in the ground,” said Fried.

Commissioner Fried says its important to get the program up and running as soon as possible because hemp is likely to become a supplemental crop for Florida farmers, a possible saving grace for those in the panhandle who suffered heavy losses after Hurricane Michael.

“We want everybody who wants to be involved with the hemp program to have access to it so there wont be the barriers like we saw in the medical marijuana world. This is going to be an opportunity for everybody,” said Fried.

Fried says if all goes smoothly, the goal is to have the first hemp plants in the ground by the end of 2019, but adds a current part of the House’s bill that specifies the state’s program would be submitted to the USDA could delay implementation until next year.

Fried expects the language to be removed before final passage.

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STEM and Technology Highlighted at State Capitol

April 18th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Lawmakers at the State Capitol are celebrating the importance of STEM and technology in the state today.

Booths showing off some of the latest and greatest in technology like flight simulators and virtual reality were displayed throughout two floors of the Capitol.

James Taylor, CEO of the Florida Technology Council says Florida is home to 27,000 tech companies, but finding Florida residents to fill open positions has been a challenge.

“And it costs a great deal of money bring someone to Texas or California or Michigan or another state and bring them here and we shouldn’t have to do that. We simply need to have STEM education be taught in a way that students can step into those jobs and I am happy to say we are headed down that path now,” said Taylor.

Keeping with the theme of technology, lawmakers today heard bills that aim to regulate driverless cars and expand Telehealth services in the state.

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Senate Moves Closer to House on Certificate of Need Repeal

April 18th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

The Senate made a major change to its legislation that would do away with Certificates of Need in the state before passing it through its final committee stop.

Under current law hospitals that want to set up in a community have to prove there is a need not being met by existing providers.

The Senate’s proposal initially would have required new hospitals to provide charity care and have an emergency room if they had over 100 beds.

In a surprise strike all amendment the requirements were removed, but a two year grace period before certificates of need are abolished for general hospitals was added.

Senate Sponsor Gayle Harrell says it will give lawmakers time to revisit the issues.

“To allow time for transition, to allow time for market forces to work and also allow us as legislators time to look at licensure,” said Harrell.

The Senate’s bill also would delay the removal of the certificate of need requirement for specialty hospitals for five years.

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UF and FSU Coaches Put Aside Rivalry for Hurricane Relief

April 18th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

The need for Hurricane Michael relief dollars brought together two of the most unlikely rivals together at the state Capitol this afternoon.

Former University of Florida Football Coach Steve Spurrier and Florida State University Assistant Football Coach Mickey Andrews joined panhandle lawmakers, calling on the state and federal Governments to pass disaster relief packages.

They say it’s an issue that crosses party lines and college loyalties.

“I think we all agree, this is something we need to do together and we can fight it out, and we can argue about late hits and all that stuff another day, but right now lets help those people in the panhandle, Bay and Gulf County,” said Spurrier.

Lawmakers highlighted the growing crisis in the panhandle, pointing to statistics that show the number of homeless children has tripled and the amount of children who have been baker acted has quadrupled since the storm hit.

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Firefighters Benefits Clears First House Committee

April 18th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida firefighters are celebrating a partial victory Thursday.

After 15 years of trying to get nearly two dozen cancers recognized as a leading occupational hazard, lawmakers have taken a big step toward agreeing.

The legislation will make it easier to keep working while treating cancer.

One by one, firefighters who got Cancer on the job told their stories.

“I’ve been diagnosed with occupation cancer twice,” said Jazz Zombo, who worked as a firefighter for 17 years.

“I never smoked a cigarette in my life,” said retired firefighter Jay Post.

Clay County resident Tracy McKay told lawmakers she is about to lose her firefighting husband.

“The doctors words exactly were, we do not fight this cancer. We’ll try to buy your husband some time to spend with your children,” said McKay.

Cancer is already covered under a firefighters health plan, but because it isn’t considered a work related injury, there is no time off for doctors.

Sick and vacation time are quickly burned.

“The financial burden on families is immeasurable,” said McKay.

But mandated changes in leave policy and a $25,000 one time payment to cover out of pocket costs could ease the burden.

“Seventy percent of the deaths that occur in the line of duty for firefighters are cancer related,” said Florida Chief Financial Officer and State Fire Marshal, Jimmy Patronis.

The League of Cities, which has blocked the legislation over cost concerns got raked over the coals.

“What is the value of a life,” Rep. Wengay Newton asked Amber Hughes, who testified on behalf of the league.

“Mr. Chairman, I am not an actuary. I prefer not to answer that,” replied Hughes.

The league was told flatly, “Just figure it out,” by Rep. Nick DeCiglie.

The bill passed unanimously.

Afterword Tracy and husband Jeremy were near tears.

Asked how it felt knowing his career as a firefighter led to developing terminal cancer, Tracy McKay’s husband Jeremy responded bluntly.

“It’s my job, you know, its what I love to do,” said Jeremy McKay.

