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In State Tuition Bill Not Dead Yet

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Justice for Reme Lee and Memphis

April 23rd, 2014 by Mike Vasilinda

Legislation protecting an unborn fetus is on its way to the Governor. The legislation was inspired by a Tampa woman who was given an abortion inducing drug disguised as an anti-biotic. Watching the legislation was an emotional experience.

Reme Lee lost her unborn child Easter Day 2013. She was tricked into taking an abortion pill. John Andrew Welden is serving a decade in federal prison on product tampering charges.  We asked Reme if she felt the sentence was long enough.

“Are you ever supposed to feel from the person that hurt you the most who took the most precious thing away from me,” said Lee.

Lee and her family arrived at the State Capitol early and spent a day watching the State Senate before legislation allowing up to a life sentence for hurting  a fetus was debated.

“If you kill that baby,” Sen Kelli Stargel (R-Lakeland), “you’re gonna go to jail for that because you’ve done this violence against a woman.”

Reme says her hope is that other women won’t be tricked as she was.

“I hope that even if one women gets to hold their baby as a result than this will all be worth it to me,” said Lee.

And her father Jim says the ordeal has had an effect on multiple generations.

“This would have been my mother’s first great-grandchild, my wife and I’s first grandchild,” said Jim Lee, “and it’ll always live with us.”

Reme Lee may have one more trip to make back here to the state Capitol, to watch the Governor sign the legislation. Reme says if and when the legislation is signed by the Governor, she’s going to give him a hug.

The family has filed a civil lawsuit against the pharmacy that provided the pill.

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Big Tobacco vs. Cities and Counties

April 23rd, 2014 by Matt Galka

A bill banning e-cigarettes to minors almost went up in smoke thanks to big tobacco flexing their muscle.  Cities, counties, and anti-tobacco advocates were concerned they’d have local power taken away.

Banning the sale of e-cigarettes to minors flew through the legislature until recently.  Cities and counties were for the ban, but they would have lost the ability to set stricter regulations on their own. The sponsor says the state needed to set the tobacco and nicotine rules.

“I believe there needs to be uniformity because the wholesalers and the distributors that actually sell 3.5 billion dollars worth of tobacco products, they just want uniformity,” said Rep. Frank Artiles (R-Miami).

Anti-smoking groups weren’t going to back his legislation until lawmakers cleared the air about whether or not they’d let cities establish future ordinances.

Heather Yeomans with the American Cancer Society says preemption of local governments is a way for big tobacco to get what they want.

“By design, it’s easier to lobby the state government than it is to lobby 67 counties and 400 separate cities,” she said.

Florida’s League of Cities had no problem with the ban.  But lobbyist Casey Cook says local governments know what’s best for their citizens when it comes to tobacco.

“Any time you preempt, you tie a local governments hands behind their back, and you prohibit them from coming up with a solution that works to help them solve a problem in their community,” said Cook.

The bill was amended without support from the sponsor to allow local governments to establish future rules. Rep. Artiles still believes the main goal of getting nicotine out of young people’s hands was reached.

“We’re ahead of the federal government, we’re acting before the FDA because we need this,” he said.

The House unanimously passed the legislation. The Senate now has to sign off on the amended bill. If the bill passes the Senate receives the Governor’s signature, the ban wouldn’t go into effect until July.

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Scott “Extremely Disappointed” With Senate

April 22nd, 2014 by Matt Galka

It looks bleak for supporters of a bill providing in-state tuition to undocumented students, but students and state leaders aren’t ready to call the proposal dead yet.

Florida International University Student Julio Calderon says he doesn’t know if he can continue to afford school. His shirt reading “undocumented” says it all.

“I really need this bill to pass because it would allow me to continue my education,” said Calderon, an undocumented student from Honduras.

A bill that would help thousands of students like Calderon by providing in-state tuition to undocumented kids is being blocked in the Senate., even though the Governor has thrown his full support behind it.

“College is expensive, we need to do everything we can to reduce the cost of tuition for all of our students, this is a wrong we need to correct,” said Gov. Rick Scott (R-Florida).

Students sat outside the Senate President’s office for the second straight day trying to put pressure on him to allow the Senate to hear the bill.

The Senate President bashed the proposal last week.  Juan Escalante, who met with the Governor on Tuesday, says helping thousands of students out just makes sense for Florida.

“Bottom line is that this is an investment that the state of Florida has made on us and all we want is an education so that we continue to grow our state,” said Escalante from outside the Senate President’s office.

The legislation also caps tuition hikes. It brings it down from 15 percent to 6 percent tuition increases.  Senator John Thrasher says that even though it’s not being heard on its own, the bill can still make it through the process.

The Senate Appropriations Committee didn’t allow that to happen late Tuesday, however. Governor Scott called reporters to his office to express his disappointment.

“I believe this will get to the floor. I’m disappointed in what happened in appropriations today, but I’m optimistic,” he said.

His re-election chairman Sen. John Thrasher (R-St. Augustine) blocked an amendment that would have pushed the legislation through even though he supports the bill.  Thasher remains optimistic.

“I’m not going to make predictions but there’s a good possibility it can still get to the floor, absolutely,” said Sen. Thrasher.

It would take a two-thirds vote from the Senate to resurrect the bill and get it to the floor. Supporters say they have hope until session is officially declared over.

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Charter Schools Win Contract Victory

April 22nd, 2014 by Mike Vasilinda

Legislation to create a standardized contract between charter schools and local school districts cleared a divided state House today. It passed over the objections of most school boards.

Florida created charter schools in 1996. They remained public schools funded by state dollars. The legislation debated by the state House would take away bargaining power for local districts that must approve those charter schools.

“All 67 school districts in the state of Florida do not like this bill,” said Rep Mark Danish (D-Tampa).

Every teacher who is also a legislator voted against the charter change.

“All the School boards are down on it,” said Rep. Carl Zimmerman (D-Tampa), “all the superintendents are down on it, and a lot of charter schools are down on it.”

Five Republicans joined Democrats in opposing the bill.

But Representative Janet Adkins (R-Fernandina Beach) who supports it says the legislation will force unfriendly school districts to approve charters.

“It’s about the students,” said Adkins. “It’s about making sure the parents have that choice to make those decisions for their students.”

The legislation allows out-of-state companies to come in and be judged by their out-of-state performance, and it allows charters to begin operating while they’re still negotiating with school districts. Teacher and State Representative Karen Castor Dentel (D-Seminole County) says the change will neuter local decision makers.

“It will take all the decision away from the local school boards,” said Dentel. “They won’t be able to negotiate their own contracts.”

The legislation must still clear the state Senate where it will face a much closer vote.

Charter schools who receive a failing grade two years in a row would be closed automatically under the legislation.

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Rep. Dane Eagle charged with DUI

April 22nd, 2014 by Mike Vasilinda

State Representative Dane Eagle, the Lee County lawmaker who wants public officials to take drug tests has been arrested for driving under the influence. Eagle, of Cape Coral, was stopped at 2AM Monday morning by Tallahassee Police for making an illegal U-Turn, Speeding, and running a red light.


Eagle denied drinking and refused to take a field sobriety test, but the probable cause affidavit says he smelled of alcohol, fell against his rear passenger door exiting the vehicle, and could not stand straight in a level parking lot.



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Marijuana’s Last Stand

April 21st, 2014 by Matt Galka

Supporters of a medical marijuana bill that would legalize a non-euphoric strain of cannabis had to do plenty of convincing Monday before a House committee. Representative Cary Pigman called on his 4 decades of medical practice.

“I’ve never, ever taken care of a marijuana overdoes, in 40 years, never ever,” said Rep. Pigman (R-Sebring).

The bill legalizes cannabis known as Charlotte’s Web. It has shown signs that it can help seizure victims.  Rosalyn Deckerhoff says it’s her son’s only option.

“We just want a better quality of life for him,” said Deckerhoff while holding back tears.

Even with the emotional testimony, Florida’s top doctor isn’t on board. Florida Surgeon General Dr. John Armstrong is concerned about keeping the form of medical marijuana pure. Armstrong also worries about drug safety if it’s not Food and Drug Administration approved.

“We must be wary of unintended consequences and remember, first we must do no harm,” said Dr. Armstrong.

Some on the House Judiciary Committee compared the legislation to Colorado’s marijuana laws. Dennis Baxley doesn’t want Florida to become a stoner state.

“This is the push-off point. Are we starting an avalanche?” asked Rep. Baxley (R-Ocala).

The measure passed the committee almost fittingly a day after an unofficial stoner holiday 4-20…the bill states the medicine cannot be smoked.

The Florida Sheriff’s Association and Police Chiefs Association were both originally opposed to the measure, but both law enforcement groups are now supporting it.  Doctors who fraudulently prescribe the drug could face jail time.