Over the last 10 years as the risks have become more clear, best practices have been put in place, and that’s protecting newer firefighters.

But for firefighters on the job longer than ten or 15 years, the risk remains.

The legislation has more than 80 cosponsors in the House, virtually guaranteeing it will pass.

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Citizens Initiatives Restrictions Moves Forward in House

April 18th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Sponsors unveiled a less onerous bill designed to make it harder to get constitutional amendments on the ballot.

Gone is a provision that only Flordia residents who register with the state can gather petitions, but the bill still requires more financial disclosure on the ballot including language that the desired change could have been enacted by lawmakers.

Rep. Dianne Hart questioned the motivation.

“Why are you putting all these obstacles in peoples way? Why can’t they just go out and gather petitions how ever they get them. You’ve clear said there is no fraud that you know of,” said Hart.

“Our constitution shouldn’t be open to the world, or open to different parties or ideologies to find some billionaire to go fund something to put into our constitution,” said bill sponsor Rep. James Grant.

The legislation keeps a provision that petition gatherers can’t be paid by the petition as is the case now.

It passed the committee Thursday on party lines.

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Parental Consent for Abortions Awaiting House Vote

April 17th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

The Florida House has more than 80 bills on its agenda and is expected to work into the evening hours Wednesday.

Perhaps the most controversial legislation it will consider requires a parents consent for a minor woman to get an abortion.

Sponsor Erin Grall hopes the measure will deter some women from having abortions.

“My hope is that in conversations with families, girls are able to come up with alternatives to ending a life, so I think that there is that hope for me, that we will reduce abortions among minors.,” said Grall.

But Planned Parenthood says the legislation could make parents out of teens ill-equipped to have a child.

You can’t legislate good family environments, right? So instead it delays a minor to access that care, putting them either later into pregnancy or denying them ability to make that choice and leading them into a forced pregnancy,” said Kimberly Scott with Planned Parenthood.

The legislation has so far stalled in the Florida Senate, but it could be one of many bills that is resurrected in the session’s final weeks as lawmakers in the House and Senate trade in the final days.

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Sanctuary Cities Ban Ready for Final Vote in Both Chambers

April 17th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

A Senate Committee in the State Capitol has cleared the way for a vote of the full Senate on banning sanctuary jurisdictions in Florida.

It requires local law enforcement to comply with federal detainer orders and hold a undocumented immigrant who has committed a crime for up to 48 hours.

Kiyan and Bobby Michael have been fighting for immigration reform since their son Brandon was hit and killed in 2007 by a driver who was here illegally.

“This should never have happened. If the laws on that we had on the books at the time had been enforced, all of this could have been avoidable,” said Kiyan.

The Michael’s were invited by Governor Ron DeSantis to his first State of the State address.

“Now their son Brandon was killed by a foreign national who was illegally in our country, had been deported two prior times,” said DeSantis.

Sponsors of the legislation, which is on a fast track to becoming law, say it will stop about 4,600 in state and county jails from being immediately released.

“This bill only deals with criminals who are going through the process or are in the judicial system right now,” said Senate Sponsor Joe Gruters. “This is about keeping all Floridians safe.”

Since the governor was sworn in and talked about ending sanctuary cities in his inaugural address, the number of counties complying with Federal law has gone from 29 to 34.

The 17 member Senate Democratic Caucus unanimously opposes the legislation, fearful it will make undocumented crime victims afraid to come forward.

“We shouldn’t put individuals in a position to make those type of decisions,” said Senator Perry Thurston.

But the Michaels say they know what permanent separation from their child is like.
“What we have experienced is horrific. It’s a loss no one should have to go through,” said Kiyan.

Their son Brandon was preparing to be married when he was hit and killed.

Both the House and Senate bills could come up and be on the Governor’s desk as early as next week.

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Senate Passes Visit Florida Funding, House Still Reluctant

April 17th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

The Florida Senate has approved $50 million to fund the state’s primary tourism marketing agency, but the funding is far from guaranteed in the House.

Lawmakers coming into the Capitol Wednesday morning were greeted with a cup of green slime on their desks (a nod to last year’s toxic green algae outbreak) and a flyer highlighting the importance of the state’s primary tourism agency, Visit Florida, which advertised to the rest of the country that Florida was still open for business through recent natural disasters.

$50 million in funding for the agency was unanimously approved by the full Senate Wednesday morning.

Senate sponsor Joe Gruters says the funding is essential.

“For every dollar invested in tourism we get $2.15 return. There’s thousands of jobs that rely on the tourism that we bring to this state,” said Gruters.

While causing no controversy in the Senate, the House is threatening to cut off funding for Visit Florida altogether.

Early on in session House Speaker Jose Oliva made his position clear.

“We need to fund Visit Florida until it expires and beyond that we haven’t had any intention,” said Oliva in March.

However, some House members like Democratic Representative Evan Jenne believe Visit Florida plays an important role, despite controversial spending decisions in the past, like paying Miami Rapper Pit Bull $1 million for promoting the state in a video titled ‘Sexy Beaches’.