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Effort to Drug Test State Employees Fails

April 21st, 2014 by Mike Vasilinda

Governor Rick Scott’s three year quest to drug test state employees came to an end today. Scott has asked the US Supreme Court to look at the case after two other Federal courts ruled against him. Today, the nation’s high court refused to even look at the case. Rich Templin from the AFL-CIO says the ruling is a victory for the constitutional rights of public employees “The court’s decision really sends a message loud and clear that these are Floridians just like the rest of us. IF anything, they are worthy of our support,  and our respect, and not our scorn, and we couldn’t be more pleased with this.”

Scott also had not prevailed in his efforts to drug test welfare recipients.


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Richardson Compensation Moves Forward

April 21st, 2014 by Mike Vasilinda

richardson00000003A fruit picker convicted in 1967 and later released because he was innocent of killing his seven children got one step closer to being able to collect from the state for his 21 lost years. In 1989, Richardson was released from prison after a neighbor confessed. He has been unable to apply for compensation under state law because his case was so early. Rep. Dave Kerner got the bill through the House appropriations Committee Monday, which sets it up for a vote of the full house.

“It was unfortunately the classic railroad. His seven children died, he was arrested immediately, evidence was destroyed, he was sentenced to death. He never really had a shot at the system” says Kerner


Richardson has said that if he is awarded any money for the 21 years behind bars, he will open a church. He currently lives in Kansas.

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DCF Changes May Hurt More than Help

April 21st, 2014 by Mike Vasilinda

Advocates for abused and neglected children are raising red flags over pending legislation drastically expanding the number of child abuse investigators.  As Mike Vasilinda tells us, the problem is a lack of funding once the state knows who is being abused or neglected.

Governor Rick Scott is proposing hiring 400 new child protection investigators at a cost of 39 million.“We still have much to do to protect the most vulnerable among us” said Scott when he made the funding announcement in Miami in January.

Advocates came out in droves at a House Appropriations Committee. Mike Watkins from Big Bend Community Based Care told lawmakers there was not enough money in the legislation to do the job they want done, “There’s not enough. I don’t think it goes far enough in this bill for us to help protect the lives of kids in the state of Florida.” Watkins says the hiring of investigators without spending more on services once problems are found is short sighted.

“If we don’t have good prevention if we don’t have good subsidies, if we don’t have good mental health, and we don’t have good domestic violence, we’re really wasting money on doing better investigations” says the 23 year veteran of child protection.

The idea to beef up child protection followed a series of stories that linked 477 deaths of children who were under Department of Children and Families supervision to a lack of follow-up by the state.

But budget makers, including House Appropriations Chairman Seth McKeel, say they are doing all they can do. “A lot of advocates all over the state are asking for a lot of money. We have a 75 billion dollar budget, we’re gonna do the best we can to take care of as many people as we possibly can.”

Without more services to help stressed families, advocates say the state will only be doing a better job of tracking problems without doing anything about those problems. In Tallahassee, I’m Mike Vasilinda reporting.

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Compensating Wrongly Convicted James Richardson

April 18th, 2014 by Mike Vasilinda

Imagine being sent to death row for poisoning your seven children knowing you were innocent. That’s what happened to James Richardson in the small town of Arcadia (90 miles southwest of Tampa), in 1968. Now, after nearly 40 years, Richardson is fighting to be compensated for his wrongful conviction

Fruit picker James Richardson went to death row in 1968 for allegedly poisoning his seven children. In the late 1980s high profile attorney Ellis Rubin started questioning the conviction.

“This case will illustrate what racism was in Florida in 1967,” said Rubin in a December 1998 interview.

A thorough investigation by the Governor and Special Prosecutor followed.

“Justice ought to prevail,” said Former Governor Bob Martinez in February 1989.

A neighbor confessed, the lawyer got the state Supreme Court to hear an appeal.

“We have alleged 17 instances of perjury with the knowledge of the state,” said Rubin.

Freed, pending a new trial, the state declined to retry Richardson.

“It’s marvelous,” said James Richardson in a 1989 interview. “I can be able to go where ever I want to go.”

Now James Richardson faces another obstacle, current law won’t allow him to be compensated for his lost years because there’s no DNA, but for that matter even a case file.”

“Because our wrongful-incarceration statute requires DNA…” said Sen. Geraldine Thompson (D-Orlando).

Senator Thompson has legislation that threads a tricky legal needle. The bill would allow Richardson to apply for compensation.

“And the special Prosecutor issues a no-cross memorandum, which she did,” said Sen. Thompson. “And if the conviction was prior to 1980 that he should qualify to apply to be compensated.”

If approved, Richardson could apply for a payment of $50,000 for each of the 21 years he spent as an innocent man behind bars.

Richardson, now 79 is living in Wichita, Kansas.

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