“I think that we’ve done a lot to reign them in in terms of how they spend their money and how much money they spend over the past few years, which has been a good thing,” said Jenne.

Senate President Bill Galvano says he’s hopeful a deal can be worked out to save Visit Florida.

“I think that’s an issue that will remain open until conference and we’ll work on it from there,” said Galvano.

For the past five years Visit Florida funding has averaged about $75 million annually.

Even if the Senate’s current proposal passes, the agency will see a 33% budget cut this year.

Only two weeks remain in session for the two chambers to come to agreement.

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Michael’s Angels Rally For Hurricane Relief at Florida Capitol

April 17th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

After six months without a federal disaster relief bill following hurricane Michael, a panhandle based group known as Michael’s Angels has taken matters in their own hands.

Over 150 panhandle residents brought their voices and their blue tarps to the Capitol today for their rally Rally in Tally.

The non-partisan, non-profit group of women are calling on legislators for hurricane Michael relief funding from both Congress and the state Legislature.

Lawmakers like Senator Bill Montford, Florida’s CFO Jimmy Patronis and Attorney General Ashley Moody lent their voices to the cause.

“Our people in north Florida, especially children, are suffering because of the gridlock in Washington. It’s wrong. Its unAmerican. People need to start doing their job in Washington,” said Montford.

The women now have their eyes set on rallying in the nation’s Capitol.

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City and County Commissioners Decry Preemption Efforts

April 17th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Cities and counties are fighting back against at least thirty bills that would pre-empt regulation of scooters, vacation home rentals and much more to the state.

City and county commissioners today cried foul, saying lawmakers are talking out of both sides of their mouths.

“I find it highly ironic that the same Florida Legislature that continuously rails agains the Federal Government and says Federal Government stop imposing things on us, stop unfunded mandates, stop telling us what to do, then turns around and does the exact same thing to local governments,” said Broward County Commissioner Steve Geller.

Several speakers blamed the move to take power away from local governments on special interest contributors who find it easier to influence lawmakers than local officials.

Both the House and Senate bills could come up and be on the Governor’s desk as early as next week.

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Arming Teachers Stays in School Safety Bill As Senate Prepares to Vote

April 17th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

The Florida Senate gave tentative approval to legislation that would expand the state’s school safety program, including a measure that would allow classroom teachers to carry a gun on campus.

Democrats attempted to tag on more than two dozen amendments, one of which would have removed the language that would allow for teachers to be armed, but it failed, facing heavy opposition from Republican lawmakers like Senator Dennis Baxley.

“The mere presence of the message that says someone already here is prepared to act if something goes wrong, that’s the power. It”s not having everybody armed. No educator is being asked to be armed,” said Baxley.

But Senator Perry Thurston who sponsored the amendment hopes Republicans will have a change of heart before the bill comes to a final vote.

“I think that we raised enough issues where the teachers will be concerned about it. Being targeted for the weapons, not getting any additional compensation for this. I just think it’s unnecessary, the current system is working,” said Thurston.

The legislation will likely come up for a final vote early next week.

The House has also not taken a vote on the bill.

It was temporarily postponed two weeks ago.

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House Speaker Relents on Firefighter Cancer Benefits

April 16th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida firefighters won a major victory at the State Capitol Tuesday.

They have been fighting for years to include cancer coverage as part of their benefits, but have been rebuffed over who would pay for the coverage.

Now, the Speaker of the House, who has been blocking the bill, has had a change of heart.

It was political pressure like a handful of firefighters gathering petitions outside the Capitol, calling for the House to hear the bill that seemed to have done the trick.

“Because firefighters are fourteen percent more likely to come down with cancers, and there’s a long list of them,” said South Walton Firefighter Bob Wells.

The legislation firefighter are advocating for would provide $25,000 to cancer stricken first responders to pay for out of pocket expenses such as room and travel for cancer treatments.

“All the things we’re finding our for all these years that were hazardous to us, I mean it’s just been coming out in the last few years,” said South Walton Firefighter Dan Corcoran. “We’ve made changes, we’ve made the job as safe as you can make the job, but we’re still exposed to carcigians and the guys who’ve been on the job for any amount of time are already exposed.”

The legislation has more than 80 house cosponsors, but one main opponent.

House Speaker Jose Oliva.

“If we can get this one the floor, we feel really good about our chances,” said Corcoran.

The Speaker has objected to forcing the costs on local governments.

He was accused of political retribution over a past election, but the accusations gave the Speaker pause.

By mid afternoon Tuesday, he had a change of heart.

“I think its moved too far past the original debate and its best to just let it go,” said Oliva.

Over the last five years, the legislature has spent five million dollars trying to figure out how to keep firefighters from getting cancer.

The protections they want cost about $5 million a year.

Sponsors say firefighters today are less likely to get a cancer because they’ve adopted best practices they didn’t know about even five years ago, but anyone who fought fires 10 or 15 years ago could still come down with the disease.

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